Smart Cities and Privatisation — Part I: The Case of Sidewalk Labs, Toronto’s Waterfront

This article is the first in a two-part series called Smart Cities and Privatisation that explores the challenges and risks associated with letting the private sector drive the next wave in city development. The series explores two case studies, the first being the well-known case of Toronto’s waterfront, led by Google’s affiliate, Sidewalk Labs, which faced multiple challenges through its brief lifespan before Sidewalk Labs withdrew their partnership with the City of Toronto in May 2020. The sequel to this article will explore the“city development corporation”, an increasingly adopted model being used to support smart city development driven by a local private corporation in Thailand. Together, these two cases will show very different political and economic realities in urban development, each with relevant concerns and lessons for readers to learn from.

What is Sidewalk Labs — Toronto’s Waterfront project?

In 2017, Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation affiliate of Google’s mother company Alphabet, began working with the City of Toronto as a partner in Toronto’s waterfront revitalization project. The project quickly became famous in the global smart cities movement due to it being a first-of-its-kind“new city” developed by a tech giant like Google. This new dimension brought by Sidewalk Labs underlines the increasingly growing concern in conventional urban planning practice of data privacy and use, and what happens when a company in the tech industry, is the main actor, or even initiator in urban development. brought us to the new dimension and underlines the concerns in conventional urban planning practice.

The official development proposal by Sidewalk Labs, the Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP), was released in June 2019, two years after the agreement with Toronto began. The agreement between Google’s affiliate and the City of Toronto was for an area of 12 acres (0.49 km2), though it is believed that Sidewalk Labs were expecting a much larger area for development subsequent to this plan. The partnership involved partners with academic, public, and private institutions, with a proposed shared benefit among all collaborators. The proposal contained a series of built environment plans, innovations, and policies towards a more inclusive and sustainable city. It included LRT (Light Rail Transit), creative working facilities, public space, housing, mass timber structures, and more, all incorporating major components of data collection.

The project had ambitious goals, aiming to cut 89% of emissions, provide 40% of housing at a more affordable rate, support 75% of mobility by foot, cycle and public transit, with a 91% increase of pedestrian space. It also planned to add 44,000 more jobs, 2,500 of which were in the manufacturing industry. Sidewalk Labs’ estimated Toronto’s Waterfront would create a $14.2 billions economic output by 2040.

What went wrong?

Why did this plan for an advanced, futuristic city come to an early demise? In reality, Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP stumbled from the outset. Resistances to Toronto waterfront development by Sidewalk Labs came from all sides. #BlockSidewalk, Toronto’s citizens’ resistance, criticism from the media, and the government partner itself, Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP). Of course, Sidewalk Labs could have brought an exciting new economy, jobs, and innovations for Toronto. But, many felt it would have been at the expense of Torontonians and the city, who would need to compromise their assets to meet the needs of a private corporation. Fears abounded that silence against the unchecked privatisation could cost Toronto’s citizens their privacy and liberty.

The most problematic issue of Sidewalk Labs’ proposal is the Urban Data Trust, an attempt to propose special data regulation. Urban Data Trust attempted to redefine data rights and governance on their Toronto’s Waterfront site, specifically, data that would have been collected by installed sensors in public places or certain private areas such as thermostat data. These data were proposed to be excluded from the consensus program. It tends to treat everyone within Sidewalk Labs’ project premise as its user. This issue was overwhelmingly criticized by many critics and citizens. For Instance, the founder of Blackberry, Jim Basille, defined it as a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism. Forbes’ Tonar and Talton article criticized MIDP as a “democracy grenade”. Also, DSAP, an official government partner itself, had expressed their concern for privacy and liberty of Toronto citizens if the MIDP Urban Data Trust proposal was to be implemented.

Secondly, the development process towards the draft MIDP proposal had disregarded citizen participation and collaboration with government partnership. This issue was highlighted by the DSAP who had highly doubted that the plan was people-centric and it was also lack of inclusivity unlike what had been advertised as strength. As well as Google’s affiliate had not been well to collaborate with the committee as promised. Several critics also criticized the plan for seeming to favour towards the tech industry more than Toronto’s citizens.

Lastly, citizens of Toronto are in doubt of Sidewalk Labs’ ambition. Prior to the MIDP draft being released, Sidewalk Labs’s agenda to acquire a consecutive project on Toronto’s Waterfront using the first phase as leverage was revealed. They were eyed on a 16 times larger size of land for the sequential phase development. The plot is equal to the size of downtown Toronto. It had led to the beginning of #Blocksidewalk, the first organized citizen resistance against the Sidewalk Labs project.

These issues of disregard of participatory and collaboration, data rights, and the hidden agenda towards relatively enormous land were worried many who foresee that the project would have led to high influence power of private conglomerate, Alphabet, over Toronto’s governance and citizens everyday life. It will be a neoliberalism model of corporate autonomy that undermines democracy and welfare.

Lessons Learned

In Toronto’s Waterfront case, it is rather obvious that Google’s affiliate had been lacking involvement from citizens and their official partner, the DSAP. A collaboration with the local stakeholders is critical in the modern planning process, especially for such an unconventional controversial demand to reform the data rights. On another hand, the collaboration between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs could have been more firm and clear in their agreement.

The more collaborative approach between two parties could have resolved the conflict of interest before the plan was revealed and caused the public uproar. A regulatory framework could be used to elaborate on demands and limitations. Undeniably, that the data rights issue is complicated, especially when considering it in the context of urbanism. Moreover, there is limited knowledge and experience to handle massive amounts and different kinds of data that have been harvested from urban areas ethically. But through collaboration and firm agreement on the framework, the outcome could be more thorough and considerate of its pros and cons before it was made public.

The Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto project became the case of defiance towards smart city development. It would not be the last argument whether the city should allow the advance infrastructure and services over citizen rights or not. And it is equally a case of public interests against privatisation as much as smart cities. The aversion to Sidewalk Labs’ is not just a collective power against the development, Not In My Backyard likes, but how Torontonians cherish their rights to the city, and their awareness of their rights as individuals. It is also how society and governance have established the leverage systems to protect their individual rights as a citizen of the city.

Of course, it is such a loss for a project like Sidewalk Labs’ Waterfront Toronto to be finished before its completion. Toronto had lost its opportunity to be one of the world’s pioneers of absolute smart cities, from built environment, economy, and governance. And portray how such an absolute smart city could have enhanced livelihood especially in a democratic country. Partially because of the criticism and resistance towards the MIDP. But the city is a place for people first after all. “Smart Cities” is a buzzword and such movements might have changed the faces of urban development a lot. Nevertheless, the city is operating by the citizens, the public, and that remains unchanged.

In the next chapter, we will explore the City Development corporations in Thailand. These smart city actors, now present in many major cities, depict the act of privatisation in urban development which has become a mechanism to overcome the challenge of financing projects, stiff legal frameworks, and centralised state government.

An article by Jirapatr Jitwattanasilp



Master Innovation and Development plan, 2019 —

Blocksidewalk, 2020 —

Waterfront Toronto, 2019 — DSAP Preliminary Commentary and Questions on Sidewalk Labs’ Draft Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP),+2019.pdf?MOD=AJPERES

Tara Deschamps, 2019 — The Guardians : Google sister company agrees to scale back controversial Toronto project

Remington Tonar and Ellis Talton, 2019 — Forbes : Why Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto Plan Is Flawed

John Koetsier, 2019 — Forbes — 9 Things We Lost When Google Canceled Its Smart Cities Project In Toronto

Donovan Vincent, 2019 — The Star-
Sidewalk Labs’ urban data trust is ‘problematic,’ says Ontario privacy commissioner