Jordan: How much is your privacy worth to you in terms of benefits to your quality of life or even just perks? You already make this trade every single day, probably several times when you upload a photo to Facebook, you’re giving away a tiny slice, when you allow GPS access on your phone to use your food delivery apps, giving away a slightly bigger one. When you give your email address to someone for a newsletter or an online shopping discount, when you text a certain number to vote in a poll, or enter a contest you give away a little more, and you make these trades one by one, maybe you do a little cost benefit analysis before you agree to it maybe not. But you’re the one making those decisions, and in most cases you can revoke those permissions if you decide that you’d like to stop, but what if you didn’t have a choice? What if the infrastructure, the major daily life function, your electricity and water, your sidewalks and street lights, and roads was built to make your life as efficient and easy as possible, but it did so by using all the data from your daily activities to do it, and what if it was then free to do whatever it wanted with that data? And this brings us to sidewalk labs, and to the future of cities, and to the debate that cities around the world will be having roughly the next generation or so.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. John Lawrence is a senior editor at Spacing magazine, he is also the 2019 recipient of the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy specifically to study smart cities, privacy, and policy. Hi John.
John: Hi, how are you?
Jordan: Great. I’m great, thank you. First of all, for people outside of Toronto, and probably even a fair number of people inside Toronto for whom this has been a bit dense. What is the Sidewalk Labs project?
John: The Sidewalk Labs project is a big kind of redevelopment proposal that includes a lot of technology that’s gonna be proposed to be built on kind of an industrial brownfield site in the eastern part of Toronto’s waterfront. So this is areas that were used for, um warves, and warehouses, and grain silos and you know, all sorts of industrial uses for many, many years, and that’s where this is gonna land.
Jordan: When you mention that there’s a big technology component to this, what does that entail?
John: So the technology has got lots of elements to it. So there are some that have to do with creating a smart grid, so, uh, you know, kind of a renewable energy component in this district. There are elements that will track, you know, the movement of people in goods and vehicles through the streets, in the area. They are gonna be sensors deployed throughout this neighborhood, it’s called Key Side. These will do all sorts of things, they can detect air quality, they can detect, you know, people moving across this signalized intersection, they could you know, detect people who are in a public space and so on, and so the idea, according to sidewalk labs, is not to identify people individually but to, you know, to track the volumes of people moving through space, and to use that data to, you know create some kind of apps or algorithms that assist in the deployment of infrastructure and the management of infrastructure. So, for example, they talk about having flexible streets since the streets that sometimes a day, there may be a lot of pedestrians and relatively few vehicles, and so the streets can be configured dynamically to adjust the space available for pedestrians, and space available for vehicles, it’s that kind of thing. What sidewalk has talked about is building a neighborhood from the internet up, so what they’re talking about is is gathering a lot of real time data from sensors and sort of using that in different ways.
Jordan: Who’s behind sidewalk labs?
John: So sidewalk labs is a joint venture, so it’s a subsidiary of Alphabet, which is the holding company that owns Google. It’s a sort of a two headed beast, so part of the sidewalk team are Silicon Valley people, they’re tech guys and women from you know, San Francisco, the Bay Area, and then part of it are a group of people who are from New York City, who are connected to Dan doctor office to be the deputy mayor of the City of New York, and so they have a lot of municipal and real estate experience.
Jordan: So why Toronto then, if it’s a meeting of Silicon Valley in New York City?
John: My understanding is that the Sidewalk Labs, when it was set up, and this was an idea that Larry Page, who’s a co founder of Google, had in kind of creating a smart city. They were looking for a big canvas on which to try a bunch of different things, so they looked in different places, I mean, they looked in some parts of the United States and then this opportunity came up kind of independently because Waterfront Toronto, which is a development corporation that’s owned by the three orders of government and cut and manages development in Toronto’s waterfront, was looking for a partner to kind of create this innovation district in the eastern part of the waterfront and these two things coincided in, you know, early 2015 through a request for proposals process, and that’s how we got sidewalk in Toronto.
Jordan: What does a smart city, I guess, according to the report, feel like to live in. Like if I’m somebody that already; So I already live in a condo in Downtown Toronto, I walk around a modern metropolis every day. What would be the biggest change to my daily life if I moved to sidewalk labs?
John: So smart city technology is a very big bucket, it’s got lots of things in it. It can go anything from sort of predictive policing technology, which is about using, you know, crime statistics to anticipate where crimes are gonna occur to you know, more efficient traffic lights, right? The traffic lights are dynamic, and they adjust with traffic patterns, and so there are lots of elements to what smart city technologies are. So I think experientially most people would experience them through traffic management and this will become more pronounced when you know, as we get further into the automated vehicle space, where you know, where the interplay between these AV’s, and traffic signals, and, you know, transit vehicles, and all of that becomes much more important, right? And so the idea is that there will be these systems behind the movement of these different entities through our roads, and that they will be coordinated in some way or optimized in some way. So that’s the main application, that’s public facing and then there are all sorts of, you know, administrative applications that have to do with the efficiency of the, you know, bureaucracies and so on. But it’s a; you know, there are a wide range of technologies that are envisioned.
Jordan: So tell me about what happened last month? Because I understand last month we finally heard sort of the guts of this thing.
John: Very briefly the run up to it is that in October 2017, Waterfront Toronto identified sidewalk as being the preferred bidder of three bidders to do this big innovation plan and then over the past two years, there’s been a lot of consultation, and debate and so on that led up to the release last month, as you mentioned, of what they call the master innovation and development plan. So for people outside of Toronto who haven’t seen this thing, this is a 1524 page report, it’s four volumes, I got a paper copy and carried it home. It weighs 14 pounds, and I really regretted carrying at home, and it’s got a lot of detail, and so this is the sidewalk labs plan for this area, and it’s extremely complex. It’s got lots of moving parts to it, some of them have to do with creating buildings and creating public spaces, and some of them have to do with creating the conditions that allow this innovation district and all of this technology to kind of get routed.
Jordan: What’s the first thing you thought when you got that gigantic volume?
John: You know without being trite, it is actually difficult to digest, and it’s a very big document. So I’m a reporter, I’ve been a reporter for a long time. I’m used to getting; I’m used to reading reports that have lots of elements to it. They often have, like an executive summary and a list of recommendations, and things that kind of makes it easy to get your hands around, and this one was….. It’s very much a marketing document, it’s got beautiful visuals, it’s a very well designed thing, but it is very expansive, and it has a lot of elements to it. If you talk to anybody who’s involved in this discussion at the moment including members of the public, who are, you know, going to these consultations sessions, it’s about understanding what it is that they’re trying to propose.
Jordan: When you started looking through it, did anything stand out to you? Because you sort of gave us a broad stroke of, these are the kind of things that a small, smart city could do. What stood out to you when you dug into the meat of it? About either how that would be achieved, or other things that kind of made their way in there through the planning process?
John: What I wrote about immediately after the report was released was some of the ideas they have about governance. To really radically oversimplify I’ve begun to think about what they want to do as a kind of a slice of Swiss cheese. So if the cheese is the city, and what they want to do is create these holes in which there will be different types of governance, and governance of the way public spaces are managed, the way traffic and transportation is managed, the way energy is managed. So what Sidewalk Labs is doing besides all of the technology, and all of the built form stuff is they’re saying, we need different ways of regulating and managing this area that we’re building, and ways that are quite different from the way the City of Toronto, as a municipal entity, manages public space and roads, and so on and so forth, and so that’s the hole in the Swiss cheese.
Jordan: How do they propose to do that?
John: Well they have lots of different ideas, there’s a whole appendix which I wrote about, which has sort of a list of, you know, different types of organizations or, you know, agencies that they want to create that handle the various aspects of what they’re proposing.
Jordan: Who would those agencies report to?
John: Well some of them will be reporting to Waterfront Toronto, some of them would be sort of self governing entities. So it’s a little bit unclear at the moment, and these are; So I think that what Sidewalk Labs does, they want to project innovation in built form, innovation in technology but they’re also talking about innovation in regulation. So at 40,000 feet, this is like a great idea, right? Cause everybody who’s dealt with City Hall in any city, in any big city knows that you know; the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing and that there is, like, an abundance of rules that don’t make any sense.
Jordan: The City Hall that I know right now in Toronto is probably not capable of effectively governing the next level of technological city.
John: Yeah, so having a dynamic kind of public sector is important, but at the same time, you have to be careful about creating structures that aren’t just beholden to this one gigantic company. And you know, everybody knows how big Google is. If you look at alphabets financial statements, alphabet has $100,000,000,000 of cash on hand that’s not doing anything. And so it’s a very, very large corporation with lots of money to spend, and so these are the things that we have to be concerned about is creating a kind of a set of public agencies that sort of in the backs of their minds know that they know who the boss is.
Jordan: At least when I’m dealing with City Hall or thinking about City Hall, I know they’re supposed to have my best interests at heart as a citizen. What concerns are there if there are any that won’t be true with this new government style.
John: Well what governments have to do is they have to broker interests, right? They have to some kind of consensus between different interests. The concern here is that the regulation and the management of this area will be done in a way that advances sidewalk labs, corporate interests. Sidewalk clubs is a private company, eventually they want to make money. The way they’re gonna make money is they’re going to sell the technology that they develop here to cities all over the world because, you know, there’s a smart city industry, its vast, it’s hundreds of billions of dollars a year, and they’re trying to get into that space, you know, and they’re quite upfront about seeing this part of Toronto is a lab. It’s right in the name of the company as a sort of a testing space. But regulating, you know, the things that go on, and the way the technology is used in that environment could be quite different than you know, what a traditional municipality does, because there is another goal in mind besides just the brokering of interests within a given city.
Jordan: And who takes the lead if there’s a conflict between what’s in the best interests of people living in the sidewalk labs experiment and sidewalk labs itself, if there’s a conflict between the smart city and the regular city?
John: Well, this is a huge question mark. I mean, it’s not something that I can answer because this is….
Jordan: They don’t spell it out in the report.
John: No and they’ve; This big report, this 1500 page report is essentially a series of you know, it’s a series of recommendations that the city and Waterfront Toronto will evaluate, and some of them they’ll say yes to, and some of them they’ll say no to. So we don’t know exactly what the cake is gonna taste like when it’s baked but these are very important because they get at this whole question about, you know, how does this neighborhood function relative to the rest? And, you know, to put it more bluntly, you know, are there one set of rules for the things that happen in that neighborhood, and a different set of rules for everywhere else? And if there’s that difference, why does that difference exist? And who benefits from that difference? And who, you know who’s harmed by that difference? So these are meaningful questions in the context of the city.
Jordan: So um…. I guess with the public and even on council, and maybe even in the media, how has this report been received? They’re hot debate over it, I assume.
John: So this is a live question. There are, you know, there are critics of this whole plan they’ve been, you know, there were critics who were out there before the plan was released. There are proponents the plan, you know, people; There are a lot of people in the tech industry who were very supportive, there were a group of sort of well connected Torontonians who released the letter that said, you know, let’s go for this it’s a good opportunity, and then right now, over the next several months there are gonna be public consultations, you know getting Torontonians to weigh in. You know, what should we think about a neighborhood where your information, your presence in the neighborhood will be captured and recorded in some ways that, you know, you may understand and you may not. So you know, how do people feel about that? How do people feel about creating buildings that are tall timber buildings that are super energy efficient? So there are, you know, there are lots of different answers, some of them are positive and some of them are negative and so we’re gonna learn that over the next several months.
Jordan: How far are we away from a final decision one way or another?
John: A ways away, because, and this goes back to your original question about the complexity of the thing. So Waterfront Toronto about a week after the Sidewalk Labs released its report, released an 88 page note to reader, which is an extensive sort of annotation of the report. Even that’s complicated to read, right? So there’s a lot of evaluation that’s going to take place, and I don’t expect to have a decision on this. You know in under a year.
Jordan: How has the PR battle been fought? Both, I guess by alphabet and people affiliated with it and by privacy advocates?
John: Well, it’s a pretty hot battle, right? So there’s a lot of investment in PR on the sidewalk part right?
Jordan: But what does that look like?
John: So it looks, it takes various forms. I mean, you know, everything from, you know, a lot of glitz in the way they present themselves to the public. There’s, you know, they’ve sought out emissaries in the city and have got people to sort of, you know, promote them or work for them or consult for them in some sort of way. So they’re you know, they’re creating sort of a group of friends, and supporters, and advocates within Toronto, and on the other side I mean, there are people who are very critical about, especially about the privacy issues and the price, and, you know, but the issues about recording people’s presence in public space and what that entails, and so that group is sort of consolidated into a block sidewalk movement. There’s a lawsuit that was launched by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, I think they got ahead of themselves because they said that the proposal was sort of a violation of constitutional rights, but they launched it before the proposal was out, and anyway that’s out there, so it’s a hot battle.
Jordan: Who ultimately decides this, a council vote?
John: The proposal was sought by Watefront Toronto, and Waterfront Toronto’s board will ultimately make the decision, but….
Jordan: Who are they?
John: Waterfront Toronto is owned by the three orders of governments, so the city of Toronto, the province of Ontario and the government of Canada they have equal say on the board, and then there’s one tie breaker. It’s clear that City Council is gonna have to vote on the final plan after like lots of evaluation, and it seems fairly clear to me that there’s gonna be some kind of stance that both the other orders of government are gonna put forward. But the public debate about the proposal will happen at City Council and probably in about a year.
Jordan: One of the reasons we want to talk to you about this, is because I wanted to ask about your thoughts internally and maybe even the conversation internally at spacing. I know yourself and the entire team there do a ton of thinking about urban life and urban planning, and what’s the discussion been like there and what goes through your head when you think about this?
John: So spacing is about 15 years old, and its roots are in a sort of focus on public spaces in the city and started in the City of Toronto, a bunch of cities in general because these are the spaces between buildings. And my general view, and I think this is a view that, you know we all have, it’s facing is that you know, there are lots of positives about the sidewalk proposal, the energy efficiency stuff is great, the tall timber stuff is great. You know these are all positives, right? They make up more carbon, you know, they reduce carbon, and all of that, those good things. But then there’s a whole other set of proposed technologies that have to do with monitoring people, and monitoring people in public space, and that’s when all the sort of, you know corporate surveillance and, you know Orwellian stuff sort of starts to rear its head and, you know, over the course of the two years since Sidewalk Labs embarked on this process, there’s been an enormous amount of discussion about that. And there’s been, you know, there are various ideas now that are actively in circulation and that are embedded in sidewalks proposal about creating an arm’s length sort of regulator to sort of manage privacy, and to track privacy, and to manage access to all the data that’s collected and so on. And you know, whether that’s sufficient or not it’s hard to say at this point, nobody’s ever really done this before but those are the things that I think you know, got our attention because they do sort of say; They create a different way of being in public space. So this is a fast-tile example, but I always use it; So after we talk I’m gonna go home and I’m gonna walk my dog and if I don’t have my phone with me that walk has no; It doesn’t register with anybody in any way except in my head and why does anyone else need to know? So, you know, we move through public space constantly and, you know, there are more efficient ways of moving through public space tight? So we have this whole discussion about how do you optimize transit, for example, in a busy quarter like King Street in Toronto? But, you know, the ordinary movements of people in squares and in parks and in; These are not functional in nature they’re just people being in the city and so you could ask why we need to be so vigilant about that.
Jordan: When you were reading all 1500 plus pages; Did you read all 1500 plus?
John: No, I didn’t read all 1500, I sort of, you know, I kind of…
Jordan: When you were skimming through 1500 plus pages,
John: I’d go right to the appendix because that’s where the exciting stuff is.
Jordan: Right. When you were doing that, were you thinking about whether or not you’d want to live in this city?
John: No, that’s a good question. That particular question didn’t occur to me. I’m not sure that I would want to live near Toronto’s waterfront in the winter, just, you know, regardless of who was putting it up. I mean, the conceptual designs for the area physically are quite attractive, you know, and they’re well designed I mean to have, like, really leading architects and designers who are working for them. So physically it’ll be a very attractive space, I think that would be my prediction, but I don’t know that I would wanna have all of that surveillance around…
Jordan: To know when when you’re walking your dog.
John: If I didn’t have a really strong sense of what purpose it was there for. And the important thing to understand about what Sidewalk is proposing is that the model that they’re using is the model that Apple used in developing the smartphone, right? So unlike Blackberry, where you know, back in the ancient days, when you had like half a dozen apps, that Research In Motion designed Apple said well we’re building our smartphone, we’re gonna invite the world to design apps, and that you can download them, and you could put them on your phone, and they’ll do different things. This is the same model that sidewalk has sort of envisioned for this key side area, which is that they will collect all this data and they will invite third parties to do stuff with the data, you know, and who knows what it is, right?
Jordan: Tim Hortons will get that data and learn that X number of people are loitering on this corner and maybe we should open a coffee shop.
John: Perhaps. It’s, you know, it will be open access data and…
Jordan: So you saved the terrifying part till the end.
John: Yes. Okay, well, you know; But that’s the idea, and it’s to crowdsource these technological innovations, and so what that means is that there’s lots of potential for mission creep, there’s lots of potential for, you know, taking the data and using it in ways that were never intended, and that in ways which the originators of the data, right? People moving through public space, have no idea about about their participation. A really good example in a different domain is what we’re seeing in the United States now with facial recognition software. So there are several states where, you know, like everywhere you have to have your picture taken for your driver’s license card, right? And recently it came out that ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement department, were using facial recognition software to scan driver’s license mug shots to see whether they lined up with people who have deportation orders. So when you went to get your driver’s license, you had no idea that that was one of the applications for that picture. So these are the things that we have to talk about and think about when you let that kind of technology loose in the public sphere.
Jordan: Thanks, John.
John: You’re welcome.
Jordan: John Lawrence is a senior editor of Spacing magazine. That was The Big Story. You want more of them? We talk a lot about privacy here. You can find them at thebigstorypodcast.ca, we won’t even ask for your email. You can also talk to us on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn, and you can subscribe to this podcast for free, we won’t take your GPS data either, all we know is that you’ve listened. We don’t even know who you are. You could do it on Apple, on Google, on Stitcher, on Spotify. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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