The nascent plans for a smart neighbourhood on Toronto’s eastern waterfront may sound exciting from an urban-planning perspective, but the high-tech project poses fundamental governance problems that we need to solve now.
Smart cities are largely an invention of the private sector – an effort to create a market within government. They offer tech companies opportunities to generate profits by assuming functions traditionally carried out by the public sector and by selling cities technologies they may or may not need. The business opportunities are clear. The risks inherent to residents, less so.
Waterfront Toronto issued a request for proposals earlier this year for “an innovation and funding partner” to help create a master innovation and development plan for Quayside, a parcel of land at the foot of Parliament Street. Sidewalk Labs, a Google sister company, won the bid. It will invest as much as $50-million to create a plan for the neighbourhood, informed by extensive public engagement, over the next year. The scope of the work is planning, not implementation. No land is changing hands.
The proposal so far envisions Quayside as a pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly neighbourhood with car-free zones and self-driving shuttles. Sensors will identify empty parking spots and inform traffic-light changes to improve efficiency. Modular buildings will allow for a mix of retail, residential and other uses based on demand. Sustainable construction materials and energy efficiency are core features.
At the heart of the model is data. All the ways that people use the neighbourhood – from transportation to retail, from park space to community amenities – will be tracked and measured. Both environmental and behavioural data will be analyzed, revealing the complex patterns and habits of civic life.
The collection and use of this data present some problems.
For one thing, we have not decided if or how the data collected through these sensors and physical networks should be used or shared. We haven’t discussed how the value of our data should be defined and managed. Should the insights from our data be given away or sold to a company so it can use it to build services it will sell back to us (or to others)? Is the intellectual property related to this data something our cities and residents may want to hold onto and manage – or perhaps license?
Another concern is that Sidewalk Labs deals in interconnected products that form a monopolistic platform. Sidewalk’s plan would be supported by a full suite of proprietary hardware and software products and services owned by its conglomerate parent, Alphabet Inc. See: Waymo (autonomous vehicles), Flow (transportation planning), Waze (traffic data), Cityblock (social-service delivery), LinkNYC (public WiFi), Nest (thermostats, outdoor security cameras). The list goes on.
We don’t have rules to manage private-sector actors that want to introduce their hardware and software into the planning and delivery of public services. We don’t have the knowledge. When urban-planning firms work with municipal governments, they share a language and can work together as equals. This is not the case with technology firms. Cloaking this work in urbanism is a betrayal of motive.
We have to slow down and get in front of these problems, which are about governance – not technology.
One solution could come in the form of a City of Toronto digital infrastructure plan, developed alongside similar policies at the provincial and federal levels. These policies would define who can own our digital infrastructure and data, who can use it and under what conditions (or licence).
But none of this is happening.
And we’re not getting transparency on what is happening. Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, the only elected official on the Waterfront Toronto board, made a motion to make public the Sidewalk Labs contract at the last board meeting. No one on the board, however, would second his motion. At an earlier meeting, board member Julie Di Lorenzo voted against the plan, citing insufficient time to do her due diligence.
If Waterfront Toronto wants public confidence in this deal, let’s see what they’ve negotiated on our behalf. Waterfront Toronto has its next board meeting on Thursday. The board members should take the opportunity to reconsider showing us the contract.
Private-sector technology has much to offer cities, but the parameters must be set and understood by the public and the state.
The federal government is not helping matters with its new $300-million Smart Cities Challenge Fund. As a first step, cities across the country are being asked to compete for $75-million of this money by coming up with smart-city plans.
It’s time to create digital-infrastructure policy and legislation to manage technology in our cities. We have to slow down its implementation so we can put suitable governance in place first.
Bianca Wylie is an advocate of open government. You can follow her on Twitter.