OPINION

It is now possible that the Sidewalk Labs – Waterfront Toronto partnership intended to play a key role in the development of more than 800 acres of valuable Toronto waterfront might not go ahead – or if it does with many new conditions and increased public oversight to increase the Canadian benefits from the project.

Much of the controversy over the Sidewalk Labs role is about how Canadian tech companies get to participate in the development of the smart city project.

Who benefits?

A growing pushback by Torontonians is emerging  as more questions are raised about who really benefits from the Sidewalk Labs partnership, with  experts resigning from the project, Ontario’s Auditor General issuing a harsh report calling for calling for greater public oversight, critics worrying about privacy, data ownership and control, the tech sector worried they will be excluded from major opportunities and others wondering why we need Sidewalk Labs at all in developing a smart city on the waterfront. Issues of transparency and accountability, as well as democratic control, over the waterfront have been raised as well.

Master plan signed in 2019?

The decision on whether to proceed with the Sidewalk Labs Toronto project for the development of a large and valuable portion of waterfront land in downtown Toronto is due to be made in 2019 when a master plan for development is supposed to be signed.  Sidewalk Labs is a sister company to Google, which in turn is part of the Alphabet/Google corporate empire.  From Sidewalk Lab’s perspective, the reported goal was to build a new city from the ground up since smart cities, along with fields such as health care, loom large in Google’s future business plans.

In the beginning

The project, when it was unveiled in October 2017, was heralded as a bold new initiative to make waterfront Toronto a world-leading test bed for a smart or digital city, with sensors everywhere to track everything from energy use, new types of housing and building materials and pedestrian traffic to environmental conditions, garbage disposal, traffic flows and public safety. It was to be a community of autonomous vehicles and the Internet of Things – a global demonstration in the best technology had to offer, based on the collection of all kinds of data from about every kind of human activity. It would be a liveable tech city and the tech companies that developed the smart city technologies would go on to be big players as the world moved to smart city systems.

Starting with the smaller 14.8-acre Quayside site, the real target was the development of the 800-acre Portlands, one of the largest such sites available anywhere in a North American metropolitan centre.

But as the pushback shows, this could not be a largely commercial arrangement between Sidewalk Labs and the Toronto Waterfront corporation. It entails many vital areas of public policy and has raised so many red flags that the political process must be much more actively engaged.

More details please

So far, all three levels of government who created Waterfront Toronto have adopted a hands-off approach while complaining about lack of information on the project. But given the importance of waterfront development in Canada’s largest city, political leadership and direction are now essential.

The project has been mired in controversy from the start, beginning with the process that appeared to unfairly favour Sidewalk Labs as the potential developer, followed by rushed pressure by Waterfront Toronto management on the Toronto Waterfront board to approve the choice of Sidewalk Labs as the development partner without time for careful consideration.

Believe in the potential – Vote of confidence from Trudeau

In October 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed Sidewalk Labs, declaring that Waterfront Toronto “needed a strong partner who believed in the potential of this city and its citizens” and thanked Sidewalk Labs for placing its “trust and confidence in Canada.” As a “world leader in urban innovation, Sidewalk Labs will create a testbed for new technologies” and “help us build smarter, greener, more inclusive cities, which we hope to see scaled up across Toronto’s eastern waterfront, and eventually in other parts of Canada and across the world.” But who would own the intellectual property and the related technologies – Sidewalk Labs or Canadian tech companies?

Resignations begin

Despite Trudeau’s happy portrayal, influential Torontonians have been resigning from the project. Julie Di Lorenzo, who heads the innovative development company Diamante Urban Corp., resigned from the Waterfront Toronto board over concerns Sidewalk Labs was gaining too much power over how the waterfront would develop. John Ruffolo, a leading venture capitalist and vice-chair of the Council of Canadian Innovators, and Sandia Muzzaffar, a tech entrepreneur, have both resigned from Waterfront Toronto’s digital strategy advisory board over dissatisfaction with the process with remaining members calling for more time for review. And recently Ann Cavoukian, former information and privacy commissioner for Ontario, resigned from an advisory board set up by Sidewalks Lab.

What happens next should now move into the public realm – with public policymakers, not officials from Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, determining the terms and conditions under which the Toronto waterfront should be developed and Canadian opportunities created. This is called the democratic process.

David Crane can be reached at crane@interlog.com