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Oh, Canada! The land of maple syrup, hockey, Tim Hortons and… first-ever Smart City? Last month, Sidewalk Labs released its plan to make a Smart City on Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront to make the area “the most innovative district in the entire world”. This proposal fuelled tons of global controversy with many people in either total support or rejection of the plan. For those of you still forming an opinion, here is a quick breakdown of the opportunities and risks for a Smart Toronto.


What is a Smart City?

In one of our  previous articles, we talked about the benefits of companies collecting data on their customers to improve their operations and create better products and services. This is the same premise behind the idea of Smart Cities but instead, cities are the “business” and we are all the customers. Smart Cities use machine learning, AI and IoT, to collect data on the behaviours of residents and infrastructural operations. This data is then used to enable the City to make autonomous decisions that will improve efficiency, environmental impact, and the resident’s lives.


What will it look like?

Although the use of so much technology may start to give off an Orbit City vibe from The Jetsons, we’re not quite at the point of automatic meals and pneumatic tube travel. Sensors that monitor and adapt the energy usage of buildings based upon the time of day, or streetlights that dim when there is no one around, are more realistic features of a 2019 Smart City.


Total Connectivity

Despite the many benefits, there are some major concerns with Smart Cities.

As data collection is a key aspect of Smart Cities, residents must be comfortable with their every action being recorded. This has brought many concerns about surveillance, privacy, and data security. To handle these concerns, the government, citizens and private companies must work together. A collective agreement on the extent of data collection and a set of rules to protect data security need to be reached for success.

How many times a day do you sigh with frustration because your cellphone, laptop or internet starts to glitch? How often do you see an ad for a new iPhone?  If you’re anything like me, these things happen almost daily. This frustration and exposure to new models showcase how unreliable technology can be and just how fast technology advances. As such, a Smart City filled with technology will suffer from the same issues. Smart City technology will need to be updated every few years to keep up with the fast pace of advancement. These updates can be very costly and disruptive. Furthermore, glitches in the technology that manages our water or electricity access can be threatening to our daily lives.


Sidewalk Labs

To date, no city has reached full “smart” status. This is where Sidewalk Labs comes in. As a sibling company to Google, Sidewalk has created a 1500-page proposal that outlines their $3.9 billion plan to develop a Smart City in two Toronto Waterfront neighbourhoods. Included in this plan, are the following:

  • Develop a climate positive community by netting a sub-zero carbon footprint.
  • Create buildings made from environmentally sustainable timber that will provide 2,500 housing units. Nearly half the units will be under market value.
  • Use heated pavement to keep streets clear of snow for pedestrians and cyclists.
  • Utilize sensors that will collect data on energy consumption, building use and traffic patterns.
  • Generate 44,000 jobs and $14.2 billion in yearly economic impact.
  • Set-up a new Canadian Google Headquarters.

This proposal benefits Toronto through positive environmental and economic impacts, along with affordable housing for an unaffordable city.  Furthermore, this proposal will place Toronto as a leader in tech-innovation and a role model for other cities around the world.

To combat the privacy issues with Smart Cities, Sidewalk has promised that collected data will not contain an individual’s name. Additionally, they have vowed that no personal data will be sold, shared or used for advertising purposes.

Despite these promises, there have been many critics of Sidewalks’ proposal. Some have argued that Sidewalk could use the data they have on residents to influence behaviour and benefit their business. Others suggest that this Smart City opens up the city to corporate control and surveillance capitalism.

Currently, Toronto City Council and Waterfront Toronto are evaluating Sidewalk’s complete proposal and the concerns of critics. Early 2020 should bring a decision on this Smart City.


Where do you sit?

There are many pros and cons with the launch of Toronto’s Smart City. It is up to each of us to decide the value we place on these aspects and make a personal decision on how we want our future cities to unfold.


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Emily Cummings

Author Emily Cummings

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