Since the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, data privacy and misuse of data are among the key concerns for Government and Legal watchdogs across the world. Critics use the same concerns to red flag Google’s ambitious smart city project in Toronto, Canada. Google thought its subsidiary has won the bid to develop 12 acres stretch of forgotten waterfront land on the outskirts of Toronto into a high-tech city at the expense of USD 1bn. The city will aim to address ubiquitous urban problems – congestion, inefficient services and unaffordable housing as well as try to control the temperature through an innovative ‘raincoat’ technology. However, the downside of the new city is that every move of its residents will be recorded and monitored through hidden cameras across the city.
Despite all the backlash, Canadians do not want to shelve the project immediately. Anna points towards a February poll commissioned by Toronto’s trade board which shows that 55 per cent of Torontonians still support the project and 76 per cent feel it should carry on as long as public interests are safeguarded. Success or failure of Google’s project will have a huge impact on how new cities are developed in the future.

“The former fish processing plant is so unremarkable that, at first, my taxi driver speeds right past it. He shrugs as we come to a stop in an empty parking lot across the street. Along a dreary 12-acre stretch of forgotten waterfront land on the outskirts of Toronto sits a boxy blue building, almost invisible among the factories and highway. The land is neglected now, but that will change if Google has its way. This is the site where the technology company wants to build a city of the future.

One of the project’s main aims is to address ubiquitous urban problems, such as congestion, inefficient services and unaffordable housing. Illustrative plans featuring futuristic, mass-timber buildings were released in February. The structures, some by Thomas Heatherwick’s studio and Snøhetta, an architectural practice based in Norway, were imagined towering over the shoreline of Lake Ontario. Google’s blue building houses the planning operation and exhibition centre, which it has assembled in preparation for a decision — expected within months — by the city’s authorities. Inside, it is more like a science museum than a Google-owned HQ. A model of a “dynamic street” made up of hexagonal wooden blocks, and a prototype of a “raincoat” — transparent, domed plastic awnings that would attach to buildings and cover the areas in front — are on display.

The raincoat’s climate technology, it is claimed, would make residents feel warm in winter and cool in summer for at least 50 days a year. Given the average temperature in Toronto falls to -7C in winter and reaches 27C in July, life could become pretty comfortable…….But what has caused most alarm is that, in this quayside city of the future, residents’ every move would be recorded. Inevitably, anxieties about privacy and covert surveillance have followed. Small hidden cameras would snap low-resolution images of people and cars as they move through the streets. Sidewalk says its systems would blur identifiable information, label pictures either “pedestrian” or “vehicle”, then enter it into a “public data trust”. The data would be used to plan services in real time, in what it calls a “feedback of residents”……..

In many ways, Google’s ambitions are nothing new. Grand attempts at “smart cities” in North America date back to the 1960s, when Walt Disney dreamt up the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow — Epcot for short — a Floridian city of the future underpinned by technology. Disney died before his vision could be realised on the scale he had imagined. Today, a new generation of tech visionaries has taken up the same challenge, seeking to reimagine the spaces in which we live. Apple, Amazon and Google have all bought chunks of land across the US. In 2017, a Bill Gates-run investment company spent $80m on a piece of Arizona desert land to build a “smart city”, tentatively called Belmont.

But the Waterfront Toronto project represents North America’s biggest, most ambitious smart-city test case: up to 350 acres of untouched urban land in one of the continent’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas. At first, Canadians cheered; 18 months on, the project risks generating more resentment than enthusiasm. Sidewalk’s plans have upset many people. Critics include local technologists, property developers, politicians from both the left-leaning NDP and Conservative parties, urbanists, academics, privacy experts, business leaders and the Canadian Civil Liberties Union…….

….With hundreds of smart city pilot projects under way around the world, “this is a cautionary tale”, says Balsillie. “Data spreads seamlessly. These data strategies are not just contained to this piece of land. It’s like somebody is putting a virus in your backyard.” At this point “it’s a real question mark”, says Cavoukian, over whether Google-ification will ever happen. Critics such as Julie DiLorenzo, a prominent Toronto property developer, say Sidewalk has only revealed pie-in-the-sky renderings, and seems unable to answer concrete questions such as how the project will be financed and whether people will be able to opt out of data collection.

“They’ve come in here and made all these assumptions about what the people of Toronto want,” says one local developer. “The raincoat idea to effectively be inside all the time. We want to be outside; the cold is part of our culture and this city.” But despite the backlash, it seems Canadians do not want to say goodbye to Google just yet. A February poll commissioned by Toronto’s trade board showed 55 per cent of Torontonians still support the project and 76 per cent feel it should carry on as long as public interests are safeguarded. “The Board of Trade is glad that Sidewalk Labs is here and glad the company has a shot at bringing innovative development ideas to Quayside, alongside our growing smart cities sector in Toronto,” says Jan De Silva chief executive of Toronto’s trade board. “But our support isn’t unconditional.”


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