Are we ready for 'smart' cities?

Private companies are making public policy in so-called "smart cities".

Private companies are making public policy in so-called "smart cities".

Sidewalk Labs wants to build pedestrian bridges, floating barges and outdoor projection screens in Quayside. (Sidewalk Labs)
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The Canadian federal government has a smart cities challenge currently underway. The initiative, called The Smart Cities Challenge, has awarded winning communities with millions of dollars to develop smart city initiatives that can scale to other communities.

Waterloo, Quebec City, Edmonton, Vancouver and Montreal are the finalists for the largest cash prize of $50 million.

But the most consequential smart city project is Sidewalk Toronto. Planned by Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc.—also known as Google's parent company—and governed by the tri-government agency Waterfront Toronto, Sidewalk Toronto is an ambitious plan to redevelop 12 acres of the city's waterfront into a smart neighbourhood.

That smart neighbourhood is coined as Sidewalk Toronto, or Quayside. If all goes accordingly, Sidewalk Labs should have their plan finalised by spring 2019.

While the conceptual details of a "smart city" varies and depends on a community's technological woes, the idea is universal. Smart cities make living more efficient and hassle-free. Imagine a futuristic community, one with self-driving cars, cool-looking residences with green rooftops, street lights that respond to traffic, bike shares, better waste management, and public space that you can "sign in to."

Except no utopian idea has ever arrived without controversy.

On Dec. 6, one day after the Ontario Auditor General Report warned against Sidewalk Toronto's plans, news broke that the Ontario government fired the chair of Waterfront Toronto and two other board members. 

Nabeel Ahmed, a Toronto-based tech consultant and smart cities researcher, has been following the developments of Sidewalk Toronto and attending public advisory meetings. He wrote a detailed report about it for the Centre for Free Expression.
Nabeel Ahmed is a Toronto-based smart cities and urban development researcher. (Nabeel Ahmed)

Ahmed explained how other Canadian communities can learn from Toronto's smart city project to Spark host Nora Young. 

How would you characterize what the points of controversy have been thus far?

Sidewalk Labs is a subsidiary of Alphabet, which is also a sister company to Google. I think as soon as people learn about [Google's involvement], knowing Google's track record of privacy or lack of track record of privacy, [people] have been thinking about what does this mean, how is our data going to be collected, is it going to be monetized, is my privacy going to be on sale? But really, I think over the last year we realized that this is not just about privacy.

This is about many, many more things. It's about when we do urban planning, when we think about building the city, are public institutions leading that? Or are we contracting that out? So it's about urban development, it's about real estate, it's about governance. I think there are certainly a lot of concerns around data governance, because this is a brave new world. But there are also a number of concerns around this public engagement process, which is unprecedented.

Over the last year, we realized that this is not just about privacy. It's about urban development, it's about real estate, it's about governance.- Nabeel Ahmed

A lot of urban planning is: the developer will propose something, and then there will be one public meeting, and then it will go to the city council and they'll make a decision. In this case, they've budgeted millions of dollars in public engagement. There's a lot of it, which is great, but I almost feel sometimes (and I think others have also felt this way) that it's hard to know how much of it is public engagement, and how much of it is public relations. How much of it is marketing, and how much of that is about making people feel comfortable, which big tech companies like Uber and Facebook and Airbnb and Google are really good at.

In part, this is about Toronto, but in part this is about many cities across Canada and all over the world. There are a lot of big issues here. We can talk about public digital infrastructure, data collection, data ownership, intellectual property, privacy. So, how should we be approaching these issues as a project like this is developed?

What is it that we want to get out of this? What is it that we want as a city? What are our fundamental challenges?

We know that affordable housing and transit are huge challenges in Toronto right now. Are those challenges that we are facing because we haven't used technology well enough? Are those challenges that will be solved by using better technology? I don't think anyone is naïve enough to believe that. I think we know that there is a fundamental lack of supply of affordable housing. No amount of computers will build 5,000 affordable rental apartments.

So, I think it's important to be very transparent about what is it that we need and what is it that technology and smart cities can provide. I'm a huge advocate of smart cities. I spent the last two years researching smart cities. I think there is a really important role that technology can and should and must play in government, in public service. But, I think it's important to not get caught up in the hype around what all this means. I think we begin by asking what is it that we need? What is it that we can do? And then try to draw on the connections.

No amount of computers will build 5,000 affordable rental apartments.-Nabeel Ahmed

Are there examples of smart cities or smart communities that you've come across in other parts of the world that you think are presenting good examples?

I'm really interested in seeing what's happening in Barcelona, for example. The city has said, "These are our rules, this is how you play by them, and this is how we're going to proceed over the next few years." I think that's an example that's worth looking at. Amsterdam is the same, and recently Amsterdam and Barcelona signed or announced to Cities for Digital Rights Coalition. They've been very clear about owning the narrative and owning what their first principles are.

Are you optimistic about the Smart Cities Challenge, and that there may be a lot of really good ideas that come out of this process?

I'm cautiously optimistic. I think it's a really interesting process that we're seeing. I think it has to be carefully regulated. I think this is a journey that we're on and we'll be on this journey for the next decade. We could veer off track at any moment. The answer is let's do it carefully.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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