There was a burst of excitement last fall when Sidewalk Labs said it was coming to town. An urban-innovation outfit with a parent company that has more money than God was choosing Toronto to try out some of its ideas for improving cities. The Prime Minister and the Premier both showed up for the announcement. Mayor John Tory said it showed the city was building a reputation "as the place to be in the world."
The high didn't last long. In the months since, skeptics have been pouring buckets of cold water on the idea. Some fear that Sidewalk's parent, Alphabet Inc., owner of Google, is out to filch all of our personal data. Others seem to think that Sidewalk will turn its waterfront innovation zone into a technological gated-community where the city government's writ barely runs. Still others suspect it of scheming to take over the Port Lands, the huge, barely developed stretch of real estate on the east side of harbour.
Sidewalk chief Dan Doctoroff has been forced to fend off insinuations that his firm is a kind of modern-day carpetbagger, trying to pull something over on pure, innocent Toronto. It's a wonder he hasn't run screaming back to New York. Toronto isn't just looking this gift horse in the mouth. It is giving the nag a root canal.
It all seems quite unnecessary. Sidewalk hasn't even signed a final agreement with Waterfront Toronto, the agency that chose it to turn a parcel of land at the foot of Parliament Street into an innovation "testbed." That deal is expected later this year. When it comes it will need the approval of the Waterfront board, and Waterfront is a creature of all three levels of government. A city report says anything that comes out of the deal will have to get "all necessary approvals" from those three.
Mr. Tory says he has no intention of giving up city hall's authority over Sidewalk's turf, known as Quayside. The city report says the project will need to clear the usual land-use and planning hurdles, not to mention city-council votes. Council is jealous of its powers. It is unlikely to give them up, even to a cousin of mighty Google.
Yes, Sidewalk might try to persuade governments to loosen some of their rules. It might ask for a break on building regulations so it can experiment with using more wood in construction. It might run its own automated garbage collection outside the usual city service. If so, it could be a good thing. City hall could use a push to update its daunting web of rules. And it could always reject a change it didn't like.
As for the 325-hectare Port Lands, it seems safe from a Sidewalk takeover. Most of it is government land is under firm government control. The proposed deal is supposed to govern the relatively tiny five-hectare Quayside project. All that Sidewalk has said is that it wants to scale up some of its experiments, deploying them on a bigger field than Quayside. If Sidewalk wants to try out inventive road layouts or autonomous cars elsewhere in the area, why not?
The threat to privacy is the biggest knock against Sidewalk. Its foray into Toronto comes at a moment of high anxiety over how digital giants such as Google, Amazon or Apple are gathering information from users. But that it is not really what Sidewalk is proposing.
It doesn't want to monitor your Facebook clicks to see if you might buy holidays or gadgets. It wants to gather data about how city dwellers move around, use energy, dispose of trash and so on. It hopes the trove of data will help it to devise new, smarter ways to live in cities. It insists it will take an open-data approach that allows other users to comb through what is gathered.
If the worry is that Sidewalk might invent a cunning way to spy on people as they roam the "smart city," there are ways of preventing that. Not one, but two leading privacy experts will monitor the project. Waterfront Toronto has retained former federal privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier and Sidewalk has retained former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian as watchdogs.
There may be a cause for doubt about the Sidewalk project, but it isn't that Google might steal our souls or run roughshod over our governments. It is that the whole thing is a bit fuzzy. The smart-cities concept has been around for a decade or more and the results have been pretty meagre. Some of the ideas Sidewalk has floated seem either goofy (garbage bots in underground tunnels) or old-hat (smart traffic lights).
But the basic idea is sound: using the power of technology to make cities work better. It is a good thing that giant companies such as Sidewalk's Alphabet are taking an interest in making cities more efficient, livable, affordable and fair.
Do they want to make pots of money along the way? Sure they do. That doesn't mean we should write off Sidewalk as some marauding corporate invader. It is not impossible to combine the pursuit of profit with a genuine desire to do something useful.
That seems to be what Sidewalk's people want. That they want to do it in Toronto is a gift. Instead of scrutinizing this horse's teeth, we should welcome it to the stable.