Many articles have appeared in mainstream media and in techoriented venues about Sidewalk Labs’ ideas for a new hightech neighbourhood in Toronto (a project named Sidewalk Toronto). By and large, international commentary has focused on the opportunities and risks of giving over control over many city planning decisions to a private data-oriented corporation, with people lining up for or against “smart city” ideas, in general.
This article will set aside generalities about “smart cities” and technology, and instead pose a few questions about the particulars of Sidewalk Toronto project. The first question concerns the striking lack of transparency of the agreement between Sidewalk Labs (a Google sister company) and Waterfront Toronto, the public authority promoting the project, which is not directly accountable to the city or the citizens. The second question concerns the equally striking ambiguity about which parcel of land is being sought by Sidewalk Labs — an ambiguity that suggests a worrying lack of concern, on the tech company’s part, about both local planning law and local real estate realities. The third set of concerns is about the ownership of the data that appears to be Sidewalk Labs’ real interest. Fourthly, problems in the contract award and procurement mechanisms will be raised. Finally, even though the agreement has not yet been seen even by city council, the process so far and the statements by both parties raise serious concerns about accountability, the fifth point raised in this article.