TORONTO – It’s easy for the layperson to interpret Sidewalk Labs’ newest project as “Google is building a high-tech neighbourhood in Toronto,” but the startup’s first roundtable presentation on Tuesday did its best to paint a picture that depicted anything but.
Instead, Rit Aggarwala, head of urban systems for Sidewalk Labs (a division of Alphabet, Google’s parent company) spent the majority of his presentation downplaying the role of tech in the neighbourhood his company is designing for Toronto’s waterfront, noting that while digital technology was a necessary component, it was only one of many elements being considered, and less important than privacy or urban design.
“We started by asking ourselves the question… ‘What would it look like if we designed a neighbourhood that put people first in the digital age?'” he told the audience. “And all of those components are important. It’s a neighbourhood, and it puts people first, and it’s of and in the digital age.”
Since announcing the project last year, Aggarwala said that Sidewalk Labs has decided to focus on eight goals as it develops the project, only two of which are explicitly digital (and one is data privacy):
- Sustainability: A truly climate positive community;
- Mobility: A competitive, safer alternative to the private automobile for every trip;
- Public Realm: A public realm for the entire region that is delightful and vibrant year-round;
- Buildings: A built environment that is more usable, efficient, and affordable;
- Community and City Services: A close-knit, healthy community with seamless access to vital daily services;
- Digital Platform: Open digital infrastructure that inspires innovation;
- Housing Affordability: Inclusive, affordable communities for people of all ages, abilities, and means;
- Privacy and Data Governance: A new standard for transparent, accountable, and responsible data use.
Aggarwala told ITBusiness.ca that while Sidewalk Labs is excited by the project’s technological component, he wanted to emphasize that tech will be part of the solution, rather than the only solution.
“We were founded because we’re enthusiastic about what digital technology can do,” he said. “The distinction I want to make is that we see ourselves as a company focused on the intersection between cities and technology, and not just on selling a given gadget or app or system.”
He also noted that Sidewalk Labs approaches technology in a broad way, as important to the building construction process as installing artificial intelligence-powered traffic or street lights.
“People often think about technology in the year 2018 and all they think about is digital,” he said. “And there is a tonne of that, whether it’s autonomous vehicles or robots or digitally-aided construction and design. But there are also new materials – things we couldn’t build 25 years ago… like weather mitigation for public spaces, or super-efficient utility systems.”
“I mean, we are an Alphabet company,” he added. “We’re not running away from technology; we’re just not a tech company the way everybody thinks about it.”
Privacy intrinsic to design
Watching Aggarwala’s presentation, however, you could be forgiven for thinking that tech’s role in Quayside, the smart neighbourhood Sidewalk Labs plans to help build, was a tiny one compared to urban planning, since most of it focused on issues such as affordable housing, income inequality, city services, and public transportation.
And privacy. According to Sidewalk Labs business and legal executive Alyssa Harvey Dawson, the company has adopted Privacy by Design as a key component of the project, establishing data collection standards first and incorporating data collection into their operations second, rather than the other way around.
Developed by former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian, “Privacy by Design” refers to a set of principles for organizations to follow that gives users personal control over their information while ensuring the companies that gather it retain a competitive advantage.
“I’ve worked in technology for over a dozen years, and one of the things that I think is a challenge is if you don’t think about these things at the beginning, the solutions you come up with are necessarily inadequate,” Harvey Dawson told ITBusiness.ca. “Why is that data and information essential? How is it going to benefit people? Do you really need to collect it? Are there alternatives to collecting it? And if you do collect it, what do the people know? What rights do they have? What access do they have? How long do you need to keep it? All of those questions need to be answered.”
The answers, according to Sidewalk Labs and its partner Waterfront Toronto, will be developed over the next year through a series of round table meetings, the type that led to the eight goals presented by Aggarwala on Tuesday.
For now, Harvey Dawson said, Sidewalk Labs’ focus is on asking the questions and making them a “robust” part of the development process.