Is Toronto Ready to be Transformed into a Smart City?

Smart cities use IoT (internet of things) sensors and technology to connect components across a city to derive data to improve the lives of the citizens and visitors of the city.  Smart cities are technology-based infrastructures that use information and communication technologies to increase the operational efficiency in urban planning, public transportation systems, environmental initiatives, and utilize the city’s resources where it is most required.

Smart cities use a combination of the IoT devices, software solutions, communication networks and user interfaces to collect data, which then is analyzed. Smart cities can provide personalized solutions to improve the urban quality of life, which is becoming increasingly important as the world is becoming more urbanized. Indeed, by 2050, more than 60% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities. Across the world, the smart cities market is expanding rapidly and will be worth an estimated $545.7 billion by 2025.

On a domestic front, Sidewalk Labs was planning on redeveloping the commercial and residential area of the former dockland fronting Lake Ontario with digital innovations from sensor-activated heated pavement to prevent ice build-up to the inclusion of infrastructure for autonomous vehicles. The project was going to be done with the involvement of Google’s parent company Alphabet.  Sidewalk Labs had to abandon its plans to bring smart city technology to Toronto due to the economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the abandonment of the project, surveillance and data collection aspects caused civil rights and citizen groups to express concerns over potential violations of civil rights and privacy.

Some argue that smart cities are an experiment of surveillance capitalism, and technology giants should not be trusted to handle the data they collect on residents safely. Though smart cities can remain an excellent opportunity to explore innovative solutions to affordable housing, environmental issues, and some of the urban challenges, the privacy issues regarding how the personal information will be handled must be addressed prior. Transparency will be important in increasing the trust of citizens. What data is being collected, how it is being monitored, how it is being used, to whom it is going to be sold or shared with are important questions that must be openly discussed and addressed with the input of citizens before transforming Toronto into a smart city.

Written by Elif Babaoglu. Elif is a contributing IPilogue editor and also the Co-Director of Events of the Osgoode Privacy Law Society.

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