Smart City Questions We’d Like @SidewalkLabs to Answer

There is a lot of interest in the project, both locally and globally, and many questions about how it will unfold. As a lead-up tool for the November 1 public meeting, Torontoist and friends have organized a starting draft list of questions and concerns, collected from a range of contributors and viewpoints.

There are undoubtedly perspectives and questions missing here, so we’re creating a public version of this document to keep expanding on it. Consider this post to be a starting point.

This is a public version of the list open for additions. Please add your questions there.

Some of these questions may very well not yet have answers, but remain key points to consider as the process unfolds and mechanisms are created to organize and address the project’s governance.

There is a significant digital literacy element to this project. We’ll be publishing a set of explainers in the following weeks and months to expand on some of the key concepts raised here, particularly around privacy, technology, data, and related systems.

Thanks to the following contributors for their questions: Nabeel Ahmed, Nasma Ahmed, Joseph Bou-Younes, David Eaves, Pamela Robinson, Teresa Scassa, Renee Sieber, Howard Tam.

A (Partial) List of Questions We Have for Sidewalk Labs, Waterfront Toronto, and the City:


  • Who is the user that Sidewalks Labs is ultimately serving? Companies that want to learn about how people interact with physical spaces? Real estate investors? Cities?
  • How will Sidewalks Labs balance the needs of those users when making decisions about development, privacy, security, access, etc.?
  • How will the intellectual property developed from this project be governed and managed? And by whom?
  • Who will residents contact should they seek relief from a problem related to the development?
  • What does success look like? How much failure is tolerable (or needed)? To what extent do innovations, proven at Sidewalk, need to roll out to the rest of the city for this to be a success?
  • How does one define empowerment in the smart city? Principles like “efficient access to services” and “utilization of space will influence how the space is modified” are very different from fairness and equity based decision-making.
  • How will Sidewalk Labs be held to account for any failures in meeting its goals?
  • Will Sidewalk Labs share its feasibility studies for the proposal with the public, including methodology and data?
  • Will deliberations and meetings be open? Meeting minutes? Training manuals?
  • Will this project provide opportunities that benefit local tech/city building industries and workers?


  • Who will own/control/have access to the data that is captured by the sensors deployed in this project?
  • Under what terms will that data be shared? For whom and for what purposes?
  • Who controls the Sidewalk Labs platform? Is it the residents? City Hall? Sidewalk Labs?
  • Does Sidewalk Labs have the ability to access and build upon personas from Alphabet’s data stores?
  • How vertically integrated with Alphabet products will this new smart city be?
  • What privacy protection process will be followed to ensure data collected is anonymous, beyond commitments to Privacy by Design?
  • How are people’s movements tracked in space time? Especially marginalized community members, including homeless people?
  • Passive harvesting of people’s movement in space time as an indicator of intent doesn’t constitute engagement. What constitutes democratic participation in smart city design?


  • What is the City’s vision for smart cities? What do residents want to learn/build/pioneer with this opportunity?
  • How do we define the community that needs to be consulted and engaged on this project?
  • With global attention on this work, how will the balance between global and local input be struck?
  • How will this project transform technological literacy, including literacy on data and the application of data, such as algorithms and machine learning? And more specifically, how will historically marginalized communities that may not yet have experience or exposure to the implications of this project participate in the public engagement process?
  • Clarity on the ownership of the co-design and public engagement process will inform participation. Whose meetings are these public meetings? Waterfront Toronto or Sidewalk Labs?


  • Sidewalks Labs has a mixed record in consulting with marginalized communities, particularly with its LinkNYC project. How will the concerns of those who on the margins be heard and engaged on an ongoing basis?
  • What measures are in place to ensure that the project takes into account current and anticipated concerns about gender and racial equity and inclusion?
  • How can the diverse cultures and background of Toronto, the strength and uniqueness of this city, actively contribute to the design and build of this new space?


  • How will Sidewalk Labs engage with public sector partners that do not share its vision and level of technology skill? How will Sidewalk ensure that the public service learns as much from this initiative as possible?
  • How will this project leverage existing tech capacity that sits within government? How will they be engaged? (i.e., TTC’s big data team)


  • If the data is to be open, who is making it open? (i.e., is it the City’s data made available under the City’s open data program, or is it Sidewalk Lab’s data, made available through an Application Programming Interface?) Who “owns” and controls the open data program?
  • If the data is to be “open” what does this mean? Will all of the data be open, or will only certain data be made available through an API? Who will determine what data will be shared? Will there be graduated levels of access (i.e. some data is fully open, but access to more data requires payment)?
  • Will open standards be mandated?
  • Will the way data is treated by algorithms be open?
  • How is the academic community being engaged in this process? How will this be a cross-university research endeavour that produces open-access findings?



  • Who pays when the experimental technology doesn’t work? For example, there was talk of having roads made with LED lights that can adjust based on the time of day. If the project goes bankrupt, who absorbs the cost of converting those roads to being paved and safely disposing of the LEDs and infrastructure?
  • Do the development plans include a contingency for removing or minimally disabling infrastructure?
  • Who will be responsible to respond should project infrastructure be hacked?

Finally, a few related recent articles that raise questions and issues to consider: Alphabet City by John LorincToronto must share the Sidewalk equitably, by Colette Murphy; Google’s Sidewalk Lab signs deal for ‘smart city’ makeover of Toronto’s waterfront by Alex Bozikovic; and Public to get some of waterfront tech hub details by David Rider.


Source: Smart City Questions We’d Like @SidewalkLabs to Answer

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