Inside Google’s smart city – a modern metropolis

Plans to build a tech-fired Utopia in Toronto are gaining traction, despite privacy fears

Sidewalk Labs proposed Area1 and Area2 of Portland development. Photograph: Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty

Sidewalk Labs proposed Area1 and Area2 of Portland development. Photograph: Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty


The former fish processing plant is so unremarkable that, at first, my taxi driver speeds right past it. He shrugs as we come to a stop in an empty parking lot across the street. Along a dreary 12-acre stretch of forgotten waterfront land on the outskirts of Toronto sits a boxy blue building, almost invisible among the factories and highway.

The land is neglected now, but that will change if Google has its way. This is the site where the technology company wants to build a city of the future.

One of the project’s main aims is to address ubiquitous urban problems, such as congestion, inefficient services and unaffordable housing. Illustrative plans featuring futuristic, mass-timber buildings were released in February. The structures, some by Thomas Heatherwick’s studio and Snøhetta, an architectural practice based in Norway, were imagined towering over the shoreline of Lake Ontario.

Google’s blue building houses the planning operation and exhibition centre, which it has assembled in preparation for a decision – expected within months – by the city’s authorities. Inside, it is more like a science museum than a Google-owned HQ. A model of a “dynamic street” made up of hexagonal wooden blocks and a prototype of a “raincoat” – transparent, domed plastic awnings that would attach to buildings and cover the areas in front – are on display.

The raincoat’s climate technology, it is claimed, would make residents feel warm in winter and cool in summer for at least 50 days a year. Given the average temperature in Toronto falls to -7 degrees in winter and reaches 27 in July, life could become pretty comfortable.

In February, Sidewalk Labs – a developer and Google subsidiary – previewed technology prototypes to reporters. Those hexagonal blocks could heat up to melt ice and snow without salting, meaning residents would never again slip and fall on frosty pavements. LED lights embedded within could change colour to dictate the street’s purpose on a given day: it could, for example, switch from car thoroughfare to pedestrian-only space, or bike lanes could be added.

One interactive exhibit allows visitors to toggle the city, adding trees or green spaces, shrinking and stretching the tower blocks. When they put together a version of the city they like, they press a smiley face.

But what has caused most alarm is that, in this quayside city of the future, residents’ every move would be recorded. Inevitably, anxieties about privacy and covert surveillance have followed.

Small hidden cameras would snap low-resolution images of people and cars as they move through the streets. Sidewalk says its systems would blur identifiable information, label pictures either “pedestrian” or “vehicle”, then enter it into a “public data trust”. The data would be used to plan services in real time, in what it calls a “feedback of residents”.

In an early-stage proposal document, Sidewalk said: “Cities will only meet their growth challenges if they support innovation . . . to do so requires designing for radical flexibility, enabling the best ideas to be refined in real time and creating a cycle of ongoing improvement.”

Waterfront Toronto, the government agency that owns the land, is charged with reviving the shoreline. It kicked off plans for a smart city in 2017 with a bidding process for developers. Sidewalk emerged as the winner, with its proposal to develop an initial 12 acres – an endeavour expected to cost more than $1 billion.

Sidewalk has committed $50 million to the “first phase” – consultations, public outreach projects and the blue exhibition space. The technology company has yet to unveil its plans in full – though it does expect the first phase to house 5,000 people. However, the most recent plans show Google has much wider ambitions for a second and third phase: to develop 350 acres of waterfront land, housing 75,000 residents.

Today, a sprawling “feedback wall” at the exhibition centre offers visitors the chance to fill in answers to pre-written questions, such as: “I’m not excited about ____” on Post-it notes. Responses include: “SURVEILLANCE STATE” and “Making Toronto Great Again”.

Utopia or dystopia?

Ever since October 2017 when Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeauannounced Sidewalk was coming to town, Canadians and stakeholders have speculated on whether the plans would amount to Utopia or dystopia.

“We know the world is changing. The choice we have is to either resist it and be frightened by it, or to say we can step up...and shape it,” Trudeau proclaimed at a splashy press conference, as he stood alongside senior Google executives including Eric Schmidt. Toronto would serve as a model for others, not only in Canada, but worldwide. Sidewalk pitched its plan as “the world’s first neighbourhood built from the internet up”.

In many ways, Google’s ambitions are nothing new. Grand attempts at “smart cities” in north America date back to the 1960s, when Walt Disney dreamt up the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow – Epcot for short, a Floridian city of the future underpinned by technology. Disney died before his vision could be realised on the scale he had imagined.

Today, a new generation of tech visionaries has taken up the same challenge, seeking to reimagine the spaces in which we live. Apple, Amazon and Google have all bought chunks of land across the US. In 2017, a Bill Gates-run investment company spent $80 million on a piece of Arizona desert land to build a “smart city”, tentatively called Belmont.

But the Waterfront Toronto project represents north America’s biggest, most ambitious smart-city test case: up to 350 acres of untouched urban land in one of the continent’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas.

At first, Canadians cheered; 18 months on, the project risks generating more resentment than enthusiasm. Sidewalk’s plans have upset many people. Critics include local technologists, property developers, politicians from both the left-leaning NDP and Conservative parties, urbanists, academics, privacy experts, business leaders and the Canadian Civil Liberties Union.

Chief executive of Sidewalk Labs Dan Doctoroff is charged with leading Google’s crusade. Photograph: Cole Burston/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Chief executive of Sidewalk Labs Dan Doctoroff is charged with leading Google’s crusade. Photograph: Cole Burston/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Dan Doctoroff, Sidewalk’s chief executive, is charged with leading Google’s crusade. The former chief executive of Bloomberg and deputy mayor of New York City says he is no stranger to detractors. Dressed in a suit and tie in an office full of technologists wearing jeans, he speaks with the slick confidence of a man who spent eight years slogging it out in New York’s city politics. Over cans of sparkling water in a conference room at the Sidewalk Labs headquarters, he brushes off the concerns. His mission, he says, is to create the world’s first 21st-century urban district.

“People ask me, ‘are you surprised by the level of controversy?’ I actually am not,” he says.

“I had the experience in New York of trying to do big projects and every single one of them was a struggle. The biggest challenge is that what we’re trying to do is really different from what people know. And articulating what the future can be is a really hard thing to do.”

Charm offensive

Sidewalk has yet to submit its final plan for government approval. In the meantime, the company’s charm offensive includes public showcases and a free summer camp for children “interested in how cities work and grow”. After months of consultation, during which the company talked to 18,000 people, according to Doctoroff, it is racing against the clock to finish its business plan in the coming weeks.

The full plans include 17,000 housing units, many in 20-storey-high apartment blocks. Up to 40 per cent are intended for lower- and middle-income families. Sidewalk promises that nearly 4,000 jobs will be created in the first phase. Then there is that “raincoat” to artificially control climate.

Critics say tech companies should not wield such influence, and that local governments should not hand over responsibility for public services to the private sector.

“They are muscling in on cities and trying to exert power . . . through policies that should be made by government,” says Bianca Wylie, co-founder of Tech Reset Canada, a tech advocacy group. The 39-year-old Torontonian has become one of the main voices of the resistance to Sidewalk and a fixture at town hall meetings. “That is the problem. I’m a technologist. This is not about anti-tech.”

But since the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, people have woken up to the risks of handing over data to big tech companies, says Jim Balsillie, former chief executive of Research In Motion, the Canadian company behind the BlackBerry phone, who has been an outspoken critic of Sidewalk.

“A company wants to maximise profits. What do citizens want? A community to live in. If you let companies run amok, they will run amok.”

To help make its case, in 2018 Sidewalk hired Ann Cavoukian, a privacy expert credited with establishing a global standard for data protection – though she has since severed ties.

The former Ontario privacy commissioner says Sidewalk started with noble ideals and at first she got on well with Doctoroff. But with smart cities “people don’t have an opportunity to consent”, she says. “Technology is on 24/7. You can’t remove yourself from it. Personalised data is a treasure trove . . . that’s what everyone wants.”

Cavoukian says Sidewalk was initially on board with her demands that the company de-identify – or blur out – identities from data, so that it could not be traced to individuals.

But in October, the company unveiled plans to create an independent “civic data trust” that would control the collection and distribution of the data, effectively letting go of control. Any company – including Sidewalk – could apply to access the information. “That’s when I knew I couldn’t do this,” says Cavoukian. She sent her resignation letter to Doctoroff the next morning.

Doctoroff says Sidewalk’s “whole approach to privacy has evolved”.

“We knew it was going to be a controversial issue. We . . . underestimated how controversial, in part because the focus on technology companies and data and privacy has dramatically increased over the course of the last year”.

The backlash

With hundreds of smart city pilot projects under way around the world, “this is a cautionary tale”, says Balsillie. “Data spreads seamlessly. These data strategies are not just contained to this piece of land. It’s like somebody is putting a virus in your backyard.”

At this point “it’s a real question mark”, says Cavoukian, over whether Google-ification will ever happen.

Critics such as Julie DiLorenzo, a prominent Toronto property developer, say Sidewalk has only revealed pie-in-the-sky renderings, and seems unable to answer concrete questions such as how the project will be financed and whether people will be able to opt out of data collection.

“They’ve come in here and made all these assumptions about what the people of Toronto want,” says one local developer. “The raincoat idea to effectively be inside all the time. We want to be outside; the cold is part of our culture and this city.”

But despite the backlash, it seems Canadians do not want to say goodbye to Google just yet. A February poll commissioned by Toronto’s trade board showed 55 per cent of Torontonians still support the project and 76 per cent feel it should carry on as long as public interests are safeguarded.

“The Board of Trade is glad that Sidewalk Labs is here and glad the company has a shot at bringing innovative development ideas to Quayside, alongside our growing smart cities sector in Toronto,” says Jan De Silva, chief executive of Toronto’s trade board. “But our support isn’t unconditional.”

Back at the waterfront, an invited audience walks through the sunny exhibition space, glancing at renderings of lush outdoor spaces and shaded patios. “We’re still in this planning process. This is something that is increasingly a tool that we’re using,” says Jesse Shapins, director of public realm and culture at Sidewalk, and a former BuzzFeed executive.

He gestures towards a 3-D map, where a visitor has left a smiley face. “There’s a lot still to work through here.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019

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