Google Gets “Smart” in Toronto

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A division of Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, has proposed a “smart city” in Toronto that it says will create thousands of jobs and decrease greenhouse-gas emissions. However, the project has met resistance from the project’s government sponsor, The Wall Street Journal reports. Alphabet’s city-building unit, Sidewalk Labs, LLC won its bid in 2017 to build a sustainable neighborhood on Toronto’s waterfront and unveiled its initial plans on June 24.

The project was initially dubbed a neighborhood that was built, “from the Internet up” and calls for using sensors in traffic lights and garbage bins to track residents and respond to their needs. Sidewalk recently proposed using buildings made of wood in order to decrease construction-based emissions, sidewalks that expand to make more room for pedestrians after rush hour as well as a thermal grid that uses sewers, factories and server farms to provide heating.

Sidewalk stated it could invest as much as $1.06 billion (U.S.) to build the neighborhood, create an innovation institute and venture capital fund that supports local startups, fund a timber factory outside of Toronto and finance the city’s light-rail transit expansion, according to The Wall Street Journal. The company believes it could generate 44,000 jobs in the area and build 35,000 housing units—40% of which would be below market rates if all of its plans materialize.

Sidewalk’s government sponsor, who has to approve the proposal, was resistant to the initial details however. The plans exceed the scope of the project that government organizations proposed, according to Steve Diamond, the Chairman of Waterfront Toronto, a government organization that picked Sidewalk as a partner for this project.

“There are proposals where it is clear that Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs have very different perspectives about what is required for success,” he said.

Diamond said Sidewalk’s bid was limited to a 12-acre panel of land on the waterfront named Quayside, according to The Wall Street Journal. The company also got ahead of itself when it proposed Toronto look further than that small area to build a 190-acre district that incorporated ideas developed into the smaller section, according to Diamond. He also questioned Sidewalk’s demands that the city expand its transit network in order to make the project viable.

“They are also not commitments that Waterfront Toronto can make,” he said.

Meanwhile, Dan Doctoroff, Sidewalk’s Chairman and CEO, said he wasn’t surprised by Waterfront Toronto’s concerns. “It would be ridiculous to assume every issue would be resolved,” he said in an interview. “They have questions and concerns and I think that’s entirely appropriate in their role providing oversight.”

The next step is for Waterfront Toronto to consult with the pubic and government authorities and negotiate the details with Sidewalk. Both Waterfront and Alphabet’s boards must approve the plan before moving forward, which could happen as early as next year.

When the project was announced in 2017, local residents expressed concerns about how the company would handle data, given its ties to Google’s parent company, according to The Wall Street Journal. Privacy watchdogs inquired about who would manage sensitive digital information as sensors would track residents. Another issue is ownership rights over any products or techniques that are developed at the site and sold in other areas.

Sidewalk addressed the privacy and intellectual property (IP) issues with a proposal to create an independent data trust that government bodies would sanction, according to The Wall Street Journal. The data trust would also oversee how sensor data is used and collected. Sidewalk also provided assurances it would not sell personal data or use it for advertising purposes. “Of course, this is a proposal that government can choose not to implement, and our commitments would remain,” a Sidewalk spokesperson said.

Other critics believe Sidewalk’s proposal has overstepped when it recommended alterations to government structures.

“It’s not their job to do this. This is supposed to be done by government,” Bianca Wiley, co-founder of Tech Reset Canada, an advocacy organization said. “Sidewalk Labs is coloring outside the lines.”

Sidewalk proposed giving 10% of its profits for 10 years from any IP developed in the neighborhood to Waterfront Toronto as well as all levels of Canadian governments. The company also stated it would move Alphabet’s Canadian headquarters to the area to serve as anchor tenant.

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