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Opinion Curb its enthusiasm: As Sidewalk Labs moves fast in Toronto, pay attention to the streets

Ellen P. Goodman is a professor at Rutgers Law School.

An artist's rendering of the exterior of a building is shown in this handout photo. Sidewalk Labs has told Torontonians that Friday, at long last, it will release its master plan for the city’s eastern waterfront.

HO/The Canadian Press

Sidewalk Labs has told Torontonians that this month, at long last, it will hand over its master plan for the city’s eastern waterfront.

For the past 19 months, ever since the Alphabet subsidiary entered into a “partnership” with the development agency Waterfront Toronto, citizens have been invited to sample the totalizing vision for a new “smart city” district: heaps of Silicon Valley razzmatazz around heated streets and modular buildings, autonomous vehicles and flex parks, all made possible by technological innovation and data collection.

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There is misdirection, starting with the supposed public-private “partnership” with Waterfront Toronto, even though the balance of power is skewed toward the private company. There is elision, even about what territory the district will cover – just the 12-acre Quayside area, or a much bigger chunk of the broader 880-acre Port Lands.

Too often, there is a sense of inevitability around data collection in the tech world: that privately owned digital platforms laying claim to your data is the necessary condition for efficiency gains in urban management and design, even though that thinking is entirely manufactured. Indeed, it is the logic of surveillance capitalism that those being surveilled are left feeling so helpless. We also know that technology companies mix this logic with the first-mover momentum of brazenly entering a market to create civic dependencies. In their 2018 paper, researchers from the Partnership for Working Families describe how mobility companies such as Uber “bully and bamboozle” their way into cities and, once there, become next to impossible to regulate.

In a study I conducted with Julia Powles, we documented how Sidewalk Toronto has also been hurtling along this privatized and data-fied path, as favourable intellectual-property terms, among other things, compound its first-mover advantage. But Sidewalk Labs is an example of a project so massive that it’s impossible to look at every single piece. Just last month, the company asked residents to consider its project through the lenses of affordable housing, transportation, employment, public space, sustainability, educational opportunities, and the future of retail, not to mention intellectual property, data management, technology transfer, and so on. Yet even amid this broad range of issues, basic questions went unaddressed, said participating resident Cybèle Sack. Will children in schools be under surveillance? Will public services be privatized? The scope was so vast and the details were so minimal that the district bewilders and resists concerted critique.

So where can citizens train their focus? The answer: the lowly curb.

What happens to data here – the liminal concrete edge ostensibly owned by the city, but contested by companies looking to gather every scrap of data they can get – will dictate the future of our rights to park and dock, and even the ability to pass by without notice. Anyone who has tried to navigate around a double-parked car or abandoned scooter can appreciate the value of automatic law-enforcement at the curb – but who will gather and govern the data around these spaces to make that happen justly and safely? Will there be facial-recognition tech applied on our curbs? How will the law be enforced and who will collect the penalties? Will public law or private tech dominate? The fight for who owns data for the neighbourhood’s curbs is significant itself, and will represent the direction of power struggles to come.

Sidewalk Labs has proposed a private interface to manage the data. It will likely turn to another Alphabet company, Coord, which is mapping curbs and selling the data, or another affiliate, Replica, which has secured a sole-source contract in Illinois to model urban movement. These arrangements create the potential for dangerous lock-in, dependency, and privatization. And the fight is on: The city of Los Angeles built its own interface to take control of the curb, but tech companies are lobbying for state legislation to take this power away.

Even as Sidewalk Labs slowly reveals its designs on waterfront resources, the project has been paving over the governance issues related to data and control. There are three core issues to look for in its master plan. There’s the matter of procurement: does Sidewalk Labs or other companies have the inside track on contracts with the city? There’s data policy: What can be collected at the curb (or in the public realm more generally) and how will they be used? And there’s the matter of intellectual property: Who gets to commercialize technologies piloted in the new district?

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The plan will no doubt be gob-smacking in its ambitions. But that will mean it will be all the more difficult to discern where to look and what to ask. And it might require the curb to help us make concrete these abstract questions around governance about what is best for Toronto.

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