What does Sidewalk Labs want with Toronto? The answer is, at the very least, “Something.”
We are talking about the Alphabet-owned company currently signed up to create a high-tech neighbourhood in the city’s mostly barren east waterfront, not far from its thriving downtown. The patch of ground is a developer’s dream.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the project, but one thing is certain: Sidewalk believes there is something in it for them. Though you would never know it from the firm’s marketing pitch.
Even by the opaque and self-flattering standards of the genre, Sidewalk’s spiel – heavy on the techno-utopian jargon; light on the actual business plan – sounds too good to be true. That may be standard corporate PR, but this is far from a standard project. It could help decide the long-term future of Canada’s largest city. That’s why it’s well past time for the company to speak plainly about its intentions.
At a recent editorial board meeting with The Globe and Mail, the firm’s CEO, Dan Doctoroff, talked about his passion for sustainability and “innovation". He dismissed widely held fears that Alphabet, which is also the parent company of Google, was focused on making money off of the data gathered from the neighborhood’s future residents and visitors.
His intentions, and those of Alphabet CEO Larry Page, were benign, if not downright altruistic, he said.
There was no prospectus passed around, no architect’s renderings, no fact sheets. The only persuasive material on offer was Mr. Doctoroff’s word. And to be sure, his stints as an investment banker at Lehman Brothers, deputy mayor of New York and CEO of software and data giant Bloomberg L.P. would seem to make him a perfect man for the job.
But there’s the rub. We can only say “seem,” because Sidewalk has maintained an air of mystery around what it wants, and why. Its pitch to Torontonians has been information-lite. Yes, it wants to build apartment buildings, but Mr. Doctoroff bristles at being called a “developer” – and to be fair, the word probably undersells his ambitions.
The safest assumption has always been that Sidewalk is a play for data. Google makes its billions by gleaning data about its users from their online behaviour and then using it to power its businesses; it would seem intuitive that Google’s city-building arm would try to do the same with people’s real-world behaviour.
And Sidewalk hasn’t come close to allaying concerns that it will be in the business of surveillance; its director of sustainability recently boasted that the company would send residents of its “Quayside” neighbourhood alerts if they throw out too much garbage. Such creepy diktats only scratch the surface of what a tech giant could do with detailed information about people’s daily movements and intimate behaviour.
But again, Sidewalk says it isn’t a data company. Mr. Doctoroff assured The Globe that data was not where he was looking to turn a profit, and said any data collected in its developments would be held in a public trust.
If this is true, there’s one other possible avenue for the kind of return on investment Sidewalk is looking to earn: new technology. Mr. Doctoroff gave the example of sensors and cameras that can tell when someone is crossing the street slowly, and then delay the light change accordingly. It’s not hard to imagine Sidewalk testing its gadgets in Toronto before selling them around the world. The clue is right there in the name: Sidewalk Labs. Quayside could become a living laboratory for a new product line.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe city life in what is now a dead zone could be made sleeker, greener, safer and more comfortable than anywhere else. Sometimes wonderful things flourish in a petri dish.
What is most important and most troubling, however, is that Sidewalk has not bothered to pitch itself to Toronto in these terms. It would have the city believe that Google just wants to turn Toronto’s lakeshore into a whimsical new neighbourhood – built of wood, serviced by autonomous-vehicle trash tunnels, powered by computers – because it would be an interesting thing to do.
The story doesn’t wash. Sidewalk may yet hold wonders for Toronto. But the city needs to know more about what’s in it for Sidewalk.