Sidewalk Labs T.O.: Recipe for Success or Beacon for Citizen Disempowerment?

Credit: Sidewalk Labs T.O. Digital Rendering

Sidewalk Labs T.O. has just released its full $1.3-billion plan for Toronto that was developed after 18 months of speaking with +21,000 Toronto residents. The firm’s 1,524-page draft “Master Innovation and Development Plan” was delivered to Waterfront Toronto, a tri-government agency that is partnering with the private firm on the project. Among other characteristics, it will have heated walkways, roads that light up based on traffic, and promises to contribute to employment in the region by creating over 40,000 new jobs.

The plan has already been met with a plethora of comments on its viability as a sustainable, privacy-centric initiative from various industry critics and media outlets. The debate will undoubtedly continue over the coming months as the project cautiously inches towards becoming a reality.

There are a many positive outcomes that come with a technology-first approach to how our neighborhoods are architected. It can help unburden the challenges to urban transportation and enhance our standards of everyday living, among others. That being said, I can help but wonder whether if Google (Sidewalk Labs’ sister company, and key project influencer) is the right company to lead the charge in re-designing our future of living.

Google, if you remember, is the same company that removed it’s once touted motto “Don’t be Evil”, used within their corporate code of conduct. They’ve replaced the motto with another well-meaning ideology of “Do the Right Thing” mind you, however subjective that could be interpreted.

Google’s Former Motto

There’s a frequent association that crosses my mind when it comes to Sidewalk Labs’ (read: Google’s) potential interpretation of future city living based on it’s historical modus operendi of non-negligible interference and potentially causing harm. This association is the envisioning of a society that blends together elements of Black Mirror and George Orwell’s 1984 universes. Perhaps this is a stretch of my vivid dystopian imagination.

Credit: Netflix. In Black Mirror’s episode of “Nosedive“, society uses a technology where, through eye implants and mobile devices, everyone shares their daily activities and rates their interactions with others on a one-to-five star scale, which affects that person’s overall rating. One’s current rating can be seen by others and has significant influence on one’s socioeconomic status.

Perhaps I have seen one too many Black Mirror Episodes. Perhaps the final product that is launched in market will truly be an enhanced way of living, working, commuting, and community building that can serve as a model to be reproduced the world over. The reality is that we won’t know the full impact of the project years after it is delivered and operational. That being said, we have to be prepared for the best, and the worst, possible outcomes.

As citizens, it is our responsibility to stay informed on future developments that have a tangible impact on our society. This empowers us. And, the more power we have as citizens in keeping our most celebrated companies’ in line with what is acceptable for us, the more our future will incorporate solutions that enhances the value of our lives.

What do you think about this #SmartCities initiative? Comment below!

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