Friday 20 September 2019

Tech backlash hinders Sidewalk's plans for Toronto neighbourhood

Sidewalk Labs has released a 1,500-page development proposal for its Quayside neighbourhood in Toronto, where it plans ‘to set a new standard for urban development in the 21st century’
Sidewalk Labs has released a 1,500-page development proposal for its Quayside neighbourhood in Toronto, where it plans ‘to set a new standard for urban development in the 21st century’
Sidewalk Labs has released a 1,500-page development proposal for its Quayside neighbourhood in Toronto, where it plans ‘to set a new standard for urban development in the 21st century’

Natalie Wong

GROWING public mistrust of technology giants is making it more challenging for Sidewalk Labs to gain support for its high-tech neighbourhood in Toronto, according to an executive at the firm.

"There's no question that that has affected our reception," said Rohit Aggarwala, head of urban systems at New York-based Sidewalk, a unit of Google parent Alphabet Inc. "What we have been facing is the complete shift from say five, six years ago where large tech firms were highly trusted on almost everything and the public, in general, shared the perception that tech is going to solve a bunch of our problems, to the opposite, which is, whatever they're doing, there's danger there."

Sidewalk has been met with controversy in Toronto since winning the mandate to develop one of North America's largest parcels of land along Lake Ontario. Politicians and citizens have raised concerns over how Sidewalk would use data from the site, financing of the project and the amount of control Alphabet or Google might have over public lands. To head off concerns, Sidewalk has called for the creation of an independent, government-sanctioned trust to oversee data collection and offered to provide financing for certain infrastructure ventures.

"We're not asking the people of the city of Toronto to put too much at risk to allow some of these things to be tried out," Mr Aggarwala said. "Frankly, Sidewalk Labs takes on most of the risk if it fails."

While Sidewalk has had endorsement from Google on some of its proposals, such as putting Google's Canadian headquarters in the development, it does not work closely with it in any ongoing way other than on some very specific projects, Mr Aggarwala said. The firm trades notes with Google just like it would with other companies and governments globally.

"If it were about privatisation, we would be utterly self-defeating given the number of times we talk about bringing government in, creating entities we do not control and doing a number of things that are not about profit," he said.

Sidewalk isn't interested in developing a digital city in countries like China, where there has been less pushback against big tech over privacy or monopoly concerns and its citizens are more used to digital surveillance. "There isn't a crisis around how quickly can you build urban apartments in desirable cities in China, they don't have that supply constraint that is what's driving the opportunity gap in San Francisco, Toronto, New York, London, you name it. They don't have that problem, and that's what we're trying to solve." He said Sidewalk's objective is to "develop new and improved approaches to city expansion that works well in the kinds of cities that we like to live in".

Bloomberg

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