Learning the lessons from Toronto’s smart city tribulations

GlobalData Thematic Research 24 February 2020 (Last Updated March 9th, 2020 09:11)

Putting back a critical decision to the end of May on whether or not to give the go-ahead for Toronto’s eagerly watched smart city project shows searching questions are still being asked about the venture’s long term prospects.

Learning the lessons from Toronto’s smart city tribulations

Putting back a critical decision to the end of May on whether or not to give the go-ahead for Toronto’s eagerly watched smart city project shows searching questions are still being asked about the venture’s long term prospects.

Waterfront Toronto, the organisation leading the revitalisation of the Canadian city’s waterfront, was due to make a decision by 31 March on whether Google offshoot Sidewalk Labs’ ambitious plans to build a smart city on the lakefront will get the go-ahead.

Now, the decision has been put back to May 20 to give local people more time to provide input for Waterfront’s evaluation of Sidewalk Labs’ original proposal. It is also a fantastic opportunity for other cities to learn from Toronto’s mistakes.

How not to run a ‘smart’ city project

After more than three years of planning, proposals and reviews, Toronto’s smart-city project is no nearer lift-off. After all the planning and decision-making, it is difficult to imagine how long it will actually take to build the smart city.

Sidewalk Labs lies at the heart of the controversy. It exceeded its original brief on the project. After beginning discussions with Waterfront Toronto to develop a 4.8-hectare site in the city’s Waterfront district, Sidewalk Labs’ detailed proposals mushroomed to encompass a 77-hectare site.

The company’s plans for urban data trusts, which would provide governance for the local ‘urban data’ generated within the smart city project area, were also widely condemned.

Sidewalk Labs proposed an independent, government-sanctioned entity that would manage urban data and establish a process to approve its collection and use. However, this fell foul of Canadian privacy specialists who thought that the trust model was inadequate, lacking a legislative framework to protect privacy and access rights, ensure best practices and provide independent oversight.

As part of an October 31 agreement with Waterfront Toronto to allay local concerns, Sidewalk Labs’ ambitions were scaled back to the original 4.8ha site and Waterfront Toronto itself will now manage the urban data.

Waterfront Toronto has now indicated its approval for 144 of 160 of Sidewalk Labs’ solutions for the massive waterfront neighbourhood project. But a final decision on the project has not been made. Toronto’s public were given a chance to give their feedback at two public meetings held on 29 February.

Learning from Toronto’s mistakes

The fate of Toronto’s grand design is a bellwether for the smart city theme. In terms of ambition, it is an exemplar for innovation. In terms of execution, it is a train wreck.

Toronto’s tribulations have already highlighted lessons for would-be smart cities trying to turn themselves into innovation and development hotbeds. Yung Wu, chief executive of Canadian Innovation Hub MaRS, has pointed out three necessary principles for smart cities:

  • Make innovation more locally inclusive by recognizing the agency of civic activists, civically minded corporations, start-ups and entrepreneurs
  • Deliver regulatory innovation by siting the regulation as close as possible to the people the regulations affect
  • Implement effective data governance that reflects today’s hyper-connected world with ideas such as civic data trusts, safe sharing sites, personal data stores, and secure data collaboration platforms

Watching Toronto won’t provide the answers for every smart city. Each one will have its own agenda and challenges. But despite Toronto’s many missteps, perhaps the biggest encouragement for smart cities everywhere would be for the project to finally get the go-ahead – whenever the decision is finally made.