On October 31, tri-governmental organization Waterfront Toronto tentatively agreed to move forward with a reduced version of a controversial plan to redevelop part of Toronto’s Quayside into a technology-filled smart neighbourhood. 

The redevelopment proposal was put forward by Sidewalk Labs — a company owned by Alphabet that focuses on urban planning and innovation. Alphabet was formed in 2015 and is the parent company of Google and other Google-related ventures. Sidewalk Labs’ first significant redevelopment project, Sidewalk Toronto, has promised radical urban planning to improve city life. The flashy innovations range from timber skyscrapers, to robotic garbage collection, to new public transit infrastructure.

However, Sidewalk Labs has faced significant backlash over its evolving scope, governance structure, consultation processes, and data collection goals.

The Varsity spoke with several U of T experts to discuss the divisive proposal and how it may impact the university community.    

How Sidewalk Toronto got here

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Waterfront Toronto’s partnership with Sidewalk Labs in October 2017, alongside Toronto Mayor John Tory and then-Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

The original plan was to redevelop nearly 12 acres of land at Queens Quay East and Parliament Street. As the project developed over time, Sidewalk Labs argued for an increased scope, including the addition of a roughly 190-acre plot of land in the Port Lands as a new site for Google Canada’s headquarters. These changes were released last June in Sidewalk’s 1,500-page Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP).

When Waterfront Toronto agreed to proceed with the project on October 31, it did so with the condition that Sidewalk Labs considerably limit its MIDP.

Moving forward, Waterfront Toronto has agreed to continue holding consultations and negotiate plans until March 31, 2020, when the parties must formally approve the partnership. If approved at this phase, the proposal will still require additional approval from the City of Toronto.

U of T’s involvement with Sidewalk Toronto 

U of T has played a consultatory role on the Sidewalk Labs project to date. President Meric Gertler served on Waterfront Toronto’s Board of Directors from January 2017, until he was fired from this position on December 6, 2018, for unknown reasons. Former Ontario Minister of Infrastructure Monte McNaughton also fired Waterfront Toronto chairpersons Helen Burstyn and Michael Nobrega alongside Gertler.

The firings followed a report by Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, which criticized the board’s oversight structure and raised concerns about Waterfront Toronto’s initial proposal request process that may have favoured Alphabet over other applicants.

Several U of T professors and faculty members have participated in Sidewalk Toronto consultation processes and committees. One of them is Andrew Clement, Professor Emeritus from the Faculty of Information, who currently sits on Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. When asked about his role on the panel, Clement wrote to The Varsity that he offers advice “on whether the digital aspects of Sidewalk Labs’ proposals achieve high standards of protecting and promoting the public interest.” 

Additionally, four U of T students — Keisha St. Louis-McBurnie, Paul Seufert, Carol Yeung, and Sharly Chan — participated in a Sidewalk Toronto Fellowship program in the summer of 2018. They explored urban issues around the globe and provided insights into the Sidewalk Toronto project.

In their final report, the 12 fellows issued a series of recommendations for Sidewalk Toronto’s consideration, including setting affordable housing targets, promoting data literary, and using data collection to “build community trust.”

While it’s not officially part of Sidewalk Toronto’s redevelopment, U of T has partnered with MaRS Discovery District to lease 24,000 square feet inside the Waterfront Innovation Centre, a technology- and business-driven venture at the city’s waterfront.

In response to a question about whether U of T supports the Sidewalk redevelopment, a U of T spokesperson wrote to The Varsity that the “university supports Waterfront Toronto in its ambition to turn Quayside into a sustainable smart neighbourhood. Collaborating with global partners in such endeavours helps ensure the city, the province and the country build experience and influence as world leaders.”

Other postsecondary institutions have officially partnered with Sidewalk Labs. On November 28, George Brown College announced its signature of a letter of intent to work with Sidewalk Labs on community programming initiatives.

Thoughts on the proposal

Mariana Valverde — a professor of criminology and sociolegal studies and member of #BlockSidewalk, an organization opposing Sidewalk Toronto — criticized Waterfront Toronto’s initial request-for-proposal (RFP) project.

Waterfront Toronto “issued a highly ambiguous document (RFP) that then allowed a Google company to propose a very vague but extremely ambitious plan that would require overturning any number of local laws and rules and would completely marginalize city departments and city democratic processes,” Valverde wrote to The Varsity.

Clement believes Sidewalk Toronto offers a unique opportunity to consider policy responses to smart city proposals. However, he cautioned against approving the project as it stands, noting that there has not been enough information or time to adequately debate Sidewalk Labs’ sweeping plans.

Shauna Brail, Associate Professor, Urban Studies Program and Associate Director, Partnerships & Outreach at the School of Cities, wrote to The Varsity that the proposal will most likely shift as it moves forward. “We’ve seen over the past 18 months that the plan is subject to change and will most certainly continue to change if it makes its way through the approval process.”

Ongoing criticisms of Sidewalk Toronto are its data collection processes and subsequent privacy implications. Clement reflected these concerns around privacy, noting the consequences of “a multitude of sensors capable of fine grained surveillance of individual behaviour.”

Alongside questions about data collection, Brail also highlighted concerns regarding the financial model and accessibility of the project, given that “the property is predominantly publicly owned, thus resulting in heightened public expectations.”

Valverde echoed these privacy concerns, while adding that there are issues with the urban development process of Sidewalk Toronto. “There are basic issues of democratic control over urban development, or rather the lack of it. Waterfront Toronto is not a democratic organization. It has no mechanism to be accountable to citizens,” she wrote.

Brail noted that some U of T researchers, faculty, and students are already benefiting from the Sidewalk Labs project through various consultation and scholarship opportunities. “If the proposal moves forward, there are likely to be additional opportunities, for instance in prototyping, experiential learning, and continued research and evaluation,” she wrote.

Civil and Mineral Engineering Assistant Professor Shoshanna Saxe — who has also written about the Sidewalk Labs project in The New York Times — wrote to The Varsity that the university can broadly benefit from studying Toronto as a “living lab.”

While acknowledging that Sidewalk Toronto could theoretically provide employment opportunities for researchers, Valverde put forward that “there has been little emphasis on hiring locally or using local tech companies, and we know that Google does buy tech inventions from all over, including Toronto, but the profits all go to the US, as does the intellectual property.”

Meanwhile, Rotman School of Management Professor and School of Cities Scholar in Residence Richard Florida is a vocal proponent of the Sidewalk Labs project. In an opinion piece for The Globe and Mail, Florida argued that Sidewalk Toronto demonstrates Canada’s potential in the high-tech development sector.

Disclaimer: Kaitlyn Simpson previously served as Volume 138 Features Editor and Volume 139 Managing Online Editor of The Varsity, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of Varsity Publications Inc.