VIEWPOINT: Not so smart — tech companies should stay out of city building

By Isaac Würmann

We knew it was coming.

Computers in our refrigerators. Self-driving cars. A hyper-connected environment that anticipates our movements before they even happen.

Luddites beware — the smart city is here.

Last month, the City of Ottawa asked residents to fill out a questionnaire that would shape a data- and technology-driven vision for the nation’s capital.

In cities such as Toronto, Google and other tech companies are already developing “smart” neighbourhoods that will harvest residents’ data in the name of building sustainable communities and improving quality of life.

While the goals of the “smart city” may seem well-intentioned, the prospect of companies such as Google elbowing its way into the business of community building should concern anyone who cares about privacy and democracy.

The recent survey of Ottawa residents is part of the city’s bid for Infrastructure Canada’s “Smart Cities Challenge,” which promises up to $80 million to develop smart cities across the country.

The challenge encourages cities to address local issues using data and technology by forging “relationships with new and non-traditional partners.”

Last fall, Waterfront Toronto, an arm’s-length corporation funded by all three levels of government that’s charged with revitalizing the city’s lakefront, took that advice in stride when it announced a partnership with Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet.

It has since become clear that the city knew nothing about this partnership until it was too late, raising concerns about the checks and balances — or lack thereof — for tech giants such as Google as they reach further and further into people’s personal lives.

The project, since dubbed Sidewalk Toronto, promises to improve the quality of life for residents in the neighbourhood, help develop solutions to issues such as housing affordability, and become a model for sustainable community building around the world.

While these are noble goals, a number of experts on technology and community development have raised red flags about the nature of Toronto’s relationship with Sidewalk Labs and the privacy implications of the future neighbourhood it promises to build.

To achieve those goals, Sidewalk Labs has said it will install sensors and other data-collecting devices to suck up information about noise levels, air quality, energy use, waste output and anything else that may help create a better community for its residents.

This represents an extraordinary amount of personal information that will be accessible to Google, as well as an erosion of democratic control by the people of Toronto over what happens in their city.

Writing in the tech magazine Wired, Susan Crawford warns that “the key problem is that city officials may not understand that they will get access to very little of what Google learns from their citizens.”

“It is not clear whether Toronto will gain any useful insights from its partnership with Google. Meanwhile, Google will be gaining useful insights about urban life . . . that it will then be able to resell to cities around the world,” Crawford writes.

Although Ottawa is not Toronto and Centretown is not “Sidewalk Toronto”, there is little reason to doubt that these data-driven smart neighbourhoods are the way of the future.

Last month, on the day the capital announced its bid for the Smart Cities Challenge, Ottawa hosted a conference dedicated to discussing the role of technology in the cities of the future.

The keynote for that conference? Ken Greenberg, an urban designer and adviser to Sidewalk Labs.

While the promises of a smart city might be attractive, Centretown residents must keep a watchful eye on any future partnerships between Ottawa and tech companies to ensure the health of their democracy and the protection of their privacy.