Digital Distress: Smart Cities and Toronto’s Quayside Project

By: Madison Hollington

With Big Data increasingly occupying more of our everyday lives, some companies are trying to utilize this information to create what is known as Smart Cities. These data-driven cities aim to improve the lives of those living within them by producing a more efficient, innovative, and sustainable society. For example, Smart Cities are fitted with sensors, cameras, and other technology that tackle urban issues like traffic congestion or perform everyday tasks such as taking out the garbage. In 2017, Google’s Sidewalk Labs proposed plans to develop one of these Smart Cities in Toronto’s Quayside area.

The value of Smart Cities lies in their prospective ability to create better-functioning communities that can seamlessly cater to the changing needs of residents. More specifically, these data-driven cities can tackle some of the most complex and burdensome problems of urban centres. For Toronto, one of the major points of frustration that Sidewalk Labs’ Smart City could have addressed is its transportation system. Subways, streetcars, and roadways could be optimized to get Torontonians from point A to point B much more efficiently, increasing access to crucial services and public life for all. Alongside improved services, Smart Cities can also yield significant economic growth for their locales as they often attract entrepreneurs looking to invest in new ground-breaking technology. Given these perks, it is understandable why Toronto showed interest in housing Canada’s first city of this kind.

However, the discourse around Smart Cities hasn’t come without worry. The proposed introduction of this tech city in Quayside has raised significant concern from both Torontonians and people nationwide. For one, there are questions surrounding who would own the data collected on the city’s residents and how it would be used. More specifically, governments are considering how companies like Sidewalk Labs might commodify this information, creating the potential for data to fall into the wrong hands and threaten national security. Similarly, critics of Smart Cities have echoed worries about the security of the technological systems these developments plan to use, especially considering their embedment within people’s homes. For example, if the data systems controlling public services experienced a data breach or technological disruption, would the city come to a halt?

On the topic of safety, another substantial uncertainty regarding Smart Cities is how data-driven mass surveillance might inform current municipal services, most notably law enforcement. In a strategy known as ‘predictive policing’, data is collected from various forms of technology such as facial recognition, historical statistics, and crime algorithms to inform where, who, and what should be policed. Such policing technologies also subject individuals who have yet to offend to the same level of surveillance, creating a Big Brother-esque city where residents lose their right to privacy.

The theory supporting the use of such policing tactics is that predictive measures assist law enforcement in preventing crime and creating safer communities as a result. However, algorithms and crime statistics contain a plethora of biases, as policing has historically been a discriminatory practice. Toronto already experiences disparities in law enforcement, such as the over-policing of low-income and racialized neighbourhoods. Therefore, there are fears that a Smart City in Quayside would only continue to reproduce and reinforce these biases, contributing to the racial disproportionalities within Ontario’s justice system.

There are also fears that the implementation of Smart Cities could impact many of the services that the average person tends to take for granted. For example, as data is collected on the usage of certain amenities, residents might be subjected to dynamic pricing. If this were the case, people who use a greater amount of a given service would face higher costs than those who use less. While this seems straightforward, an underdeveloped data-driven pricing model may fail to account for how imperative some of these services are for certain groups of people. For instance, wheelchair-bound individuals would have a much higher usage of elevators compared to those who can take the stairs. As such, usage-based costs can risk evolving into discriminatory pricing, alienating certain marginalized communities in the process.

So far, the concerns surrounding mass surveillance have contributed to the termination of many Smart City developments, including Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside project. With the promises of improved living and sustainable communities in mind, many are still hopeful that a tech-driven city will one day reach Toronto’s waterfront. However, is it possible to have a world in which Smart Cities, privacy, and digital justice co-exist? How will cities mitigate the effects of these data interferences on other crucial services?

At a minimum, all three orders of government, Sidewalk Labs, and third-party agencies would need to collaborate to develop robust policy measures that ensure the safety and security of sensitive information. Moreover, strict adherence to a transparent data collection policy will be necessary to ensure that residents are informed about what personal information is being collected and that it is only used for its intended purposes. Additionally, policing and other social services impacted by technological advancement need to maintain a human-centred approach to keep the well-being of the community a top priority. More specifically, these digital law enforcement tools must be tailored to the needs of those it polices and establish positive relationships between officers and citizens. Preserving strong ties among community members and the services they use builds trust and, subsequently, creates opportunities for future innovation. If these concerns and considerations are adequately addressed, Smart Cities could establish a presence in Canada sooner than we think, maybe even in Toronto…

Madison Hollington is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Her interests include labour policy, education, justice reform, and how current legal frameworks translate to the digital world. Madison holds an Honours Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Criminology from the University of Toronto. She is eager to incorporate this knowledge into her future policy work. In her free time, Madison enjoys live music, cooking, and spending time with her three cats.

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