Toronto is right to feel good about Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs choosing the city for its high-tech redevelopment of a 12-acre strip of the eastern waterfront. The Quayside project could be a watershed moment for the burgeoning global smart city movement.
In a Globe and Mail op-ed, Sidewalk CEO and chairman Daniel Doctoroff and Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt said in Toronto they’d “found a city with unequalled diversity and a remarkable spirit of openness” for their futuristic vision.
But they also implied Toronto is an ideal test bed because of what it doesn’t have. “Like other successful cities, Toronto is struggling to maintain diversity as housing prices soar, congestion worsens and cost of living skyrockets.”
For all the potential of this innovative venture, Doctoroff and Schmidt acknowledged what Quayside cannot become: a wealthy, high-tech enclave. “The eastern waterfront should be a model for using technology and data as tools to enhance personal connections and the urban environment – not to close us off to each other and from our surroundings.”
In other words, data and algorithms alone cannot be allowed to drive the project. “Sophisticated modeling techniques” and the like will have value in determining how the city takes shape, but people and their wishes must remain part of the equation. Tracking people’s habits, behaviors and movements is not the same as asking them how they feel.
In fairness, Sidewalk Labs is adamant that policymakers, city leaders and citizens will remain part of the conversation. It’s in Canada, you feel, that this integration between government and corporation for the good of citizens could actually happen.
Canada’s democracy is considered one of the strongest in the world. The country is currently an “island of stability” in a Western world reeling from the effects of distrust in political parties and desperate lashes out for change, according to the Environics Institute.
Sidewalk isn’t the first to recognize Canada as a good bet for trialing government-friendly tech projects. Code for Canada – a non-profit committed to “technology and design for the common good” – shows the Canadian appetite for greater collaboration between government innovators and the country’s tech community to pursue better digital public services.
Elsewhere, Vancouver-based PlaceSpeak is tapping into the potential for municipalities to use the internet to better involve citizens in discussions that usually only happen in sparsely attended town hall meetings.
For it to work, governments had to be open to the idea of a civic engagement platform that puts location-verified citizens in direct contact with them and each other online. And they were – municipalities across Canada have embraced the tool with zeal.
Placespeak’s new feature, SentiMap, takes it a step further by generating colour-coded maps showing a constituent’s sentiment on whatever issues are up for discussion. The in-memory computing platform takes real-time measures of citizen sentiment, pulls it up from the gutter of social media shouting matches and rants, and turns it into an exciting way to see digital democracy in action. It’s a Canadian-made glimpse of the example we can set in using the internet to rejuvenate and reinvigorate policy making, and the antithesis of what could become an algorithm-defined democracy if Quayside is not properly governed.
While such examples can be cherry-picked, it would be disingenuous to suggest Canada is currently leading the way in digital democracy. When comparing, say, an Accenture study that placed Canada 14th in the G20’s most digitally innovative countries, to world-renowned success stories like Estonia’s, it’s clear there’s still a long way to go if we are to reach our potential.
If we can get there, it would be well worth our while. Technology brings great hope, but there are challenges in making it work for everyone. What Silicon Valley is to no-holds-barred innovation, Canada is to good government. It’s this complement that could make Quayside just one of many projects that helps Canada define digital democracy for the world.
For more on technology and smart cities, see How Cities Become What We Want Them To Be.