Toronto Morning Future
Inspiring The Case 8 June Jun 2018 0830 8 June 2018

Sidewalk Labs: a journey through the Google company that wants to redesign cities

Sidewalk Labs has an ambitious project: to make every single aspect of the city smart. But the most serious doubts concern how the data of the residents will be handled

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Most of the companies that operate in the design of smart cities concentrate on the optimisation of one aspect in particular such as mobility for example, or the rapid and economic reconversion of buildings. But Sidewalk Labs has a much more ambitious project: to make every single aspect of the city smart. Simultaneously.

On the company web site there is a 200 page document that describes the vision of Sidewalk Labs of the Quayside, the future “intelligent district” of Toronto. The text is crammed full of illustrations that depict an idyllic community, with many parks, modular buildings and underground tunnels with robots that make deliveries. A “complete community”, without cars, eco-sustainable and covered by a network of sensors to monitor noise levels, traffic, pollution and all the data necessary to improve the quality of life in the city. Without doubt it is a very ambitious plan which Sidewalk Labs, a company owned by Alphabet of Google, has been working on since 2015.

The project started with an email from Eric Schmidt – then executive president of Google – to Dan Doctoroff – politician, businessman and current Chief Executive Officer of Sidewalk. The subject was: “The city of the future”. Schmidt wanted Doctoroff to meet the co-founders of Google Larry Page and Sergey Brin to talk to them about intelligent cities. The idea was to involve Doctoroff in his capacity as a specialist capable of understanding both the technology and the urban planning. From this meeting in the summer of 2015 Sidewalk Labs was set up.

The Quayside district covers 4.8 hectares and overlooks the sea. At the moment it is occupied by a large parking area full of holes, low buildings and gigantic silos, residues of its past as the industrial port of the city. For many it is an eyesore, but Sidewalk – which works in partnership with the Canadian Toronto Waterfront Agency– sees it only as an opportunity: It will be a place on which to build great example of urban innovation; the official test bench on which ​to test the emerging technologies for the management of pollution, traffic and accessibility of the dwellings.

A “complete community”, without cars, eco-sustainable and covered by a network of sensors to monitor noise levels, traffic, pollution and all the data necessary to improve the quality of life in the city.

“Intelligent cities” are not something new: their construction has been tested for some years with varying degrees of success. Songdo in South Korea is perhaps the most ambitious. In 2000 it was still a marshy area, whereas today it is a technological metropolis with glass skyscrapers and a Central Park inspired by the one in New York. Television cameras are distributed everywhere and the residents adjust the temperature and lighting of the houses using touchscreen panels. The prices are still out of reach for most people, to the point that Le Monde described it last year as “a ghetto for the rich”.

In Doctoroff’s opinion, the problem that often compromises the success of these experiments is the difficulty in obtaining a fruitful dialogue on the relationship between technological and urban needs. In the case of Sidewalk too the difficulty of mediating between these two ways of thinking has been experienced. «It has led to some conflicts», said Rit Aggarwala, Chief Policy Officer of Sidewalk Labs. «A number of misunderstandings have arisen due to the fact that basically it was as if we were not speaking the same language».

These problems in communication and vision will have to be resolved before the process of building can begin. Critics of the project are afraid that the administration of Toronto, attracted by the idea of becoming a global technological hub may leave the designers too much freedom. As one might easily guess, the most serious doubts concern the question of privacy. On the other hand the company belongs to Google which obtains its income offering users aimed announcements. Concerns over how the residents’ data will be processed are therefore legitimate, even if Sidewalk Labs has declared that data will be subject to “open standards” and that they will not use or sell personal information for advertising purposes. At least for the present. Reassurances that the experts on privacy have judged to be insufficient, also considering the fact that on the subject of privacy and security of data, Canada cannot exactly be described as keeping up.

According to the agreements, the Canadian Toronto Waterfront Agency, which watches over the interests of the institutions set up to enhance and protect the area, could veto the plan at any time. «If our work is not appreciated by the council of the Toronto Waterfront Agency and if it is not received well by elected officials, they can tell us to go away» said Doctoroff. The company owned by Alphabet however seems to be very sure of its ideas and resources: «We will do our best» said Aggarwala, «and I think they will find it irresistible».

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