There’s Always Next Time: Smart City Planning After Sidewalk Labs

Earlier this month, Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google’s parent Alphabet, announced that it would no longer be transfoming Toronto’s waterfront into a futuristic neighbourhood.

In partnership with Waterfront Toronto (WT), Sidewalk Labs would use smart city planning principles to make the Quayside more sustainable and livable for Torontonians. However, due to the secrecy around the development agreement between WT and Sidewalk Labs and the serious impacts of this data-centric project on privacy rights, the potential for smart city planning could not be realized with the Sidewalk Toronto project.

With Sidewalk Labs gone, Toronto now has the opportunity to build a smart city that can improve climate sustainability, reduce waste, and increase affordability while safeguarding privacy rights. To do so, however, it must make the most of the lessons learned from the challenges of smart city planning presented by the Sidewalk Toronto project.

The Case of Sidewalk Toronto

Smart cities present tremendous possibilities. Data gathered in “smart” urban environments can be used to improve efficiencies, inform planning, and enhance service delivery. Yet, as a result, balancing the benefits of data analytics with privacy and democratic rights remains a key challenge for smart city planning. In the case of Sidewalk Toronto, the lack of transparency around data ownership and control between Sidewalk Labs, WT and the City of Toronto did the project no favours.

The Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario also took issue with the development plan for the project. The plan left the City, an entity run by democratically elected officials working in the public interest, without a clearly defined role or voice in defining the data governance framework for the project.

Additionally, and unlike Sidewalk Labs, WT was created with a limited life-span of 20 years and without powers to borrow money on its own, use assets as collateral or create subsidiaries. This created an asymmetrical relationship between WT and Sidewalk Labs that gave Sidewalk Labs more financial and legal control over the project than WT. 

The Opportunities of Smart Cities

Cities across the globe are investing in smart city initiatives to address environmental issues that arise with rapid urbanization including air pollution, increased energy use, and waste. The City of Toronto and many municipalities in Ontario have broad authority to govern their affairs as they consider appropriate and to respond to municipal issues. Their powers allow them to be more effective than entities like WT and responsive to the needs of residents impacted by smart projects.

In the waste context, smart city planning presents significant opportunities for large cities. Waste management in Toronto collects over 900,000 tonnes of waste in one year. In its vision for the Quayside, Sidewalk Labs proposed a “smart chute system…[to] help pay-as-you throw waste regimes succeed in multifamily buildings by making it possible to differentiate between trash and recyclables,” and improve waste diversion. Sidewalk Labs was, in fact, testing this initiative in early 2020 by using sensors to gather data on how residents in a Toronto apartment responded to information about their waste sorting, and if they changed their habits.

Sidewalk Labs also proposed to build pneumatic trash collectors that whisk recyclables into underground tubes. This would reduce garbage truck use and, as a result, both noise and air pollution. This kind of infrastructure has been successful in cities like Barcelona, Spain and Songdo, South Korea. Barcelona has also used smart waste bins with sensors that monitor waste levels and optimize collection routes. A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation considered such initiatives as supportive of the creation of circular economies in cities.

Cities like Toronto have significant powers, including over land use planning, licensing, public health, and waste management that they could exercise towards innovative waste removal strategies. Smart city initiatives must, however, be supported by robust data governance and privacy frameworks and give Toronto direct governance powers on projects such as Sidewalk Toronto.

In Toronto, those developments are on their way. In 2019, the City of Toronto began developing its Digital Infrastructure Plan to guide the use of technology and data in urban planning projects. With Sidewalk Labs abandoning the Quayside development, the City now has the opportunity and lessons from Sidewalk Toronto to plan future smart city initiatives that create a more sustainable and livable Toronto.

For further questions or information on municipal law and the circular economy, contact Denisa Mertiri at denisa@greenearthstrategy.ca

By Denisa Mertiri and Alexandra Potamianos