In Silicon Valley, to make a device “smart” means to add internet connectivity, allowing it to collect, send, and receive data, often while learning and adapting to user preferences. The technology industry has invested wholesale in the idea that “smart” means better, and so we have smart speakers, smart thermometers, smart baby monitors, smart window shades, and smart sex toys, all perpetually collecting rich user data to send back to company servers.
Soon enough, we’ll have a smart city: Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is building one “from the internet up,” with help from a series of private-public real-estate partnerships in the downtown Toronto neighborhood Quayside (pronounced Key-side).
It is not the first smart city—municipalities around the world have adopted smart infrastructure like artificial-intelligence-enabled traffic lights—but it might be the most ambitious. The project’s 200-page wish list of features is astounding. The “vision document” imagines not only the revitalization of a 12-acre plot that has sat largely vacant since its heyday as an industrial port, but its transformation into a micro-city outfitted with smart technologies that will use data to disrupt everything from traffic congestion to health care, housing, zoning regulations, and greenhouse-gas emissions. Long before flying cars, smart sensors won’t just be in our mattresses or our bidets, they’ll be embedded in the walls of our homes and the concrete beneath our feet.
But all those data require mechanisms to collect them, and the march to an “always on” city has drawn an onslaught of accusations against Sidewalk Labs and its real-estate partner, Waterfront Toronto, for dismissing privacy concerns and misinforming residents. In the past month, four people have resigned from Waterfront Toronto’s and Sidewalk Labs’ advisory board over concerns about privacy and lack of public input.