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Sidewalk Labs’ 1,500-Page Plan for Toronto Is a Democracy Grenade

The sprawling plan by the Google affiliate encompasses 77 hectares and asks for new mass transit, changes to regulations, and more.

by Jordan Pearson
Jun 24 2019, 7:04pm

Image: Getty

After 18 months of high-profile resignations, local resistance, and lots of “listening,” Google-affiliate Sidewalk Labs finally released its master plan to redevelop a swath of Toronto’s waterfront as a sensor-laden neighbourhood on Monday.

The master plan, cheerily dubbed “Toronto Tomorrow,” is the most detailed look at Sidewalk Labs’s plans for Toronto yet. Its release kicks off a long process of consultation and tweaking with Waterfront Toronto⁠—the municipal organization leading the project—and other levels of government, before it can be approved.

The plan is more than 1,500 pages long and details designs for not just the initially-considered 4.8 hectare Quayside site, but the entire 77-hectare waterfront district. The plan manages to raise more questions than it answers, and its sprawling vision (which includes calls for modified regulations, transit investments, and internet infrastructure) has already raised red flags for Waterfront Toronto and the public about what a corporate-designed mini-city would mean for democracy in Canada.

The master innovation and development plan (MIDP) is being pitched as a blueprint for how Big Tech can build a futuristic mini-city along with various government and private sector partners. The general idea is to use new internet-enabled technologies (such as sensors that track pedestrians, air quality, electricity use, and more) as well as novel construction techniques (every building will be made of wood), to create a new kind of neighbourhood that will ostensibly benefit its residents.

Read More: Google Is Still Planning a 'Smart City' In Toronto Despite Major Privacy Concerns

The sprawling plan is long on futuristic-sounding plans like underground tunnels filled with autonomous carts that deliver packages, planning for self-driving cars (the plan, rather humorously, jumps from 2016 to “around” 2035 in its timeline for that particular technology), extendable awnings for pedestrians, and the aforementioned all-wood construction. Sidewalk Labs even proposes funding a new $80 million timber mill in Ontario.

Sidewalk Labs’s master plan for Toronto establishes that there will be a lot of sensors in the neighbourhood it builds. This data will be de-identified, the company claims, and much of it will be made available to residents and planners. Sidewalk Labs will develop technologies where a third-party option doesn’t already exist, but regardless it will outfit the entire area with a universal mount it describes as an “urban USB port” that would allow for the easy installation of sensors in public. Devices in the area will connect to a “ubiquitous” internet network that will also serve businesses and residents.

Sidewalk Labs proposes that this network be powered by a fibre connection, and it's worth noting that Alphabet’s own Google Fiber offers that service. In a press call on Monday, CEO Dan Doctoroff addressed concerns that Google would muscle in on developing fibre infrastructure, saying that Alphabet companies “have absolutely no right” to deploy technologies outside of a competitive process. Regardless, Sidewalk Labs imagines it will be a partner in deploying the network.

Read More: Canada Is Getting Sued Over Sidewalk Labs' 'Smart City' In Toronto

Crucially, Sidewalk Labs has proposed that data collected by sensors in the neighbourhood will be managed by an independent trust that must approve all uses of collected data. On the topic of whether Sidewalk Labs or Alphabet would have automatic ISP-level insight into web traffic on the ubiquitous network that every device in the area connects to, versus that data going into a trust, Doctoroff was non-committal. “My assumption is [that] the answer...is no, but I don’t think we've gotten to that level of detail,” he said.

The most important parts of the plan around data collection and democratic processes have already raised red flags with local organizations.

In a statement, Waterfront Toronto outlined several problems with the plan, largely having to do with processes and approvals for the wide-reaching vision. In some cases, Waterfront Toronto says it doesn’t have the authority to approve the company’s plans.

For example, Sidewalk Labs proposes that an IDEA District (Innovative Development and Economic Activation) encompassing the original Quayside site and nearby lands be established. The idea is that Sidewalk Labs would lead development in Quayside first, and then nearby Villiers West, and then take a backseat role as the development expands to the rest of the district.

According to Waterfront Toronto, establishing an IDEA District would be “premature” and Sidewalk Labs being the lead developer in Quayside does not conform to previous agreements between the organizations. Doctoroff chalked this up to a disagreement over “semantics.”

“I think that on some levels its an issue of semantics,” Doctoroff said. “We would expect to play the lead role in investing $900 million to get Quayside and Villiers West done, but what we will have to work out is the relationship between Waterfront Toronto and us.”

Sidewalk Labs is also asking a lot of the City and various levels of governments to make its dream of a neighbourhood built by a corporation a reality. For example, Sidewalk Labs is advocating for new mass transit in Toronto (which it may help to fund) to make getting to Quayside easier, a new public administrator for the IDEA District, and modified legal regulations for the district to implement some of its plans.

“These proposals raise important implementation concerns,” Waterfront Toronto said in a statement. “They are also not commitments that Waterfront Toronto can make.”

On the press call, Doctoroff said, “We're in active conversation already on many of those topics with all three [levels of government].”

The theme of Sidewalk Labs steamrolling past what its municipal partner can or should do is key to locals’ concerns with the project. A grassroots resistance project called #BlockSidewalk contends that the 1,500-page plan is designed to “drown the public in detail” while masking how the approval process has so far allowed a huge American company to take the lead on issues of immense public interest to Canadians.

“The review of the MIDP will shift focus away from the critically serious governance issues at the heart of this project and its evaluation,” a #BlockSidewalk statement said, adding that it expects Sidewalk Labs will engage in a public relations and lobbying blitz now that the approval process is set to begin in earnest.

On the press call, Doctoroff said that public outreach efforts would accelerate in the coming months as Sidewalk Labs seeks approval for its plan.

Adding yet another wrinkle to the situation is a lawsuit moving through the courts against all three levels of Canadian government by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), which argues that Waterfront Toronto didn’t have the authority to enter into an agreement with Sidewalk Labs and that government essentially abdicated its responsibilities to the public to a corporation. The lawsuit is seeking to block Waterfront Toronto’s ability to approve the plan.

#BlockSidewalk is hosting a public meeting on Wednesday, July 3rd in Toronto to go over the details of Sidewalk Labs’ sprawling vision for a glistening corporate oasis in Canada’s largest city.

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Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that #BlockSidewalk's public meeting is on a Tuesday, when it is on a Wesnesday. Motherboard regrets the error.

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