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Jim Balsillie says Sidewalk Labs’ $1.3-billion plan for Toronto’s waterfront is unfair to Canadian innovators and will have a negative economic impact on the country.
The former co-CEO of BlackBerry Ltd. and founder and chair of the Centre for International Governance Innovation outlined his concerns Wednesday at the Canada Future Forward Summit at The Globe and Mail Centre in Toronto.
“I’m not comfortable with the data issues. I’m not comfortable with the IP (intellectual property) issues. I’m not comfortable with who’s the lead vendor,” Mr. Balsillie said in an interview.
“I think we have to start over.”
Mr. Balsillie has been one of the most outspoken critics of Sidewalk’s partnership with Waterfront Toronto, arguing in an October 2018 opinion piece in The Globe that Sidewalk’s parent company, Alphabet Inc. (also Google’s parent company), is the only beneficiary of the project.
On Monday, Sidewalk Labs unveiled its master plan to transform an area of waterfront land on the east side of Toronto’s downtown into a mini “smart city”, infused with sensors to transmit data that is designed to make citizens’ lives easier.
Sidewalk’s ambitious proposal envisions the company working with other developers to create a 190-acre community on Toronto’s waterfront. The master plan that would ask government to expand public transit and rewrite certain municipal and provincial laws; Google’s Canadian unit would build a new headquarters there.
But the scope of the project, and the prospect of the collection of all that data by a giant U.S.-based technology company, has sparked criticism.
Mr. Balsillie said he believes the plan, if approved, could have consequences that reach far beyond the neighbourhood in which it is built.
“It’s got effects on our autonomy, our democracy and our security,” he said. “This also represents much more land and data spread seamlessly, which means this is effectively an urban strategy for data for the country.”
Proponents of the plan disagree. In a bid to alleviate concerns over data collection, Sidewalk has proposed forming partnerships with local innovators and has suggested housing the data it collects in an independent trust.
Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto’s school of cities, argued in an opinion piece in The Globe this week that Sidewalk “can be the catalytic anchor company that can propel Toronto to the top of the heap in what is arguably the biggest new high-tech sector to emerge in decades.”
But Mr. Balsillie said he doesn’t understand why Waterfront Toronto, an agency controlled by the municipal, provincial and federal governments that oversees development along Lake Ontario, has pursued a partnership with Sidewalk.
It would be better for Canada’s innovation economy, he argued, if local companies that have developed smart city technologies had been brought in instead.
If Canada doesn’t adequately protect its innovators, Mr. Balsillie added, foreign companies such as Sidewalk can appropriate their ideas, their talent and their potential clients.
“We’ve manufactured our own weak performance in innovation," he said.
Mr. Balsillie also remarked that the optical network Sidewalk Labs has proposed for the neighbourhood, with a 25-kilometre radius, is effectively a new and unregulated Canadian telecom company.
“Anyone schooled in these issues sees enormous consequences,” he said to the audience.
He said cities and governments should consult with citizens first to create a framework for a smart city that could benefit them. Then, they should have searched for a vendor who could comply with that framework.
“Here we have a vendor really taking responsibility to propose the frameworks. And really going directly to the population and directly to the governments,” Mr. Balsillie said.
“It’s not the way it’s supposed to work.”