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The alphabet tries to save its smart city plans in Toronto



Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet Urban Innovation Company, released a 1,524-page report Monday with details of plans to develop part of the Canadian city as a digital age modeling district.

Sidewalk Labs believes that its innovations can make city life more desirable and affordable, with less pollution, shorter commutes, better weather and environmentally friendly buildings. It aims to start with 10 buildings and 2.7 million square meters of residential and commercial space and later expand to more of Toronto's waterfront.

The project has had a setback since the announcement of October 2017. Ontario's auditor general released a critical report in December, describing a hasty process of choosing Sidewalk Labs to develop the leading waterfront real estate near the heart of Toronto. Several officials, including the head of the Waterfront Toronto, the organization leading the process, have resigned.

Critics ranging from politicians to attorneys and private citizens, have raised privacy issues about the data Sidewalk Labs will collect, saying that the company has not provided enough answers. Intersections would be designed with sensors, tracking the movement of all people and vehicles. Sidewalk Labs say this will help move traffic fast and ensure that goose signals leave extra time for slow walkers, like the elderly.

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An opposition movement is scattered, #BlockSidewalk that requires the project to be removed.

"Is this the exciting city of the future or a city-town run by a data giant? I think it is the latter," said Charlie Angus, a Canadian parliamentarian who describes himself as a restorative digital utopian. "We are talking about urban wiring with a company whose business model spies on everything we do."

The Canadian Civil Liberties Organization filed a lawsuit in the spring to halt the project and claimed that the Waterfront Toronto's deal with Sidewalk Labs is illegal and violates Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms privacy.

On Monday, Sidewalk Labs said it believes it will have the strongest urban regulation regime around the world, and that its proposals exceed existing Canadian and Ontario privacy laws. Side Doctor Lab's CEO Dan Doctoroff described it as a historical plan.

"If we want to solve these huge urban challenges, it will never do what we have done before," he said Monday. "We think you can actually produce a dramatic impact on urban life, this can be a global hub for urban innovation."

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The board and city council for Waterfront Toronto will vote as soon as winter is approved for the project. But it may turn out to be an upward battle for Sidewalk Labs. In a press release on Monday, Waterfront Toronto has raised concerns, including about Sidewalks Labs being the project's leading developer, and if the company needs to talk about expanding beyond the original development area. Waterfront Toronto also said it needed more information to know if Sidewalk's data governance complied with the law.

This summer and fall the government and Sidewalk Labs will seek public feedback and evaluate the plan. Sidewalk Labs says it has already been involved with 21,000 people at Toronto events to discuss the project.

Cybele Sack, a Toronto native and digital governor, says the existing public conversation has been at a high level and does not dig into critical editions of smart cities such as how sensor data on streets or in buildings will be used and biases by the algorithms that drive the technology. She says there is a dangerous knowledge difference between Sidewalk Labs and the public, and is concerned about the unintended consequences of new technology.

"The hard questions in smart cities are bigger than Sidewalk Labs," she said. "But if Sidewalk Labs want to be the one to build these smart cities, they should solve these problems."


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