In Depth

Why Google’s smart city is facing a backlash from Toronto residents

Plans to build neighbourhood of the future raise concerns over data use

Google has courted controversy once again after one of its sister companies announced plans to build a smart city in Toronto. 

Sidewalk Labs, owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, has released a 1,500-page document outlining the redevelopment of three sites in the Canadian city to include “smart” features such as “snow-melting roadways” and “an underground delivery system”, Forbes reports. 

The proposal involves the construction of two neighbourhoods, Quayside and Villiers West, along with a larger Innovative Development and Economic Acceleration (IDEA) district. The company claims there will be 1,700 affordable new homes in total. 

While the redevelopment could make Toronto one of the most advanced cities in the world, Waterfront Toronto, the organisation managing the city’s renovation, claims that Sidewalk Labs’ vision of a connected city differs from its own on a several levels, the BBC reports. 

Toronto’s residents, meanwhile, have also expressed concerns about their data being gathered and stored by the tech company to streamline the city’s operations. 

What makes a city ‘smart’?

According to TechRepublic, a smart city employs technology, such as connected sensors, to “derive data and improve the lives of citizens and visitors”.

Smart technology includes dedicated mobile apps for citizens to monitor traffic or communicate with representatives of the city, which makes connected cities “more sustainable and efficient”, the website says. 

Among the handful of smart cities already operating in the world are Singapore, Dubai and even Milton Keynes.

So what are Sidewalk Labs’ plans for a ‘smart’ Toronto?

The C$3.9bn development project will use connected technology and data loggers to create a futuristic living space where traffic is streamlined and commutes are made shorter for Toronto’s residents, CNN reports. 

Buildings constructed using environmentally-friendly materials will also mean that pollution will be kept to a minimum, the broadcaster says.

Sidewalk Labs claims that the redevelopment will generate C$4.3bn in annual tax revenues and C$14.2bn per year in gross domestic product, The Guardian reports. 

The company, meanwhile, will use housing sales and rent, plus the “deployment of its technology”, as its key revenue streams, the newspaper adds.

More jobs will be opened up, too, as it’s estimated that 93,000 positions will be created by 2040, the Financial Times reports. 

What’s been the response?

In an open letter, Stephen Diamond, head of Waterfront Toronto, said it was “important to know” that the organisation did not “co-create” the project with Sidewalk Labs and emphasised that the two bodies “have very different perspectives” on certain aspects of the city’s redevelopment. 

While admitting the project has a “number of exciting ideas”, Diamond raises concerns with the size of the redevelopment, which exceeds Waterfront Toronto’s initial 12-acre limit, as well as the reliance on collecting data from the city’s citizens.

Some Toronto’s residents have set up a campaign called Block Sidewalk, which highlights their concerns over a tech company “making decisions about city life”, the BBC reports. 

Charlie Angus, a member of the Canadian parliament, told CNN: “Is this the exciting city of the future or an urban company town run by a data giant? I think it’s the latter.

“We are talking about wiring up urban spaces with a company whose business model is spying on everything we do,” he said. 

However, Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said that smart city technology was needed to solve “enormous” challenges facing urban planners. “We think you can actually produce a dramatic impact in urban life, that this can be a global hub for the urban innovation industry.”

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