Where Ryerson stands on Sidewalk Labs Toronto

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By Josh Scott

On Jan. 23, Waterfront Toronto extended its decision-making time on whether to proceed with Sidewalk Labs’ divisive smart city plan, from March 31 to May 20.

The extension was “to allow the public more time to offer input into Waterfront Toronto’s evaluation of Sidewalk Labs’ proposal” for the Quayside development, according to a statement from Waterfront Toronto, the tri-governmental organization charged with revitalizing the city’s waterfront.

The move follows the tentative Oct. 31 agreement between both parties to reduce the scope of the project from 190 acres to the 12-acre Quayside parcel, “as an initial stage.” Quayside consists of three blocks of former industrial land at Queens Quay East and Parliament Street. 

Quayside began as a 12-acre site on Toronto’s waterfront, but as a recent analysis published by CFE puts it, it’s become “a major urban site where tensions between democratic control and private development are being played out,” and its development “has become a proxy for competing visions of the future city.” In other words, Quayside will be a blueprint for how the rest of Toronto will develop and companies are currently competing to see what that development will look like.

To date, many Ryerson leaders and community members have been involved with the Sidewalk project, including Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi, who served as an unpaid member of the Sidewalk Labs Advisory Council (SLAC). But some Ryerson figures have disconnected themselves from the project for the continued scrutiny Sidewalk labs received.

Sidewalk Labs is an urban planning and innovation company owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Sidewalk’s vision for Quayside is a high-tech, low carbon neighbourhood that involves self-driving cars and data-collecting sensors.

Experts, however, have criticized Sidewalk’s privacy and data governance plans and questioned the project’s evaluation process and evolving scope.

The Eyeopener spoke with some Ryerson experts about Sidewalk’s plan, how the project might affect the university community, and what’s at stake.

What is Sidewalk Toronto?

In March 2017, Waterfront Toronto began advertising its search for an “innovation and funding partner” to submit proposals to help develop Quayside. Sidewalk Labs submitted the winning plan.

In June 2019, Sidewalk released a sprawling, 1,500-page Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) that sought access to the entire 77-hectare waterfront district, a new light rapid transit line—an updated streetcar like the public transportation system, a lead development role and exemption from various government regulations.

Following public backlash—which took the form of online outcries and many reports by experts criticizing the MIDP, on Oct. 31, 2019, Sidewalk agreed to reduce its focus to Quayside. Two weeks later, Sidewalk released its 500-page Digital Innovation Appendix (DIA). Waterfront Toronto is currently reviewing Sidewalk’s proposal in full.

Rye experts weigh in on Sidewalk’s proposal

James Turk, the director of Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression (CFE) sees the distinction Sidewalk tries to draw between itself and Google as a product of Google’s reputation. “The name Google brings to mind all sorts of public concerns with surveillance and privacy that they don’t want to have anything to do with.”

Turk told The Eye that the Oct. 31 agreement “is much less reassuring than the public initially thought.” It has, “on the surface, the appearance of having beaten [Sidewalk] back, so now we can all just relax,” said Turk. “But my first reaction is, wait a minute—we’re right back where we started…We have all the same questions about data governance and privacy and surveillance that we had in the beginning.”

The CFE has listed some of these questions on their website.

Turk views data collection as a key component of Sidewalk’s proposal. “Recently, Sidewalk Labs has taken the position that [the project] isn’t even about data.’ Sidewalk Labs is Alphabet is Google, and their whole business is data.”

Turk sees Waterfront Toronto’s relationship to the project as inherently problematic. “While it may be fine for Waterfront Toronto to develop the plan,” he said, “it’s totally inappropriate for them to then evaluate the plan on behalf of the public. They can’t play both roles at once.” He highlights that, while the city owns some of the lands, Spadina-Fort York Councillor Joe Cressy is Waterfront’s only elected official.

“None of the recommendations that resulted from this Indigenous consultation process has been acknowledged or carried forward in any substantial manner in the Sidewalk Labs’ proposal,”

-Duke Redbird, an Indigenous elder

Pamela Robinson also advises Waterfront Toronto. Robinson is the director of Ryerson’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, and a member of the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. Robinson is currently not commenting publicly on the Sidewalk Toronto project since her panel is working on a response to Sidewalk’s DIA.

Given the scope of the proposal, Robinson considers public input essential. In a July 2019 column for Spacing, she wrote, “A project of this ambition and significance really needs the power of our collective review and plural perspectives…Instead of taking the word of civic leaders, ask questions.”

However, she also added that “the task of trying to host a public consultation about this project is formidable,” citing the length of Sidewalk’s MIDP.

David Amborski is the director of Rye’s Centre for Urban Research and Land Development as well as the founding academic director of Ryerson’s CBI. He told The Eye that he thinks the Quayside project could be “a useful illustration” of what a smart city could look like, “provided that the protections are put in place for the privacy of information.”

From what Amborski’s seen, Rye’s involvement with the project has been extensive. He describes attending a meeting of approximately 20 Ryerson researchers and discovering that at least 15 of them had been involved with Sidewalk in various ways. “It seems like Google-Sidewalk has reached out to a lot of people,” he said, “but…I think the depth of the consultation with each individual group hasn’t been very deep.” 

Other consultation participants have also found a lack of in-depth consultation, including Duke Redbird, an Indigenous elder who denounced Sidewalk’s effort to engage Indigenous people as “hollow and tokenistic” in an Oct. 25 open letter to Sidewalk Labs. “None of the recommendations that resulted from this Indigenous consultation process has been acknowledged or carried forward in any substantial manner in the Sidewalk Labs’ proposal,” the letter reads.

It also wrote that “despite the apparent dismissal of the Indigenous input it asked for, the MIDP is littered with references to Indigenous consultation; to ‘work together’; an ‘inclusive’ process and to the Indigenous organizers of the workshop.”

“This resulted in a grossly misleading implication of endorsement by the Indigenous community of Toronto.”

Amborski contributed to the Google Sidewalk Affordable Housing Advisory Committee. He describes his participation as “a little disappointing” because the committee only had three meetings. At the first meeting, it became clear to him that Sidewalk “had no understanding of the market in Toronto.” 

On the affordable housing front, Amborski finds Sidewalk’s current proposal lacking. “What’s in there for affordable housing is, ‘give us the land cheap and we can make [housing] affordable’—the same thing that a developer would say.” While he finds the idea that the project might happen in Toronto exciting, his support comes with a caveat. “It’s a great opportunity,” he said, “but we have to start with the original parcel.”

Some Sidewalk proponents have argued that, in order for Canada to succeed as a small entity on the world stage, it needs to embrace the foreign direct investment that it would get from a company like Google. Amborski disagrees. “I don’t think we need their foreign investment,” he said. “We have lots of foreign investment here.”

Privacy expert and executive director of Ryerson’s Privacy by Design Centre, as well as former Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Ann Cavoukian is a strong proponent of de-identifying and anonymizing personal data at the source. Last September, she explained why she views this process as integral in a September 2019 essay for Toronto Life. “In a smart city, technologies are gathering information 24-7,” she wrote. “There’s no opportunity to consent or revoke consent, so we must protect [citizens’] personal data for them.”

“Many people are also resisting the partnership, but I think that we’re smart people that can think about what’s good for our city”

Initially, Cavoukian claims, Sidewalk agreed. For her, “the challenge came when Sidewalk decided to create the Urban Data Trust” and grant membership to third parties, but not compel them to de-identify their data. “The minute they said that I knew I had to resign,” she wrote. Now, Cavoukian works as a privacy consultant for Waterfront. “Together, we’re pushing for data de-identification, at the source,” she wrote.

“In order to succeed,” said Lachemi, “[the project] will require a lot of careful thought and consideration from urban planning to AI, to policy and research and development…I know that many people are also resisting the partnership, but I think that we’re smart people that can think about what’s good for our city and position Toronto to be in a win-win situation.”

Lachemi recognizes possible benefits for Ryerson should the project proceed. “While Ryerson does not currently have an active role in the [Sidewalk] project,” he told The Eye, “I see a lot of opportunities and potential partnerships across our areas of expertise and research, especially through the work that is done by our Centre for Urban Innovation.”

Rye’s connections (and disconnections) to Sidewalk Labs

Ann Golden, chair and co-founder of Ryerson’s City Building Institute (CBI), also served as an unpaid member of the SLAC. Golden is the chair, but The Eye was unable to reach Golden for comment.

Long-time public servant Helen Burstyn is the former chair of the Waterfront Toronto Board. Burstyn is currently a visiting professor for social enterprise at Rye. She was fired by the province in Dec. 2018—along with fellow board members Michael Nobrega and University of Toronto President Meric Gertler—following a report by Ontario’s Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk criticizing the board’s structure and suggesting that Waterfront Toronto, prior to its request for proposals, had shared more information with Sidewalk than with any other bidder. Burstyn did not respond to an interview request.

Ann Cavoukian previously served as an advisor to Sidewalk Labs. She resigned from her position in October 2018 and has since criticized Sidewalk for how it plans to handle personal data. Cavoukian did not respond to an interview request.

Two Ryerson students participated in a 2018 Sidewalk Toronto Fellowship program. The group studied waterfront revitalization in various European and North American cities and produced a final report with 27 recommendations, including that Sidewalk Toronto form “an independent data trust,” publicly advance data literacy, and use data collection “to build community trust.”

Sidewalk Labs commissioned a 2019 Rye CBI report titled “Rethinking the Tower: Innovations for Housing Attainability in Toronto,” and helped fund “The Evolving Neighbourhood Commercial Landscape,” a 2018 study by Ryerson’s School of Urban and Regional Planning on the evolution of the neighbourhood commercial landscapes in Toronto.

“Sidewalk Labs is an Alphabet company, and thus a sibling company to Google.”

Ryerson uses G Suite, the online collaboration software for sharing all Google related resources, such as Google Docs and Google Drive for administrative assistance. Google is also a corporate partner of The DMZ, Ryerson’s tech start-up accelerator.

According to Wendy Marton, a Sidewalk spokesperson, Sidewalk has tried to distinguish itself from Google. According to Marton, Sidewalk Labs does not share urban data, user data, or personal data with Google, and has its own separate business model. “Sidewalk Labs is an Alphabet company, and thus a sibling company to Google. While Sidewalk Labs occasionally works with teams at Google (as well as other Alphabet companies) to develop ideas, they operate independently.” Marton says.

According to Turk, Sidewalk has a lot riding on Toronto. “I think Sidewalk Labs has all their eggs in one basket, and that [basket] is Toronto, so they have an enormous interest in this going ahead, and I think are using all of their very sophisticated methods to ensure that that happens, and on their terms.”

If the project proceeds as is, Turk said, “there will be issues about the democratic rights of the residents of Toronto over what happens to their own city.”

According to Waterfront Toronto spokesperson Andrew Tumilty, if Waterfront’s board votes to move forward with the project this May, Toronto will “conduct further public consultations over the summer which will inform a staff report on the project that would go before city council this fall.” Waterfront will attempt to negotiate implementation agreements with Sidewalk, which “will need to meet existing and future regulations at the provincial and federal level,” by Dec. 31.

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