Alphabet’s ‘Smart City’ — Futuristic Appeal vs. Privacy Fears

Development officials in Toronto recently signed a development agreement involving a “smart city” concept backed by Google’s parent company – but the project still faces doubts from civic officials and citizens.

The project involves Waterfront Toronto — a government-created organization focused on renewal of the city’s waterfront — and Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation company operated by Alphabet. The two entities recently signed a plan development agreement that calls for the “revitalization of Quayside, located at Lake Shore Boulevard East and Parliament Street in Toronto.”

The role of Sidewalk Labs is to equip the planned mixed-use development with such smart-city technology as self-driving vehicles, robotic garbage collection, sensors that keep track of when pedestrians want to cross streets, heated bike lanes that do not rely on fossil fuels and other such features. More generally, the development, if successful, would provide a model for sustainable urban neighborhoods and, of course, showcase how the Alphabet unit and its technology can help make that happen.

Alphabet Experiments

The ongoing work in Toronto to make the development plan a reality represents just the latest example of how Alphabet — carrying on a longstanding Google tradition — makes bets on technology and services that seem supremely futuristic and outside the company’s core business areas.

Perhaps the most famous recent example of that is Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving technology arm. According to Waymo CEO John Krafcik, vehicles powered by Waymo technology are logging 250,000 miles per day. But signs have recently emerged that investors may be feeling impatience about the progress of Waymo and similar experiments.

Local Concerns

In Toronto, the growing prospect of the Sidewalk Labs smart city has itself sparked concern among city residents and officials. “Many are concerned about the data Sidewalk could collect,” said one report. “Some say the deal has been shrouded in secrecy. Others fear the company’s vague but sweeping plans could threaten the city’s authority over a massive swath of waterfront, or even its public transit system and other key services.”

The importance of cameras and sensors to the proposed smart city have reportedly made residents and some authorities nervous about privacy. Worries also involve the scope of the project: While the smart-city, mixed-use development plan focuses on a 12-acre parcel, Alphabet “has repeatedly said that many of its promised innovations must also be deployed on a larger scale, across the entire 800-plus-acre eastern waterfront, which includes the city’s Port Lands – much of which is city-owned and already the site of extensive plans,” according to the The Globe and Mail.

Alphabet did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement, though, Josh Sirefman, head of development at Sidewalk Labs, said the development plans represent “months of successful collaboration” with government and planning officials. “This agreement defines goals, roles and responsibilities and will guide all of our work together as we develop a groundbreaking plan that aims to achieve new levels of sustainability, affordability, mobility and economic opportunity.”

More Hoops

The smart city project still must pass through more hoops — one of which is the creation of a “Master Innovation and Development Plan” for the project. That plan will undergo “public consultation” and require approvals from parties involved in the development.

Real estate development is a wholly different animal from search, digital marketing, eCommerce and associated digital activities — and building a neighborhood involves more politics than does building an office headquarters. Alphabet certainly has the vision: For starters, self-driving vehicles are a vital part of all smart city plans. The coming months will show how well Google’s parent can navigate the world of development.