Dan Doctoroff spoke about Sidewalk Labs plans for the smart city district in Toronto. Credit: Buckley Smith

Published: September 26th, 2019

Smart cities are a hot topic today; all the more so in Toronto with all of the controversy surrounding the proposed smart city district at the Quayside.

The project, which is being helmed by Sidewalk Labs, has been slowed down due to concerns from citizens of the city regarding data privacy, as well as the Waterfront Toronto association.

Dan Doctoroff, the chief executive officer of Sidewalk Labs, spoke at the Elevate Tech Fest conference this week in Toronto and provided an update on the status of the project.

Sidewalk Labs released its plan for the project in June and now, according to Doctoroff, they are currently working with Waterfront Toronto so to get the plan approved before seeking approval from the city. That will be followed by approvals from the provincial and federal government.

Doctoroff noted that due to the number of issues at play with smart cities, it will be a long process, though he provided no timeline for it.

Those issues were discussed at length by a variety of panels and sessions at the Smart Cities Summit 4.0 at Elevate yesterday.

Why are we doing this?

The summit kicked things off by asking this very question. Proponents of smart city projects frequently point to increased efficiencies through technology-based services that have not been available until now.

But there are those who don’t see the value in focusing on tech-related improvements and instead, believe doubling down on building durable and effective infrastructure is the way to go when it comes to improving local government services, transportation, and housing.

One of those people is Shoshanna Saxe, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s department of civil and mineral engineering. She said that the majority of tech-based solutions do not last very long (either due to durability or relevance) which is bad news when it comes to tackling the major issues large cities are facing.

“We have real problems and real challenges we need to take seriously. They need long term attention and planning. Cities that plan for the long-term are the cities we all want to live in 10, 20, 30 years from now,” said Saxe. “We need to invest for the long term. We need to plan for the long term.”

Bilal Khan, the managing partner and head of data for Deloitte Canada, who debated the issue with Saxe, disagreed with this point and explained that smart city projects would not throw the idea of good infrastructure out the window, but would instead supplement that infrastructure with technology that could provide insights into when and what requires maintenance; often in a proactive manner which saves time and money for the city.

“I don’t think we need to stop building core infrastructure at the expense of using technology. I think they go hand in hand. We can still build that bridge and we’re going to use the same materials,” said Khan. “But now we’ve got an opportunity to embed technology that creates the technological infrastructure that allows us to do really interesting things.”

Khan also went on to argue against the durability issue that Saxe brought up; relating it to pacemakers and the fact that we do not abandon the idea of using them just because they require battery changes every few years.

While Saxe pointed out that much of the proposed technology is years away from becoming a reality and they often fail to deliver the results sought after, Khan argued that the groundwork needs to be laid now so that the groundbreaking tech is possible in the future. He compared it to how earlier versions of the iPhone did not have nearly the capabilities of today’s models but were still necessary stepping stones to where we are now.

“Smart cities are here. Cities need to start building the infrastructure,” said Khan. “Today, smart cities don’t seem that exciting and it might not be improving our lives in any meaningful or significant way. But five or 10 years from now, if we don’t have that infrastructure in place, if we don’t have the operating system that allows the private sector and the public sector to start building applications on top of that smart city, then I feel like we will miss out on a significant opportunity.”

What about data governance?

Even with all the possible benefits of smart cities, data governance remains a huge sticking point.

Smart city critics remain concerned about the possibility of citizens being identified by the data collected about them as they live and interact in a smart city.

In the case of the smart city proposal in Toronto, Doctoroff said that the data Sidewalk Labs plans to collect is not the personal data that many think it will be. Weather-related data, for example, would be collected to optimize rainwater infrastructure, lining up with Khan’s point about the potential of adding maintenance-oriented sensors to bridges and other similar infrastructure.

Around the issue of data privacy, Doctoroff said “we are not making the rules” but Avner Levin, the director of the Privacy and Cybercrime Institute at Ryerson University, who spoke on a panel about data governance in smart cities at Elevate, disagreed with that notion. The fact that this is such unprecedented territory and Sidewalk Labs is pioneering it, even if Sidewalk Labs abides by the regulations that are implemented, they will be such a large part of building those regulations that it may be a moot point.

Even with that heavy influence, it is still possible to appease the public by keeping them involved every step along the way and show them how these new regulations and technologies will work, said Eric Hovest, national markets executive for Accenture Industry x.0, who spoke on the same panel.

“There’s a right way: showing and demonstrating and prototyping,” said Hovest. “You just have to show that to the citizens and actually show them how things work.”



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