Toronto’s Quayside: too smart for comfort?

The development of Quayside, a 12-acre chunk of brownfield land on the edge of Toronto’s downtown, is a perfect example of how information technology is shaping cities’ governance. Last year, I paid attention to the role of Sidewalk Labs (a sister company of Google) in this project. I was pleased by the progressive urbanism and the extensive process of citizen involvement. Still, I had my doubts about Google’s interests (now I know!). Daniel Doctorow, the CEO of Sidewalk Lab’s eased my mind a little when he stated that this company is eager to proof that the realization of people-centered urban design comes first: I expect very little of the value we create is about technology.

As it turns out, I have been too gullible. But let’s start at the beginning.

In March 2017, Waterfront Toronto, a public-owned development company, launched a request for proposals to be submitted by an “innovation and funding partner” to help the waterfront area of Toronto transform into a “sustainable mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood”.  Sidewalk Labs submitted a 200-page response, including a project vision laying out ‘a new type of place’ in tempting detail: modular, dynamic wooden carbon-negative buildings that could easily be adapted to new uses, affordable housing, subterranean utility channels, outdoor spaces for walking and biking, designed to minimize the impacts of bad weather. Public transport and self-driving cars instead of private cars take care of transportation. Toronto’s citizens would be involved in a year-long initial joint planning process with live-streamed talks, roundtables, workshops and a summer camp for kids.

Sidewalk Labs made no effort to hide that its interest went beyond the Quayside area and included the entire 800-acre Eastern Waterfront. The company also announced reimagining of the area “from the Internet up”, deploying “ubiquitous sensing”. Waterfront Toronto believed that they had found a partner that would not only bring money, but also was capable of building a purposefully designed smart city and of collecting the data needed to fuel smart city processes. Examples of this include:

  • Smart metering to optimize energy production and use;
  • “Next gen” real time transit displays incorporating available capacity and travel time estimates;
  • Sensors to measure traffic, transit, emissions and/or pedestrian flows and generate real-time data in order to measure and test the impact of various initiatives;
  • A sensor-based automated waste-collection system;
  • Smart water fixtures and submetering and
  • A digital platform/app to promote activity, healthy eating, relaxation and connection to the environment.

In this sense, data collection didn’t seem problematic, even more so because Sidewalk Labs sympathized with the principle of ‘privacy by default’. This means that people don’t have to ask for privacy, it is provided automatically. As a consequence, data collection would never result in personalized profiles of inhabitants.

When Ann Cavoukian, who served for 16 years as the Ontario information-and-privacy commissioner, became advisor of the Waterfront Toronto Board, feelings of doubt relaxed, although many wondered how Sideway Labs (read Google) planned to make its money.

Ann Cavoukian – Photo: Ryerson University

Data collection

At the same time, anger and protest against the data-collection practices of technological giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon was skyrocketing in Europe, the US, and Canada. Facebook and Google are incriminated of violating privacy laws and are facing fines of billions of euro’s in both Europe and the US.

Google’s database consists of personalized profiles of hundreds of million people, their actual location and financial position included.  The company earns an awful lot of money by selling data to many thousands of marketers at any place at earth. These data enables them to approach potential future clients directly with attractive proposals to fulfil latent material or spiritual needs. Details went public by inside stories of former employees. These stories reveal the refinement of marketers’ influence over our thoughts and behavior, thanks to these data.

A scientific report by Douglas C. Schmidt, professor of Computer Science at Vanderbilt University, reveals which data Google collects and how this data is collected. Users of Android and Chrome in particular are the richest targets, even when they do not actively use their phone. The chart below shows the information Google collected from one specific person during one day. Following the publication of the report, Google did not comment upon its content, but questioned the credibility of its author: “This report is […] written by a witness for Oracle in their ongoing copyright litigation with Google. So, it’s no surprise that it contains wildly misleading information.” Prof. Schmidt replied that he was invited as an expert witness in the Oracle vs. Google ‘Fair Use Copyright’ trial more than two years ago.

Personal data of an Android phone user collected by Google during one day. The gray pings represent among others location data while the phone was not used actively. Chart:  Pamela Saxon (Vanderbilt University).

Ann Cavoukian too was shocked by the extend of data mining practices by Google in particular. These revelations put the deeper meaning of “ubiquitous sensing” and “a city built from the Internet up” in a new light. “Once people’s interests and comings and goings are [tracked], it would be a nightmare,” she said. In her capacity as an adviser of the Board, Cavoukian asked for a unilateral ban on personal-data collection, a promise that Sidewalk Labs said not to be able to make, after which she left her position, followed by a number of other advisers.

Blayne Haggert – Photo Brock University

In a personal communication, my Canadian colleague Blayne Haggart put the pieces of Google’s involvement together[1]. Sidewalk Labs wanted to construct a ‘digital layer’ over Quayside, containing a robust set of APIs (application programming interfaces) that provide a canvass for developers to build applications into the community. The larger the quantity and diversity of the data gained from residents and visitors, the better Sidewalk Labs shall succeed in involving third parties to monetize these data. This intention, which is aligned with the core business of Google, never has been made explicit, but certainly explains why Sidewalk Labs couldn’t distance themselves from the collection of personalized data. Moreover, Sidewalk Labs’ ambition is enabling sister companies like Waymo to play an important role in the waterfront area of Toronto.

Google’s eagerness to be involved in smart city development is not purely motivated  by affinity with progressive urbanism nor by the creation of smart city gadgets like adaptive lighting, underground utility channels or carbon-negative houses. Instead, its interest is “ubiquitous sensing” of city life in order to expand its already massive collection of personalized profiles with real-time geotagged knowledge of where people are, what they are wishing or doing, in order to provide them with information that can make the difference.

If Sidewalk Labs had been nothing else than an urban project developer with the ambition to build a smart city supported by a dedicated sensor-network, the company did a good job. It would have received a fair fee for these activities and its further involvement in the development of Waterfront Toronto. But this is not the reason why Alphabet (read Google) has created Sidewalk Labs.


The first lesson cities can learn from Quayside is the necessity to have set data-governance expertise, practice, and rules as it comes to the formulation of requests for proposals by commercial parties.  City government must unambiguously be in charge of prescribing how data will be collected, used and governed. In my view, both the Toronto Waterfront board and Toronto city council are not.

The second lesson is that any request for proposal of urban development must be rooted in a firm vision of the quality of life to be created for citizens, considering sensing and data always as a means to this end. Nothing less, nothing more.

[1] Blayne Haggard & Zachary Spicer: Infrastructure, Smart Cities and the Knowledge Economy

Paper prepared for the Making the smart city safe for citizens conference, Open University of the Netherlands in Heerlen and Business Intelligence & Smart Services (BISS) Institute, November 28-29, 2018.

*) Header: Quayside; the area between the express road and the Lake Ontario. Photo: Sidewalk labs
**) This article was brought to you by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.


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