Illustration: Jeffrey Liu


Sidewalks Labs, a sister company of Google founded in 2015, is developing a “smart” neighbourhood on Toronto’s east waterfront. After winning the competition created by Waterfront Toronto to redevelop the area, the company is set to join forces with the federal, provincial, and municipal governments to complete the project. The area will be renamed as Quayside and become the new home of Google Canada’s headquarters. Sidewalk Labs has already dedicated $50 million to the proposal and planning of the project. It is introducing advanced technology such as machine learning and data monitoring to form a sustainable and ideal urban city for innovation, but also creates questions. Will the project provide an opportunity for Toronto to become the ideal urban city? Or is it just a radical but infeasible idea that only endangers our personal privacy?

The Future is Now!

Toronto is on the verge of becoming one of the leading cities in technological innovation and urban development. The development of  a smart neighborhood will increase opportunities for residents of Toronto, leading it to be renowned as the prime city for company investments. What’s not to like?

The project aims to create a futuristic neighborhood on the waterfront that continuously improves itself by collecting data from around the neighborhood. From variables such as the level of air and noise pollution, traffic and the number of pedestrians, the futuristic concept of machine learning will be implemented to analyze swathes of data. Smart technologies such as autonomous vehicles will also be used in this neighborhood for things such as transit and garbage collection. Maintenance costs will be drastically reduced while vehicle accidents will decrease immensely, as autonomous vehicles have shown to be much safer than those operated by humans.

A Waterfront Light Rail will also be built, connecting different communities that are situated on the waterfront. New sustainable technologies, once implemented, will create environmentally-friendly housing—plans feature modular buildings, underground waste systems, as well as new energy-efficient systems to reduce emissions and consumption.  Furthermore, once other areas adopt the same technology, housing will eventually become more affordable across Toronto. This will go a long way towards helping families who would otherwise not be able to afford a home in Toronto’s current real estate market, as housing affordability hit a record low earlier in 2017 [1]. 

This proposal, if successful, will create an incentive for other large tech companies to relocate and invest in Toronto. This will help revitalize the Canadian economy—which is especially critical as it has shown limited growth over the past couple of years. The rising business competition from new firms will bring in thousands of skillful immigrant workers, along with major firms such as Amazon. Toronto will become an even more multicultural and skilled city than it currently is.

Once complete, the Quayside area will also be home to the new Canadian headquarters of Google. This will bring many opportunities for Canadians to lead research in cutting-edge fields such as artificial intelligence and biomedical engineering. Many of these talented workers will be able to apply their skills in improving the city with new innovations and attract even more technological firms to Toronto. New specialized programs may also be created to help students who want a career in STEM. The city of Ann Arbor in Michigan, houses a large Google Office and has an unemployment rate of just 3.9% [2].

The proposal also wants to improve the healthcare system using technology. The goal is to make administrative tasks more easy to complete and create personalized healthcare for any individual.  The proposal also wants to look at the underlying social and environmental factors that affect medical needs to improve healthcare and decrease costs in the long-term. Access to healthcare will be greatly improved by technologies such as remote monitoring. For example, healthcare providers would be able to detect if a medical condition of a patient is worsening. Anyone would also be able to ask for a consultation 24/7 from a medical professional. Social services will be invested in informing citizens about healthy eating and exercise to prevent medical conditions from developing in the first place. This new system will also collect social-needs data about a particular neighborhood and identify the citizens that need healthcare services the most. All of these new innovations will allow our current healthcare system to be more efficient and far more affordable while decreasing wait times. The data collected will also be used to get patients the care and services they need.

Toronto is already known for its excellent quality of life, innovative technologies, and abundance of skilled, multicultural workers. It is clear that Sidewalk Labs will improve the quality of life for all residents of Toronto and present more opportunities for education and work in Toronto.  With new innovative technologies, Toronto will be a world leader and role model as the ideal urban city.  

An Expensive Failure

Toronto is fine without Sidewalk Labs. We don’t need large American companies to dictate how our city runs. We don’t need another project that unleashes roadblocks and chaos into our downtown core. We don’t need to throw money at another radical project many consider impossible. Why should we allow businessmen hundreds of kilometers away to decide our future? Sidewalk Labs was only founded two years ago, yet it claims it can handle a multibillion dollar operation after adding Wi-Fi kiosks to New York City as its largest project.

The project aims to collect data and use Toronto as an experimentation ground, with no regard for the fact that nine in ten Canadians reported concerns over personal privacy in 2015 [3]. Sidewalk Labs claims it is using the data collected from the neighborhood to improve itself through machine learning technology, but neglects to mention that collected data will be used to develop advertising revenue. It is unknown who will own the data and be responsible for monitoring or safekeeping the technology. Will proper regulations and ownership of data be put in place or will the government and company take full advantage of the situation? As a rising threat to privacy and security, collecting data and information must have policies set in stone. If Google wants Toronto to accept their new pet project, the least the public deserves is transparency.

There is also concern about the practicality and plausibility of the project. Self-driving cars, garbage robots, and modular buildings may seem like great ideas in urban innovation, but they come hidden with major safety and ethical issues. Technology is not ready to make moral and ethical decisions for us. How will computers understand emotional intelligence and issues? In a dire situation, where all options result in harming people, self-driving vehicles end up relying on “statistical analysis”. Until we are able to quantify morality and future consequences, self-driving cars should stay in the future. Meanwhile, technology is not safe from hackers and malfunctioning equipment. At the end of the day, who really owns the equipment and land? Who is going to pay for the failed experiments and enforce the privacy protection? There are too many risks to make Toronto an experiment zone. And if we are bold enough to accept that failure is inevitable to some degree, who will be held responsible for public concerns, damages, and unsuccessful promises? Consequences will follow if the city charges blindly into unstable or undeveloped technology proposed by a private corporation.

Furthermore, the infrastructure and communities near the location of development will be disturbed for years to come. Under Canadian construction, there is no set date for these futuristic proposals to be completed. The noise and debris from construction will tarnish our downtown core, while the aging Gardiner Expressway will be more congested than ever. The project will disrupt communities and cultures for something they probably won’t benefit from. If anything, the project will only benefit those who can afford living in this new area. Public activists have already tried to reorient the project to focus on affordable housing. However, there is little middle ground for advanced architectural technology and affordable housing even if the maintenance costs are efficient. The amount of research and development needed will drastically increase the cost of living, making the area inaccessible to most Torontonians.

The government cannot let Sidewalk Labs make operations that change the lives of thousands, if not millions, to benefit a small population and their business. There are too many risks associated with this project, risks that threaten our privacy, safety, and livelihoods. Toronto isn’t some testing ground for unstable technology and large foreign companies. Toronto is a growing centre for innovation and technology, a place to acknowledge our local potential, and an ideal urban city that doesn’t need Sidewalk Labs.