Sidewalk Labs


Not everyone wants to reshape the way they live and work

We’ve been trying to build so-called “smart cities” for nearly 20 years, but it’s only in the last couple of months that engineers have implemented suites of upgrades that use interconnected sensors to monitor traffic, pedestrians, weather, pollution, building occupancy, and sewage. The goal is to create a more efficient city, making life easier for everyone.

Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet (the parent company of Google) is about to take civic tech to a whole new level in Toronto, testing out the first truly smart city in a 12-acre area known as Quayside, an underutilized space along Lake Ontario that is generally accepted as unattractive and in need of some attention.

Despite Torontoans’ problems with Quayside, they have some deep reservations about handing it over to Sidewalk Labs for its experiment. The project would involve driverless cars and public transportation; smart traffic lights that gather information about pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles; mail and garbage robots; elaborate underground tunnels to make deliveries more efficient; and modular buildings that can be expanded on demand as the population grows. Sensors will be able to track people, indoor temperatures, energy and water usage, and much more.

2019 will see the final proposal for the technologies to be implemented, but locals are already voicing their concerns about just how much monitoring is going on and how the project will be funded.

You can’t build a smart city without the help of a lot of third-party entities. That means people’s data will be shared with these other companies so they can build and improve their ride-sharing or delivery services, but also so they can advertise effectively to residents.

We would do well to look closely at Canadians’ reactions to the announcement of this new venture. Multiple newspapers published informational articles about the project and collected public feedback about the venture, encouraging people to think about what’s coming and give them time to ask relevant questions.

Torontoist collected the top 35 questions posed by this new technology, and it’s up to Sidewalk Labs to address these if they want public support. Questions include:

  • Who is the user that Sidewalks Labs is ultimately serving? Companies that want to learn about how people interact with physical spaces? Real estate investors? Cities?
  • How will Sidewalk Labs be held to account for any failures in meeting its goals?
  • Who will own/control/have access to the data that is captured by the sensors deployed in this project?
  • How will this project transform technological literacy, including literacy on data and the application of data, such as algorithms and machine learning? And more specifically, how will historically marginalized communities that may not yet have experience or exposure to the implications of this project participate in the public engagement process?
  • Will the way data is treated by algorithms be open?
  • Who pays when the experimental technology doesn’t work? If the project goes bankrupt, who absorbs the cost of converting those roads to being paved and safely disposing of the LEDs and infrastructure?
  • Who will be responsible to respond should project infrastructure be hacked?

It’s clear that the people of Toronto are out ahead of this project and it will only be successful with their support. It’s a powerful testament to the need for public engagement with new technologies that the rest of us would do well to emulate.


Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto website

Sidewalk Labs’ Neighborhood of the Future in Toronto Is Getting Closer (CityLab, 2018)

The City Of The Future Is A Data Collection Machine (The Atlantic, 2018)

A Smarter Smart City (MIT Technology Review, 2018)

“Terrifying If We Get It Wrong”: Sidewalk Labs Needs To Slow Its Process, Advisory Panel Experts Say (Financial Post, 2018)

“At Best Foolish, And At Worst Tyrannical”: Alphabet’s Smart City In Toronto Raises Privacy Concerns (Yahoo Finance, 2018)

Google Is Building a City of the Future in Toronto. Would Anyone Want to Live There? (Politico, 2018)

What Toronto’s Quayside Project Has Taught Us About Smart Cities And Data (City Metric, 2018)