Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs details plans for Toronto smart city project

The initiative by Google's sibling company has drawn scrutiny from privacy advocates.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
3 min read

A rendering of the Quayside neighborhood, which Sidewalk Labs plans to develop into a high-tech hub.

Sidewalk Labs

Alphabet's controversial smart city project just took its biggest step forward. Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google's parent company, on Monday released a detailed proposal for developing a high-tech hub along Toronto's eastern waterfront.

The project envisions the city of the future, with buildings made of environmentally sustainable timber and flexible, movable wall panels. Automatic awnings would protect people from downpours and sensors would measure how public facilities are being used. But Sidewalk Labs, first announced in 2015, has also faced blowback as privacy advocates worry about data collection and the potential of mass surveillance.

The main development for the project would be in two neighborhoods called Quayside (pronounced "key-side") and Villiers West. The project could then expand to a greater area surrounding the two neighborhoods on the Toronto waterfront, which Sidewalk calls the IDEA District.

Sidewalk on Monday said it's making a $900 million equity investment with local partners in real estate and advanced systems in Quayside and Villiers West. Overall, the development of those two neighborhoods would be a $3.9 billion project, Sidewalk said. The plans are detailed in a 1,524-page "master innovation and development plan," or MIDP. The plan will be voted on by Waterfront Toronto, an organization that oversees the revitalization of the waterfront, and the Toronto City Council, by early next year.

Sidewalk has faced resistance all along the way.

"It's taken 18 months to get the MIDP done. And the reason is, this has been hard," Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs, said during a press presentation Monday. "It was in many ways like a 50-sided Rubik's Cube."  

Waterfront Toronto criticized some aspects of the plan in an open letter on Monday. Among them, Stephen Diamond, board chair of Waterfront Toronto, said it's "premature" for Sidewalk to make proposals regarding future sites beyond Quayside. Diamond also said he's also worried about "data collection, data use, and digital governance" for the project. He added that "it is clear that Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs have very different perspectives about what is required for success."

Data collection issues have long been a concern about the project. Last year, a handful of advisors, including Ann Cavoukian, former Information and Privacy Commissioner for Ontario, resigned over privacy concerns.

Sidewalk said an independent trust would handle all data matters. But for its part, Sidewalk said it would not sell personal data, use it for advertising or share it with third parties without user consent. Sidewalk also said it would de-identify data and not send it to the cloud, but it would not hold the independent data trust to that same commitment.

The announcement comes as Google and other tech giants have been criticized for contributing to rising rents and a growing housing crisis, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, where several tech companies are headquartered. Earlier this month, Google pledged $1 billion over the next decade to help ease the housing burden in the Bay Area.

Sidewalk said the Villiers West neighborhood would also include a new Canadian headquarters for Google.

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