TORONTO — Behind a cloak of shrubbery in a gritty Toronto neighborhood lies a brick duplex, the home of Bianca Wylie, a 39-year-old mother of two on a mission to upend big tech’s latest pet project: “smart” cities. In a living room office overflowing with books and baby toys, Wylie settles into an armchair and unspools the story of how she found herself up against the mother of all Internet companies.
In October 2017, Sidewalk Labs, a Google-affiliated company looking to make urban life more streamlined, economical and green by infusing cities with sensors and data analytics, announced plans to build the world’s first neighborhood “from the Internet up” on 12 acres of the Toronto waterfront, an area known as Quayside. Sidewalk aims to, for example, build an “advanced microgrid” to power electric cars, design “mixed-use” spaces to bring down housing costs, employ “sensor-enabled waste separation” to aid recycling and use data to improve public services.
Wylie’s resume is filled with positions in IT, government consultancies and corporate development. More recently, she’s worked part-time as a professor while volunteering for various “open data” and “civic tech” initiatives. Last November, she launched Tech Reset Canada (TRC) with three other activist-entrepreneurs — all women.
The group describes itself as “pro-growth” and “pro-innovation” but questions whether a top-down smart city project by an American tech behemoth is really in the best interests of Toronto’s citizens. “This is a story about governance, not urban innovation,” Wylie said. “There is nothing innovative about partnering with a monopoly.”
TRC’s founders are not opposed to the concept of smart cities in principle. Their concerns revolve around the collection and commodification of urban data and whether that occurs through a democratic process or via corporate fiat.
Sidewalk’s vision for Quayside — as a place populated by self-driving vehicles and robotic garbage collectors, where the urban fabric is embedded with cameras and sensors capable of gleaning information from the phone in your pocket — certainly sounds Orwellian. Yet the company contends that the data gathered from fully wired urban infrastructure is needed to refine inefficient urban systems and achieve ambitious innovations like zero-emission energy grids.
On May 2, a local tech entrepreneur named Marc de Pape published a blog post that gave a critical account of his experience being interviewed for a position in Sidewalk Labs’ “city services department.” De Pape withdrew his candidacy, citing philosophical differences that became apparent during the interview. It was the final question — “how voting might be different in the future” — that made his stomach turn. “I was shocked and offended by the question as a Canadian … how blindly ambitious do you have to be as a private American company to even imply that our public voting systems are within your mandate?”
On May 3, The WorldPost attended a town hall-style meeting for the project, one of many public relations events that have been held since October, at which residents were invited to give input. In previous meetings, the presentation had focused on cutting-edge technology but now seemed more about convincing attendees that Toronto would not become a “dystopian technocapitalist hellscape,” as New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo recently described big tech’s pivot to city-building. A tone of defensiveness, if not annoyance, pervaded the question-and-answer session that followed, during which attendees raised thorny questions about how their data would be used.
During the event, Wylie tweeted her disappointment about an announcement Sidewalk Labs made from the stage: that long-promised details about their plan would be delayed several more months. Micah Lasher, Sidewalk’s head of policy and communications, shot back on Twitter while the meeting was still in progress: “Except, no, that’s not what was said. No matter how much you want to rush this process, we are going to continue to be deliberative.” (But a video of the event shows that is what was said.)
Surprised, Wylie approached him about the disagreement. During their exchange, Lasher characterized her activism as disingenuous and motivated by personal gain. Through a representative, Lasher acknowledged the exchange but maintained that his words and tone were “appropriate.” A Sidewalk spokesperson who was also present insisted that “all ended amicably.” The feeling wasn’t mutual. Wylie and a fellow activist who was present during the interaction described the conduct as an effort to intimidate.
The tech industry’s “move fast and break things” culture — as Mark Zuckerberg famously, or perhaps, infamously, put it — tends not to take kindly to laws, institutions and individuals that get in the way. If the Toronto region is to become “Silicon Valley North,” as local boosters have long branded it, Wylie would prefer that such arrogance be left at the border.
“Sidewalk Labs faces a number of political minefields, as I see it,” said city councilor Kristyn Wong-Tam when The WorldPost reached her by phone. “I don’t want to shut the project down, but the more that they don’t answer critical questions … [the more] they’re going to erode their social currency.”
On issues of privacy and data governance, the first agreement was largely silent, while the new version states that the project will move forward under “the most privacy protected/citizen-centered set of policies and governance structures in the world, recognizing privacy as a fundamental human right.”
“It’s a win for Waterfront Toronto because they walked back a really bad deal,” said Wylie, who sees the government-created agency taking back control after overly accommodating Sidewalk. “But it’s not a win to me as a member of the public because we are now just more entrenched in this.” She’s not impressed with the lofty claims about privacy, either. “That’s advertising language. Tacking ‘human rights’ on at the end doesn’t change that. We need to change our laws to reject surveillance capitalism as a social norm.”