On October 31, the tri-governmental organization Waterfront Toronto tentatively agreed to go ahead with a scaled-down version of a controversial plan to redevelop part of Toronto’s Quayside into a smart, tech-filled neighborhood.
The redevelopment proposal was presented by Sidewalk Labs – an Alphabet-owned company that focuses on urban planning and innovation. Alphabet was formed in 2015 and is the parent company of Google and other Google-related companies. Sidewalk Labs’ first major redevelopment project, Sidewalk Toronto, promised radical city planning to improve city life. Flashy innovations range from wooden skyscrapers, to robotic garbage collection, to new public transport infrastructure.
However, Sidewalk Labs has faced significant backlash over its evolving scope, governance structure, consultation processes, and data collection goals.
University spoke with several U of T experts to discuss the divisive proposal and its impact on the university community.
How Sidewalk Toronto got here
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ad Waterfront Toronto partnered with Sidewalk Labs in October 2017, alongside Toronto Mayor John Tory and then Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.
The original plan was to redevelop nearly 12 acres of land at Queens Quay East and Parliament Street. As the project developed over time, Sidewalk Labs advocated for increased scope, including the addition of approximately 190 acres of land within the Port Lands as a new site for the Google Canada headquarters. These changes were published last June on Sidewalk’s 1,500 pages. Master plan for innovation and development (MIDP).
When Waterfront Toronto agreed to continue the project on October 31, it did so on the condition that Sidewalk Labs significantly limit its MIDP.
Going forward, Waterfront Toronto has agreed to continue to hold consultations and negotiate plans until March 31, 2020, when the parties must formally approve the partnership. If approved at this stage, the proposal will still require additional approval from the City of Toronto.
University of Toronto participation in Sidewalk Toronto
So far, the University of Toronto has played an advisory role on the Sidewalk Labs project. President Meric Gertler served on the Waterfront Toronto Board of Directors from January 2017, until he was fired from that position on December 6, 2018, for unknown reasons. Former Ontario Minister of Infrastructure Monte McNaughton also of Waterfront Toronto presidents fired Helen Burstyn and Michael Nobrega alongside Gertler.
The layoffs followed a report by Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, who criticized the board’s oversight structure and raised concerns about Waterfront Toronto’s initial RFP process that may have favored Alphabet over other candidates.
Several University of Toronto professors and faculty have participated in Sidewalk Toronto’s consultation processes and committees. One of them is Andrew Clement, Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Information, who currently sits on Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Board. Asked about his role in the panel, Clément wrote to University that it advise “on whether the digital aspects of Sidewalk Labs’ proposals meet high standards of protecting and promoting the public interest.”
Additionally, four University of Toronto students – Keisha St. Louis-McBurnie, Paul Seufert, Carol Yeung and Sharly Chan – participated in a Sidewalk Toronto scholarship program in the summer of 2018. They explored urban issues in around the world and provided an overview of the Toronto Sidewalk Project.
In their final report, the 12 fellows made a series of recommendations to Sidewalk Toronto, including setting affordable housing goals, promoting literary data, and using data collection to “ build community trust ”.
While not officially part of the Sidewalk Toronto redevelopment, the University of Toronto has partnered with MaRS Discovery District to lease 24,000 square feet inside the Waterfront Innovation Center, a technology and business-focused company. at the city’s waterfront.
In response to a question of whether the U of T supports the sidewalk redevelopment, a spokesperson for the U of T wrote to University that “the university supports Waterfront Toronto in its ambition to transform Quayside into a sustainable smart neighborhood. Collaborating with global partners in such endeavors helps ensure that the city, province and country gain experience and influence as global leaders. “
Other post-secondary institutions have officially partnered with Sidewalk Labs. On November 28, George Brown College announced the signing of a Letter of Intent to work with Sidewalk Labs on community programming initiatives.
Thoughts on the proposal
Mariana Valverde – a professor of criminology and sociolegal studies and a member of #BlockSidewalk, an organization opposed to Sidewalk Toronto – criticized Waterfront Toronto’s initial draft Request for Proposal (RFP).
Waterfront Toronto “released a very ambiguous document (RFP) which then allowed a Google company to come up with a very vague but extremely ambitious plan that would require overturning a number of local laws and rules and completely marginalizing the services of the city and the city’s democratic processes, ”Valverde wrote to University.
Clement believes Sidewalk Toronto offers a unique opportunity to consider policy responses to smart city proposals. However, he cautioned against approving the project as is, noting that there was not enough information or time to adequately discuss Sidewalk Labs’ overall plans.
Shauna Brail, Associate Professor, Urban Studies Program and Associate Director, Partnerships and Outreach at the School of Cities, wrote to University that the proposal will most likely evolve as it progresses. “We have seen over the past 18 months that the plan is subject to change and will most certainly continue to change if it goes through the approval process.”
The constant criticism of Sidewalk Toronto relates to its data collection processes and its impact on privacy. Clement reflected these concerns about privacy, noting the consequences of a “multitude of sensors capable of finely monitoring individual behavior.”
Along with questions about data collection, Brail also highlighted concerns about the financial model and accessibility of the project, given that “ownership is mostly publicly owned, resulting in heightened public expectations.”
Valverde echoed these privacy concerns, while adding that there are issues with Sidewalk Toronto’s urban development process. “There are fundamental problems of democratic control of urban development, or rather the lack of it. Waterfront Toronto is not a democratic organization. It has no mechanism to be accountable to citizens, ”she wrote.
Brail noted that some U of T researchers, professors and students are already benefiting from the Sidewalk Labs project through various consulting and scholarship opportunities. “If the proposal goes ahead there will likely be additional opportunities, for example in prototyping, experiential learning and further research and evaluation,” she wrote. .
Assistant Professor of Civil and Mineral Engineering Shoshanna Saxe – who also wrote on the Sidewalk Labs project in The New York Times – written to University that the university can greatly benefit from studying Toronto as a “living laboratory”.
While acknowledging that Sidewalk Toronto could theoretically provide job opportunities for researchers, Valverde argued that “there has been little emphasis on hiring local or using local tech companies, and we know Google buys inventions. technology everywhere, including Toronto, but the benefits all go to the United States, as does intellectual property. “
Meanwhile, Richard Florida, professor at the Rotman School of Management and scholar-in-residence at the School of Cities, is a supporter of the Sidewalk Labs project. In an opinion piece for The Globe and Mail, Florida argued that Sidewalk Toronto demonstrates Canada’s potential in high-tech development.
Disclaimer: Kaitlyn Simpson previously served as editor of volume 138 and editor of volume 139 University, and currently serves on the board of directors of Varsity Publications Inc.