What have we learned from the Sidewalk Labs saga? Smart city plans in Toronto

Posted February 23, 2021
By Mariana Valverde

What lessons have been learned for Canadian smart-city governance from the long-running Sidewalk Labs saga? 

People who remember life before COVID will recall that Sidewalk Labs was the New York-based, Google-affiliated company that in 2017 offered Waterfront Toronto a ‘smart city’ in a box for a small waterfront area, Quayside. Over time, many locals raised questions about what exactly was in the box. Few satisfying answers were forthcoming, as we documented in our collection Smart Cities in Canada: Digital Dreams, Corporate Designs

After the company’s May 2020 decision to leave town, city officials should have learned to be suspicious of tech companies, especially US tech companies, bearing ‘smart city’ solutions that may save the city money and/or prove useful to individuals but do not address the the city’s priority problems.

Maybe some people have learned the lessons, but whether those have much power remains to be seen. There are signs that in respect to digital policies the city of Toronto may be developing a split personality.

Toronto city council is now contemplating two initiatives that if adopted will be of a great and undisclosed financial benefit to the telecoms and software companies whose profits have been soaring during the pandemic. Citizens need to know much more.

One initiative would provide cheap (but not free) internet access in areas of the city called “underserved” in the city’s report – “underserved” meaning not that Bell does not have cables but rather ‘too poor to afford the extortionate rates charged by big telecoms’. Mayor John Tory (ex-CEO of Rogers, by the way) suggested during council’s executive committee January 27 meeting that the city could offer its “assets” to a company that would then instal a network. 

That project comes out of a unit at City Hall called “connected communities”, which has already done some small-scale projects designed to further what they call “digital equity” and has a community advisory board on which sits a noted critic of Waterfront Toronto’s deal with Sidewalk Labs, Bianca Wylie. This unit worked to provide free wifi in city-owned Long Term Care homes during the first wave of the pandemic. The unit is also charged with developing a data policy for the city, though thus far the public only has seen a few motherhood-style principles, not a draft of a real policy.

In respect to the ‘cheap internet’ digital equity plan, one can ask: if the telecom uses public property to support the cables, as suggested by Mayor Tory’s comments, why should internet access not be free? And why should it not cover more than the three neighbourhoods outlined in the plan? Torontonians using food banks do not all live in Jane-Finch, Malvern, and the Golden Mile, the only three neighbourhoods mentioned in the “ConnectTO” program description.

The well-meaning folks in the “connected communities” unit are trying their best to reach deals that provide some public benefits, especially in low-income areas. But what does not seem to be in the cards –and in this the city of Toronto is hardly alone—is contemplating a publicly owned internet-access infrastructure. The city could have built a publicly owned fibre network years ago, with infrastructure it owned through Toronto Hydro – but it sold 400 km of cable to private telecom Cogeco, in 2008, for the low sum of $200m. In retrospect that has proven to be as short-sighted as the federal government’s sale of the world-class vaccine facility Connaught Labs to a big French pharma company.

Another current ‘smart city’ venture is Toronto’s impending contract with a US company, PayIt, whose main clients so far are Kansas City and the state of Kansas. This is not coming out of the city’s “connected communities” unit. The city apparatus has often segregated progressive, equity strategies in certain units while business- and real-estate oriented units went their merry way, and we might be seeing a similar split in smart-city projects.

PayIt promises a system (embodied in a ‘digital wallet’) unifying payments to the city, from property taxes to parking. 

Followers of the Sidewalk Labs saga would know about the huge data-mining potential of an app whose use would create many otherwise unobtainable very large data sets. Your name; your address; your real property ownership; whether you pay your taxes and municipal fees on time; your car’s licence plate; the name of your business and its address; what devices you use to pay your bills… An amazing gold mine for data extractivism.

The city could force PayIt to share its data with the city, as it has done with the Uber platform. But unfortunately for the public interest, data is not like money. If a company shares data with the city, the company can still use all the data, either to improve its own market share or to sell it to data brokers who then sell it for artificial-intelligence purposes.

Having long given up on publicly owned fibre optic cable, Toronto and most other cities have to do deals with tech companies. But we should be more careful. Citizens and most city councillors need to learn from the past, and worry about what data disasters might pop out of the carefully wrapped gift boxes that tech companies, especially PayIt, are bringing to city hall.