Side­walk Labs ramps up charm of­fen­sive for HQ

‘Smart city’ ideas to be on dis­play at Toronto site REAL ESTATE

National Post (Latest Edition) - - FINANCIAL POST - JAMES MCLEOD JM­cleod@post­media.com

TORONTO • Side­walk Labs on Saturday af­ter­noon will throw open the doors on an old fish plant in east Toronto to show peo­ple the “smart city” ideas it is de­vel­op­ing for the Quay­side neigh­bour­hood.

The build­ing — dubbed “307” since it’s at 307 Lakeshore Blvd. East — is the lat­est com­mu­nity out­reach ef­fort by the Google LLC af­fil­i­ated ur­ban de­vel­oper, which as­pires to trans­form a swath of the Toronto water­front into a high-tech pocket of ur­ban­ism, re­plete with au­ton­o­mous cars, ro­bots and sen­sors that prom­ise to im­prove city liv­ing in all sorts of lit­tle ways.

But Side­walk Labs has faced es­ca­lat­ing skep­ti­cism dur­ing a se­ries of pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion ses­sions about the pro­ject, as crit­ics worry about how the com­pany will use the data it will col­lect and com­plain about a lack of trans­parency.

By open­ing 307, Side­walk Labs is ramp­ing up the charm of­fen­sive in an ef­fort to build a so­cial li­cence for the even­tual development. There will be art, talks and a “mod­u­lar pave­ment” demon­stra­tion that lets streets trans­form to give ex­tra space to pedes­tri­ans dur­ing cer­tain times.

“We are not just build­ing a condo build­ing,” said Lau­ren Skelly, a Side­walk Labs spokesper­son. “The con­ver­sa­tions that are hap­pen­ing around us are great, and, you know, the truth is we don’t nec­es­sar­ily have all the an­swers yet, be­cause what we are propos­ing has not been done be­fore.”

The build­ing will be open to the pub­lic ev­ery week­end dur­ing the sum­mer, with planned pub­lic talks, ur­ban development pro­to­type demon­stra­tions, a com­mu­nity mar­ket built us­ing old ship­ping con­tain­ers and a vegetable gar­den in the park­ing lot.

But Bianca Wylie, an open gov­ern­ment ad­vo­cate and co-founder of ad­vo­cacy group Tech Re­set Canada, is not par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in the out­reach ef­forts.

Wylie said peo­ple can’t have a se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion about some­thing if they don’t have at least some specifics and the Side­walk Labs development plan is still ex­tremely vague.

“How do you have a con­sul­ta­tion when peo­ple aren’t even in­formed?” she said. “What we need to un­der­stand is: What is this deal? And that’s where any so­cial li­cence can be at­tained. All this other stuff is noise.”

Wylie said there’s a se­vere short­age of con­crete state­ments by Side­walk Labs. In­stead, it just talks vaguely about mak­ing life bet­ter for Toronto res­i­dents.

“You don’t get to come into some­one’s city and say, ‘We’re go­ing to make life bet­ter for you, trust us,’” she said. “What some peo­ple might think is bet­ter might be quite dystopian for oth­ers, right?”

A lot of the dis­cus­sion around the Toronto pro­ject has fo­cused on data col­lec­tion and pri­vacy. Side­walk Labs of­fi­cials in­sist no data of any kind will be col­lected at the 307 open­ing event.

Sheldon Levy, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Next Canada, a Toronto-based non-profit tech in­cu­ba­tor, said he’s met with Side­walk Labs and he’s con­vinced the best way for it to al­lay con­cerns is to sim­ply de­sign tech­nol­ogy sys­tems to de­liver ser­vices with­out col­lect­ing data at all.

“The data sys­tems that we have, have got to be au­dited as not col­lect­ing per­sonal in­for­ma­tion, as op­posed to col­lect­ing it and then say­ing, what are the rules around it?” he said.

Levy added that Side­walk Labs may be a light­ning rod for crit­i­cism, but the broader is­sues of data pri­vacy and how to man­age new tech­nol­ogy is some­thing the gov­ern­ment should be tak­ing the lead on.

“Side­walk Labs is try­ing to fig­ure out what works. I don’t think they are with bad intent at all,” he said. “The peo­ple I’ve met are fine in­di­vid­u­als, but I think they just ar­rived at a time when we as Cana­di­ans haven’t fig­ured it out.”

Skelly said Side­walk Labs is com­mit­ted to only use any data col­lected to im­prove the lives of peo­ple in the neigh­bour­hood, and it has pub­lished a “re­spon­si­ble data use frame­work” that lays out prin­ci­ples and pri­vacy con­sid­er­a­tions for the pro­ject.

She also said the com­pany does not know how it’s go­ing to make money off the ven­ture, but be­cause it’s owned by Al­pha­bet Inc., Google’s par­ent com­pany, mak­ing money isn’t some­thing it needs to worry about right now.

“We are very for­tu­nate to be an Al­pha­bet com­pany, so that al­lows us to be very mis­sion-driven, and our mis­sion is to im­prove ur­ban life, and do it in ma­jor ways," Skelly said. "And we be­lieve if we do that, we will find op­por­tu­ni­ties to make money."

PETER J THOMP­SON / FI­NAN­CIAL POST

“307” will be open to all on week­ends in the sum­mer, with pub­lic talks, ur­ban development pro­to­type demon­stra­tions, a com­mu­nity mar­ket and a vegetable gar­den.

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