Sidewalk Labs is under pressure to explain its smart city dream

The company is betting everything on a long-overdue planning document.

Sidewalk Labs, the part of Alphabet focused on smart cities, is behind schedule. The company had planned to publish its grand vision for Quayside, a 12-acre site on Toronto's industrial waterfront, in the fall of 2018. Last June, however, the first version of its crucial Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) was pushed back to early 2019. "It will be a comprehensive document, but still a work-in-progress," a press release clarified at the time. A complete MIDP would then be published in "spring 2019," the company said, following a public roundtable.

The draft version of the MIDP is yet to materialize. And for many, it's been an agonizing wait. Waterfront Toronto, a public steward created by the Canadian government, announced its search for an innovation and funding partner back in March 2017. Sidewalk Labs put its name forward with a beautiful "vision" document that suggested, among other head-turning ideas, buildings made from timber, a flexible thermal grid and subterranean tunnels for deliveries and garbage disposal. The company won the bid in October and has spent the past 18 months researching those ideas, consulting with experts and gathering public feedback.

Toronto citizens, unsurprisingly, have a lot of questions. Sidewalk Labs has shared some information about its evolving work through a mixture of live events, blog posts, PDF presentations and podcasts. It hasn't detailed everything, however, because the MIDP is still incomplete and many of its ideas are subject to change. The company is usually quick to stress that the work being shared is "the most current perspective" held by its team.

Sidewalk Labs

Residents want a deeper understanding of Quayside though. Many have demanded greater transparency and, in the absence of detail, have started to fear the worst possible outcome: a neighborhood that benefits the bottom line of Silicon Valley and other technology giants rather than its inhabitants. These concerns are understandable. Alphabet is, after all, the parent company of Google, a technological Goliath known for tracking and monetizing its users' personal information. Sidewalk Labs has always stressed that it's effectively, or spiritually, independent and has no plans to use Quayside as a way to hoover up personal data. Still, people worry.

On Tuesday, a group of concerned citizens launched #BlockSidewalk, a campaign dedicated to informing the public "what the project is, and why it should be reset." Julie Beddoes, a waterfront resident and #BlockSidewalk supporter, told reporters at city hall, "In Toronto, [Sidewalk Labs] is aiming to take over the functions of government -- do we really need a coup d'état to get transit and nice paving stones?"

Bianca Wylie, the campaign chair, added in a press release, "After 17 months of paying close attention to the deal, #BlockSidewalk knows this project should have ended a long time ago. And while we don't have the $11 million communications budget that they have, we have resident and organizing capacity, and a lot of global support, to bring the public up to speed on what has happened so far and what's at stake."

"It's almost like a 50-sided Rubik's Cube."

Sidewalk Labs is in a tough spot. It wants to be transparent and has engaged with the public through live talks, roundtables, neighborhood meetings, a 36-member reference panel, pop-up events and the occasional prototype demonstration. It's trying to listen and, crucially, develop a plan that keeps all stakeholders happy. That includes local residents, Waterfront Toronto, local politicians, the federal government and its corporate owners in San Francisco.

Sidewalk Labs

"It's almost like a 50-sided Rubik's Cube," Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs, said during a session with Canada's Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics (ETHI) on Tuesday. "Trying to put all of these different pieces together in a way that's responsive to all of the literally thousands of comments that we've received not just from government officials but from the public, [and] that is truly respectful of the objectives of Waterfront Toronto, as well as Canadian values."

Sidewalk Labs has taken its time putting the MIDP together. And that makes sense: The company has one shot of winning the public's and Canadian government's approval. If the plan is thrown out, Sidewalk Labs will walk away from Toronto with nothing. Waterfront Toronto has been using this fact to reassure people who are concerned about Sidewalk Labs and how the project has been developing. "If the MIDP from Sidewalk Labs does not deliver on the priorities that we have set out for Quayside, in a manner that is in the public interest, then the proposed plan will not be implemented," the organization said in a blog post.

Technically, Sidewalk Labs has until September to publish its MIDP and gain approval from Waterfront Toronto. Waiting that long exposes the company to fresh leaks and resignations, however, that damage public trust and fuel protest movements such as #BlockSidewalk.

Sidewalk Labs has until September to publish its MIDP and gain approval from Waterfront Toronto.

Last October, for instance, Saadia Muzaffar announced that she was stepping down from Waterfront Toronto's Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. "Waterfront Toronto's apathy and utter lack of leadership regarding shaky public trust and social license has been astounding," the author and founder of TechGirls Canada said in her resignation letter.

Later that month, Sidewalk Labs explained its vision for an independent trust that would analyze, approve and monitor all forms of data collection in Quayside. Dr. Ann Cavoukian, a privacy expert and consultant for Sidewalk Labs, shortly resigned over the proposal. She wanted all data collection to be anonymized or "de-identified" at the source, protecting the privacy of citizens. Sidewalk Labs could promise this for its own applications, but it couldn't force other companies, because the trust and its approval process would, by design, be independent.

Sidewalk Labs

Two months ago, The Star obtained internal documents that explained how Sidewalk Labs could generate revenue from the project. Instead of collecting user data, the company wanted an appropriate slice of property taxes and development fees. The presentation also hinted at a broader redevelopment plan beyond Quayside. Sidewalk Labs confirmed the documents were authentic and explained some of its thinking.

"We don't think that 12 acres on Quayside has the scale to actually have the impact on affordability and economic opportunity and transit that everyone aspires to," Doctoroff told The Star. "We're going to be spending a lot of money in advancing the infrastructure. And where we do that and there are new property tax revenues or developer charges, we only want to get paid back a reasonable return for our investment in that infrastructure."

By that point, though, the damage had already been done.

Sidewalk Labs went further with a lengthy blog post that linked to the presentation. By that point, though, the damage had already been done: People had discovered a key piece of information through the press rather than the company, Waterfront Toronto or another official source. It reaffirmed the idea that Sidewalk Labs was holding back in public forums.

At the ETHI meeting yesterday, Peter Kent, a member of the Canadian Parliament, said he was hopeful and "fascinated" by the Quayside project when it was first announced. Subsequent leaks and resignations, however, had led him "in some ways to agree" with the fiery remarks made by Jim Balsillie, the former chairman and co-CEO of BlackBerry maker Research in Motion, last year. "Waterfront Toronto continues to weaponize ambiguity while making irreversible decisions that will have major negative effects on all Canadians," Balsillie wrote in a seething op-ed for The Globe and Mail. "Is this how we want our cities and the future of our country managed?"

Sidewalk Labs

In response, Doctoroff said he was confident that the MIDP would win back his trust. "Any project that seeks to break new ground, and particularly, is committed to reaching out and getting people's feedback before everything is clear, is going to be a natural recipient of concern and criticisms," Doctoroff said. "And, to be perfectly honest, we welcome the concern and criticism because we believe very strongly that it makes us smarter and more sensitive, and makes the plans ultimately better."

He added, "I do believe that what we're going to come back with, hopefully, is going to reignite that excitement you [once] had."

The company is betting everything, in short, on a single document. One chance to persuade everyone, including members of #BlockSidewalk, that it has a plan worth backing.

No pressure.