News / Toronto

Toronto's futuristic neighbourhood meets skepticism of the present

The Sidewalk Toronto project, though widely welcomed, has caused some to raise concerns over privacy and transparency.

A rendering of Toronto's Sidewalk's Lab.


A rendering of Toronto's Sidewalk's Lab.

Locals concerned about what plans for a futuristic neighbourhood might mean for Toronto can have their say Wednesday, as Waterfront Toronto hosts a town hall to discuss the Sidewalk Toronto project.

The brainchild of Alphabet Inc.’s Sidewalk Labs, Sidewalk Toronto would, if it goes ahead, be a community “enhanced by digital technology and data, without giving up the privacy and security that everyone deserves,” its creators say on their website.

Among its goals are self-driving vehicles and advanced micro-grids for onsite power generation, with Google Canada moving its HQ there from Richmond Street. Alphabet Inc. is Google’s parent company.

The 12-acre community at Quayside — for which the planning alone will see $50 million invested — could eventually cover a much bigger swath of the waterfront, but concerns are being raised about the widening of the project’s initial scope, as well as transparency and privacy issues.

“Data is a huge part of how Google makes it money,” said Teresa Scassa, Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa. “So I’m sure the data is going to a big part of how this will be commercialized."

Scassa said the data gathered, and whether the city or the companies would be in control of it, is crucial.

“Sidewalk Labs says it will be shared, but that still doesn’t solve the issue of who owns it,” she said. “A company can always pack its bags and go home.”

Shauna Brail, director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Toronto, said now is the time for the public to constructively add its voice.

“There’s a lot of excitement, but also a brewing concern about what (the project) might mean,” she said, though keen to add she supports the project.Sometimes our instinct can be to put up the ‘stop’ sign, but we need to think about how we can have a positive impact on the debate.”

Minutes from an Oct. 16 meeting show the board at Waterfront Toronto, a government group, was given just four business days to review the agreement with Sidewalk Labs, and full disclosure of the contract has thus-far been ruled out, Torstar News Service reported Sunday.

“Waterfront Toronto only had four days to have a look at a very detailed proposal,” said Councillor Paula Fletcher. “This is the waterfront. It should be a little more transparent.”

Fletcher said she had had a briefing with Sidewalk Labs and felt that their “span of influence” had become “a little large.”

“I don’t want to be a wet blanket, but I want to be realistic,” she said.

Wednesday’s event starts at 7 p.m. at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Many will have to settle for a live-stream via social media, however, as it is already over-subscribed.

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