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Smart Cities for Dummies

When Sidewalk Labs was granted the rights to develop Toronto’s eastern waterfront in 2017, their plan was to create a world-class urban neighbourhood built around tech integration. Originally an industrial shipping zone with a public promenade, Quayside’s 12 acres of land were identified as an ideal opportunity to develop the region in accordance with Toronto’s planning principles of livability, connectivity, prosperity, and resilience. The project was ambitious in its promise to create jobs while ensuring that sustainability, affordability, mobility options, and digital innovation remained at the forefront of civic life in this 21st century utopia. Public spaces would remain adaptable to change over time, based on predictive modeling techniques analyzing community data, captured by sensors recording everything from foot traffic to weather conditions and noise levels.

The proposal was immediately met with vocal opposition and criticism by local advocates. Many expressed concern over the unprecedented levels of public data collection and monitoring as well as Sidewalk’s lack of transparency throughout the process1. As an Alphabet subsidiary, the most common critique was that Sidewalk Labs was building a highly appealing but incredibly commodified “built form version of Facebook”2. By May 2020 Sidewalk Labs stepped away from the project, with CEO Daniel L. Doctoroff citing economic uncertainty with COVID-19 and Toronto’s real estate market affecting their ability to complete the project “without sacrificing core parts of the plan”3.

Although Sidewalk Toronto is in the rearview mirror, the story of the development project-to-be still holds valuable insights on public data sovereignty, corporate influence, government regulation, and the tenuous balance that all three must strike in order to leverage new and emerging tech towards community benefit. For better or for worse, Alphabet will not be building a neighbourhood from ‘the internet up’ in Toronto; but to pretend that Sidewalk Toronto is an anomaly in city development is short-sighted, even naive. Google is already in the process of creating a similar ‘village’ in San Jose, valued at $19 billion4, joining a community of developments in South Korea, Dubai, India, Spain, and Saudi Arabia5. Smart cities are increasingly alluring propositions for municipalities around the world, and should be better understood in the hopes that they lead to beneficial long-term, sustainable outcomes for their residents.

An Alphabet City

With reference to Silicon Valley as the world’s digital tech hub and New York as the globe’s financial centre, Sidewalk Labs proposed that Quayside would be the world’s hub for ‘urban innovation’6. Their lofty vision for the community was intended to be a pilot demonstrating the affordability, sustainability and efficiency of a community which would meld the physical and digital realms to previously unprecedented levels. And on the surface, there was much to be optimistic about: high bandwidth wireless communications would be universal, predictive modeling and monitoring techniques would inform real-time safety and quality-of-life improvements, and the entire project would be fossil fuel free and regenerative.

Exploring the proposal’s description for the ‘digital layer’ uncovers valuable insights into how digital technologies were intended to be integrated into the community. This digital layer would involve Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) for software developers, technologists, students, entrepreneurs, and developers to develop technology solutions for community problems on what is advertised as a ‘canvas’ for state of the art urban technology7.

Focusing on the ‘Digital Layer’ provides insight into how technology was meant to integrate with the built environment to provide a base level of community services. At the site level, a distributed network of sensors would track real-time data about the environment and public interaction with the space. Information could be captured on infrastructure, buildings, and shared public resources like park benches and intersections and analyzed to produce maps enabling safe and efficient transportation throughout the area. Residents and municipal staff would be assigned accounts with permissions to view and control data based on their identity. Taken together, the information could also serve as inputs for Sidewalk Labs’ ‘Model Lab’ software, simulating changes to the environment in a virtual laboratory setting.

Given the alarming amount of data collection within their proposal, Sidewalk Labs also included a ‘Standards Layer’ to set the foundations for rules that residents, administrators, and developers must abide by in order to use the data collected within the environment.

Former Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian was also hired to serve on the project’s advisory board when Sidewalk Labs’ proposal was chosen as the site developer.

Who Owns ‘Urban Data’ in the Smart City?

In response to the protests concerning data collection, Sidewalk Labs published a revised data governance plan:; all ‘urban data’ would be governed by an independent Civic Data Trust, and anyone intending to collect or use this urban data would have to file a ‘Responsible Data Impact Assessment’ before being granted access8. This creation of the ‘urban data’ category captured a new set of information from both public and private spaces where obtaining meaningful consent would be impractical9. Even more alarming is the fact that the non-profit status of the Civic Data Trust would allow it to operate outside of Canadian private and public sector data protection laws; combined with the fact that this category existed outside of data types protected by the Canadian Privacy Act and PIPEDA meant that this data would be subject to reduced regulatory oversight. Ann Cavoukian resigned from the project following Sidewalk Labs’ data governance proposal, citing concerns over the inability for the team to enforce de-identification of data among the various organizations commissioned to provide the data collection technology10.

Sidewalk Labs’ data governance structure - or lack, thereof - was identified as a key factor leading to the project’s failure to launch. On a technical level the concept of a publicly-accessible Civic Data Trust is antithetical to data privacy, which Sidewalk Labs failed to reconcile in their proposal. By adopting an ‘open data’ approach to information collected by its censors, all information could be potentially commodified as products which could be sold to developers to create apps and services based on that data. Data protection laws set out to prevent personal information from being owned or controlled by parties outside of that individual, leading to direct conflicts with the idea of a civic data trust. Sidewalk Labs was ultimately accused of creating a surveillance city bypassing Canadian data protection laws without meaningful public consultation, with environmentalism and urban innovation acting as a metaphorical 21st-century ‘trojan horse’11.

How Might We Design Better ‘Smart Cities’?

Although the concept of ‘open data’ can be traced back to the late sixteenth century, In Canada ‘open data’ and ‘open government’ initiatives were first implemented as official policies under the Stephen Harper Conservative government in 2012 to drive economic development and innovation12. Globally, initiatives like the Open Government Partnership and the International Open Data Charter have set international standards for how civic data is to be made available and accessible for the general public to use. In the case of Sidewalk Toronto, the creation of a Civic Data Trust represents a clear example of consumer protection policies for data use failing to keep up with tech developments. This should serve as a direct warning to other municipalities to more carefully consider the implications of allowing tech companies to direct open data policies - especially when economic systems are also involved.

In imagining the potential for healthy digital societies, American research organization New_ Public found that qualities present in flourishing physical spaces could equally apply to the design of healthy digital spaces. Elements like inclusivity, community sense-making, opportunities for connection, and collective action were identified as integral to building digital communities that reflect the best of existing physical spaces13. Smart cities provide a unique opportunity to bridge the gap between contemporary civic life and the digital metaverse, proving this theory in practice. Engaging technologists with sociological theories, environmental design and Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge could provide more holistic foundations for inclusive and representative tech, designed around the particular qualities of specific geographic regions.

Building on inclusivity and accessibility, the Institute for Community Prosperity also reflected on the role that “Age Tech” might contribute as a component of smart city applications. The increased use of environmental sensors and ‘wide body area networks’ (WBAN) would disproportionately impact Canada’s growing aging population, with direct implications on data privacy and insurance provision14. Adopting a ‘Universal Design’ (UD) approach might help center the conversation on accessibility and inclusion of those often overlooked in the development of new and emerging digital tech. When applied to physical community spaces, increasing the diversity of voices present from design to implementation.

Further Questions

  • How might urban data be collected in ways that protect individual and communal privacy while also contributing to positive community development?

  • What characteristics should smart city data management have in the development of future smart cities in Canada?

  • Can continuously-collected public data obtained in Sidewalk Toronto’s model be truly de-identified? How might smart cities de-identify individuals in aggregate data sets?


Curtis is a recent MRU graduate, having completed a minor in Social Innovation. He is especially interested in applying systems sight to language, culture & popular media to expand our capacity for empathy. He recently competed in MRU's Map the System campus final, exploring the Cantonese language as a complex global system. Feel free to mention 'Turning Red' or 'Everything, Everywhere, All at Once' as his favourite movies (so far!) of 2022.


1 Goodman, Ellen P. & Powles, Julia. (2019). Urbanism Under Google: Lessons from Sidewalk Toronto. Fordham Law Review vol. 88 (p. 458)

2 Lorinc, John. (2017). LORINC: We need to Google some questions about Sidewalk Labs. Retrieved from

3 Doctoroff, Daniel L. (2020). Why we’re no longer pursuing the Quayside project - and what’s next for Sidewalk Labs. Retrieved from

4 Avalos, George. (2022). Google village in downtown San Jose could achieve $19 billion value. Retrieved from

5 Artyushina, Anna. (2020). Is civic data governance the key to democratic smart cities? The role of the urban data trust in Sidewalk Toronto. Telematics and Informatics, Volume 55 DOI: (p. 3)

8 Dawson, Alyssa H. (2018). An Update on Data Governance for Sidewalk Toronto. Retrieved from

9 Austin, Lisa M. & Lie, David. (2021). Data Trusts and the Governance of Smart Environments: Lessons from the Failure of Sidewalk Labs’ Urban Data Trust. Surveillance & Society 19(2). (p. 257)

10 CBC. (2020). I resigned in protest from Sidewalk Labs’ ‘smart city’ project over privacy concerns. Retrieved from

11 Wylie, Bianca. (2017). Civic Tech: On Google, Sidewalk Labs, and Smart Cities. Retrieved from

12 Wylie, Bianca. (2018). Open Data Endgame: Countering the Digital Consensus. Retrieved from

13 New_Public. (2022). The Signals: The qualities of flourishing digital spaces. Retrieved from

14 Stauch, James. (2019) Aging & Thriving In the 21st Century: A Scan and Selective Systems Analysis of Issues, Trends, and Innovations Vital to Older Adults in Canada. Retrieved from

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