Google's smart-city plans 'tech for tech's sake'

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter

  • Published
Toronto WaterfrontImage source, Sidewalk Labs

Google's Sidewalk Labs's plans to build a smart city "from the internet up" in a disused waterfront area of Toronto contain too much "tech for tech's sake", an independent panel has said.

It also accused the company of being too vague about what it planned to do.

Some of the planned innovations were "irrelevant or unnecessary", it added, and did not seem to put citizens first.

Sidewalk Labs has said it has consulted thousands of Torontonians and they are at the core of its development plans.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Does a city need sensors to decide how to use public space?

But the panel of 15 people, including academics, urban technology and legal experts, "felt that the plan did not appear to put the citizen at the centre of the design process for digital innovations, as was promised in the beginning and is necessary for legitimacy".

"Some of the solutions felt like 'tech for tech's sake' - applying a complex technological solution to a situation that mostly doesn't need it," it said.

And there were often much simpler solutions to problems such as how to use public space.

"Not sure where to put a path in a new park? Plant grass and give it two months, go back, see where people tramped the grass down - called desire lines - and off you go, build your path there. Can we get better? Sure, of course. But let's tread carefully about what kinds of tech we use."

The panel - set up last year by Waterfront Toronto, the public body overseeing the Quayside project - also questioned:

  • Sidewalk Labs's link to parent company Alphabet, with its "significant economic and political power"
  • the data-driven business model of many of its "corporate siblings"
  • the lobbying efforts it had made around its plans for Quayside

In response, Sidewalk Labs said: "Most of the feedback we see in this interim report has been conveyed to us throughout our engagement with the digital strategy advisory panel over the last few months.

"It is one of the reasons why we are producing the Digital Innovation Appendix which will include a comprehensive list of technology that would be deployed in Quayside, how we would support Toronto's technology ecosystem, and our research work on data governance."

Next month, city officials must decide whether to approve or reject the proposals put forward by Sidewalk Labs.