A Discussion on Tech in Toronto | Trust in the City

A Discussion on Tech in Toronto | Trust in the City

A Discussion on Tech in Toronto - part ii | Design
//Sidewalk Labs' project to build the Quayside community "from the internet up"

By Aisling O’Carroll

NOTE: This is a multi-part series to be released online over the next few months. See the other parts here.

Photograph by Nicky Brunn-Meyer.


Technological solutions typically rely on data. What is the capacity for smart technologies to balance human and cultural issues with data? How can the government and the public ensure these values are prioritized when a private company is planning the process?

H.C. Robinson (HR) | The risk of the big data moment is the tendency to think that when we deploy high-powered computing on large data sets, the relevant facts and patterns will simply present themselves. For example, using the large volume of data it has on trips, Uber has been able to show that it serves lower-income, minority communities in cities faster than the taxicab industry, which has historically discriminated against these riders. But these data tell us little about whether Uber’s low-rate fares are competing with public transportation, which is more widely utilized in low-income communities. Any inquiry of data has to be preceded by a determination of the relevant questions to ask. We need to consider whether an innovation (what we can do) is really an improvement (something we ought to).

AnnaLisa Meyboom (AM) | A critical issue for cities to address is the access to data that will be generated by companies acting within their jurisdictions and who need permissions for those activities. For example, car-sharing companies currently get access to city streets and are allowed to park in city spots; however, there is, in most cases, no requirement for them to share any information with the city. Cities or regions cannot measure the usage of the service or access any information on travel patterns or origin-destination data. This type of data would be very useful to city planning departments to help with providing transit services and planning infrastructure spending. Cities or regions who choose to integrate live information in Mobility As A Service (MAAS) apps (apps that combine various public and private transportation service options in order to manage and plan trips on demand) require access to where the modes of transportation are live and cannot get access to this data because there is no requirement by cities or regions for companies to provide this data to the government. This lack of integration and readily discernable options is likely to reduce the number of trips taken by sustainable modes.

James Chan (JC) | One of the most pleasantly surprising things I’ve seen come out of the Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto development is the critical yet rational response from the tech community as well as journalists who cover urban affairs. People like Bianca Wylie and John Lorinc have articulated very well the concerns, risks, and questions that have not yet been satisfactorily resolved. The pushback goes beyond the obvious “how will Google make money off our data?” and raises fundamental issues around the relationship between public and private interests. Can a tripartite government agency translate its successes in the built environment to a digital one? What role can elected City Councillors play on a project that is entirely within Waterfront Toronto’s jurisdiction? What rights do citizens have with respect to the transparency of commercial contracts signed in closed-door meetings? What oversight mechanisms do citizens have for ongoing accountability and recourse—especially when a partnership of this scale and scope is essentially uncharted territory for Toronto?

These are tough and legitimate questions, and I believe Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs executives are genuine when they say they are still figuring out the answers. I applaud Waterfront Toronto for thinking big and not shying away from the challenge of building a twenty-first-century neighbourhood and city, but I share in the community’s concerns that they may not have a full and complete grasp of the data privacy, ownership, and governance implications of this smart city project. However, one positive by-product of this development is the growing recognition that in order to build a smart city that benefits all citizens instead of a privileged few, we need a greater level of digital and urban literacy in the media, City staff, and civil society. That means traditional city-building professionals like architects, planners, and urban designers need to be more tech literate and understand the powers and limitations of technology, and technologists need to appreciate the broader social context outside of their bubble, and how technology can help or hinder a truly equitable city.

How does accountability change in a privately owned development? Who (if anyone) is Alphabet Inc./Sidewalk Labs accountable to?

Mariana Valverde (MV) | For-profit corporations are only accountable to their shareholders or other owners. That is the legal definition of a private corporation. Companies can of course benevolently agree to do nice things (as when major banks sponsor charity events or sports events). But they can never be made truly accountable to the public (especially the public of a country different than the one in which they are incorporated). They do of course have to follow the law just like flesh-and-blood persons, but they are not accountable for their decisions to any outside body. Public corporations, by contrast, are legally obligated to prioritize the “people’s welfare” (salus populi, in the Latin phrase still used in U.S. municipal law)—and only they are legally charged with protecting the public from harms and improving urban life.

Private corporations must put the financial interests of the owners ahead of every other consideration. Citizens should not have to go cap in hand to a major American corporation and ask it to please be ethical. Citizens need their governments to protect them from harms that would be inflicted on citizens if the profit motive were not subject to legal limits. Of course this doesn’t always happen, but it is governments that are accountable to ordinary citizens. Corporations are not and cannot be accountable to any outside body unless laws are put in place to force some measure—always limited—of transparency and accountability.

AV | My understanding is that the Quayside District development by Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto is a joint venture and any use of public land or space is governed accordingly. As a development proposal, the project is subject to the City of Toronto zoning process and regulations, as well as applicable provincial regulations. Thus, the project is fully accountable to, and conducted entirely within, a public process as a local development. The proponent is also responsible to the Crown Corporation (which in turn answers to all three orders of government: municipal, provincial, federal) as the project also fits within a precinct plan.

previous: part iii | Tech(nologists) and Design
part v | Privacy and Data