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Saving Private Toronto?

An iconic, smart city project on the Toronto waterfront is now officially dead in the water. But is the coronavirus really to blame, or was it doomed because of privacy concerns? [1-3]

Plans to transform Toronto’s waterfront area have been in the works for several years. Amongst these plans was an ambitious smart city proposal from Sidewalk Labs, an affiliate company of Alphabet (Google's owner). Dubbed Sidewalk Toronto, the initial stages of the project envisioned a number of integrated mobility, energy, and digital service innovations. Some of the core features of the development included: affordable, inclusive housing, three-quarter of all trips to be by public transit, walking or cycling, deliveries to be made to logistics hub, community solar and battery storage, and anaerobic digestion for food waste to biogas. [1, 2]

The official reason given for the project’s cancellation was the “unprecedented economic uncertainty” related to the impact of the coronavirus. However, a number of articles reporting on this have noted that the project had been delayed several times before and had been strongly opposed by certain privacy groups. These included a ‘Block Sidewalk’ public campaign, legal action, and a privacy advisor to Sidewalk Labs resigning in 2018 after condemning the project’s personal data protection approach. But the outright termination of the project was still reportedly a surprise to the Waterfront Toronto Board that is responsible for overseeing development of the area. 

One of the problems with the privacy aspect of Sidewalk Lab’s smart city concept appears to be the lack of specific detail concerning what data would be collected using what particular means. A 2019 report from Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel described the data aspects of the smart city proposal as “frustratingly abstract”[3]. Another particularly controversial aspect of Sidewalk Lab’s plan was their proposal to establish an independent urban data trust. The idea was that the new regulatory body would oversee all data collected in public spaces, but this then led to concerns about whether this new body would supersede the City of Toronto’s authority and those of other existing regulators. [4]


Personal comments

We have covered a number of ambitious smart city projects in this newsletter before such as Toyota’s planned city of the future (Woven City) as well as futuristic, built-from-the-ground-up cities that are already (partially) in existence like Masdar City in Abu Dhabi and China’s Kangbashi. [5] Experience seems to suggest that when it comes to such projects, reality often falls short of the marketable renderings and technology promises. 

So, it’s interesting to see that in the case of Sidewalk Lab’s smart city project in Toronto, the key issue isn’t so much the technology itself but the privacy implications around data collection, handling, and governance. Indeed, in media reporting about the project these privacy concerns appear to have overshadowed almost all other aspects – such as the innovative energy, mobility, and waste management elements. This is a shame because we need as many ‘smart cities’ attempting to implement these ideas in the real world as possible – even if (or precisely because) they are not perfect. That said, this should be a key takeaway to all other smart city and digitalization projects out there that privacy needs to be at the core of their thinking. As it can make or break a project.  


Written by Bobby Chen, RISE.



1. 2020-05-11. Sidewalk Labs shuts down Toronto smart city project.

2. 2020-05-20. Sidewalk Toronto Homepage.

3. 2019-09-26. Sidewalk Labs’ urban data trust is ‘problematic,’ says Ontario privacy commissioner.

4. 2019-09-10. Digital experts raise data, privacy concerns in review of Sidewalk Labs project.

5. 2020-01-16. Toyota Announces Plans to Build City of the Future