The Current

Sidewalk Labs' $1.3B plan for Toronto's waterfront is bad for democracy, critic says

Sidewalk Labs' master development plan for the Toronto waterfront is out, but critics have long fretted that an Alphabet Inc.-backed entity is a recipe for a dystopian, surveilled future. Supporters say there's promise in the proposal and the future of smart cities. We hear arguments from both sides of the debate.

Company vows high-tech neighbourhood will be about governing in innovative ways

Sidewalk Labs wants to build a high-tech neighbourhood that would look something like this, with pedestrian bridges, floating barges and outdoor projection screens. (Sidewalk Labs)

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A critic of Sidewalk Labs' controversial development plan for Toronto's waterfront says her chief concern with the high-tech neighbourhood is democracy, as opposed to its data privacy policies and corporate overreach.

"At what cost and for what reason is a corporation becoming a broker between people and their governments in terms of designing how we live?" asked Bianca Wylie, the co-founder of the advocacy group Tech Reset Canada.

On Monday, Sidewalk Labs released its more than 1,500-page master plan to refresh Toronto's eastern waterfront. The company, a subsidiary of Google's parent company Alphabet Inc., has committed to funding up to $1.3 billion of the plan to transform a barren 4.8-hectare waterfront property into a residential-focused "smart city" called Quayside. The urban development will incorporate the latest concepts in building design, mobility, sustainability and inclusivity.

The issue of how data would be collected and stored, however, has been a key criticism of the project. Sidewalk Labs has recommended in recent months that an independent, government-sanctioned trust be set up to oversee data collection, while also committing not to sell personal information or use it for advertising.

Bianca Wylie, co-founder of Tech Reset Canada, says we need to ask ourselves why a corporation wants to become a broker between people and their governments. (Calvin Thomas)

But Wylie, who has long been advocating for the project's cancellation, contends that Google has a history of doing what it wants and then leaving society to figure out how to deal with the consequences. 

Just last fall, the leading internet search engine admitted to a U.S. Senate committee that it had made privacy mistakes — though it did not identify specific examples. Critics have also raised concerns that internet and technology giants, like Google, Amazon and Facebook, have become too dominant.

"So bringing that type of approach to our democracy and to our governance and putting people on the defence … why would we be shaping our future on the defensive to that kind of power?" Wylie said, speaking with The Current's guest host Megan Williams. 

She argued Sidewalk Labs wants to transpose a broken system ⁠— the internet ⁠— onto physical spaces. 

But Jesse Shapins, director of public realm at Sidewalk Labs, says the company was founded by lifelong public servants who want to make better cities for people using technology.

Jesse Shapins, director of public realm at Sidewalk Labs, is pictured in front of the company's model of the proposed Quayside neighbourhood in Toronto. Shapin says the company's 'endgame' is to showcase a different model for urban development. (John Chipman/CBC)

"In no way, shape or form is the proposal here to cede power and cede governance to a private company," he told Williams.

He pointed out that the goal of the project is to think about innovative new ways to govern, and how to build a new democratic framework that involves the public and private sectors, and civil society.

"I absolutely understand the concerns," Shapins said.

"The endgame for us as a company is in part technology. I think in many ways what we are interested in here as well is actually demonstrating a different form of development."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Kirsten Fenn, with files from CBC News and The Canadian Press. Produced by Max Paris, Karin Marley, John Chipman and Aruna Dutt.