Waterfront Toronto endorses most Sidewalk Labs innovations, as expert panel highlights challenges

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The panel advising Waterfront Toronto on the development of Quayside says there are still challenges with Sidewalk Labs’s smart city proposal that must be addressed as the project moves forward.

The report comes a week after Waterfront Toronto endorsed the majority of Sidewalk Labs’ innovation proposals.

On Wednesday, Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP) released its supplementary report on Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP). The report is a supplement to the panel’s preliminary report, which offered scathing commentary of the plan in September. The panel is comprised of digital-strategy experts advising Waterfront Toronto as it oversees the development of the Quayside area.

The report comes a week after Waterfront Toronto endorsed the majority of Sidewalk Labs’ innovation proposals. Waterfront Toronto rejected 16 of 160 proposals, including the “raincoats” intended to shield outdoor spaces during harsh weather. Waterfront said that concept raised concerns over accessibility, but stated Sidewalk would be able to alter or replace the 16 rejected innovations.

The panel’s latest report stated that it supported the October decision to continue moving forward with Sidewalk Labs, after the company’s resolution affirmed that digital governance would belong to Waterfront Toronto and its government partners. At that time, the revised agreement between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto was majorly scaled down from the June MIDP.

The DSAP’s latest report specifically noted, though, a “lack of a fully-realized digital governance framework” in the smart city proposal.“This resolution did not actually fill in any gaps, instead only changing the approach to filling them,” the panel stated in the report.

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A set of “Intelligent Community Guidelines” was proposed by Waterfront Toronto to address potential gaps in government policy. The panel noted there was a lack of detailed information about these guidelines, which made it difficult to comment on the impact of them.

The DSAP said the plans released in November were a marked improvement from the master plan published over the summer. However, the experts also highlighted significant gaps in how data collection and privacy measures would be handled.

Sidewalk Labs’ proposal has been met with persistent controversy since the project was proposed in 2016. Prominent former Waterfront Toronto advisors, like Ann Cavoukian, have withdrawn from Sidewalk Labs and criticized the project over privacy and personal data concerns. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) and Block Sidewalk also oppose Sidewalk Labs’ development over similar concerns regarding privacy.

In April, the CCLA brought a lawsuit against all three levels of government and Waterfront Toronto. The CCLA is attempting to abolish Sidewalk Labs’ partnership agreement with Waterfront Toronto on the basis that Waterfront does not have the authority to create a digital governance policy for the Quayside project.

Another concern raised by the DSAP was whether the principal benefits from the proposed technologies would be collected by Sidewalk Labs or its parent company, Alphabet, while potential costs of technologies would be felt by residents and visitors to Quayside.

The panel said the partnership between Waterfront Toronto and an Alphabet company creates “digital governance challenges” that include “questions around accountability, remedies, and enforcement, as well as more technical concerns such as data asymmetry.”

The deadline to decide whether to move ahead with Sidewalk Labs’ smart city development proposal will take place on May 20. A public consultation will be held on February 29.

Image courtesy Sidewalk Labs

Isabelle Kirkwood

Isabelle Kirkwood

Writer, globetrotter, drone pilot & David Attenborough enthusiast