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All That Glitters Isn’t Gold: Smart City Initiatives Meet Community Concerns

Sidewalk Labs is in trouble for its smart city initiatives

Advances in technology are exciting and offer incredible opportunities for urban environments. Smart city initiatives provide opportunities for automation, data analytics, and enhanced resource utilization. Likewise, these create potential efficiencies in traffic systems, waste management services, and many other areas. Yet, while these smart initiatives seem like a no-brainer, some communities are not so convinced. To them, there are issues concerning a perceived lack of transparency and privacy. And major tech companies like Sidewalk Labs are learning this the hard way.

a photo quote of Bianca Wylie in relation to the current discussions on Sidewalk Labs and smart city initiatives
Bianca Wylie gives insight to what objective they want to achieve with the #BlockSidewalk campaign.

Resistance to Sidewalk Lab’s Smart Initiative in Toronto

Sidewalk Labs initially proposed its smart city initiative 18 months prior for the Toronto waterfront area. The company offered to spend $50 million in exploring innovations to the city’s run-down Quayside region. The proposal included considerations such as robotic waste collection, self-driving taxis, and the widespread use of data analytics. In addition to monitoring pedestrian and cyclist traffic, the system would assess ongoing reparation needs and air quality.

However, a civic group launched the #BlockSidewalk movement in protest against the lack of transparency offered by Sidewalk Labs and the city. Likewise, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association filed a lawsuit against Sidewalk Labs’ smart city initiative. Their concern was more about privacy rights. And despite Sidewalk Labs stating that it would form a data trust to protect privacy rights, doubts existed. Though the smart city initiative is not defeated yet, its future is in serious question.

Sidewalks Labs is facing pushback in Toronto
Micah Lasher points out a valid point about the consequences of sharing smart city initiatives early or later.

Key Issues Against Sidewalk Labs

Notably, a lack of communication and privacy concerns is driving significant resistance against Sidewalk Labs’ smart city initiative. But there is more to the story than simply this. Much has to do with the fact that Sidewalk Labs is affiliated with Alphabet and Google. With these companies’ history of lacking transparency and sharing user data with others, high levels of suspicion are present. And while such an offer may be quite attractive to local and provincial officials, citizens are less enthused.

Reportedly, the deal that Sidewalk Labs would receive for its smart city initiative is substantial. In return for developing the area’s transit system and infrastructural development, it would get a cut of area revenues. Specifically, this deal would include portions of area property taxes, development fees, and increased land values. In total, the figure was estimated to be $60 billion over the next 30 years. These financial rewards and Sidewalk Labs’ opportunity to usurp significant power and control was quite disturbing to many.

a photo quote of Michael Bryant in relation to the current discussions on Sidewalk Labs and smart city initiatives
Michael Bryant gives his two cents on the matter of Sidewalk Labs.

Amazon Feeling Community Scorn Also

As mentioned, Sidewalk Labs is not alone. Other companies, including Amazon, have also experienced recent setbacks in their smart city initiatives and urban endeavors. Though not necessarily a smart city initiative, Amazon recently tried to establish its second headquarters in Queens. In an area already suffering from poor transit, limited schools, and insufficient housing and jobs, the deal seemed positive. Reportedly, Amazon would be bringing 25,000 jobs to the area. But there was a major caveat. The average salary for those jobs would be $150,000 a year. This fact would hardly serve most of the region’s unemployed community.

In addition to these concerns, the city was already subsidizing Amazon with $3 billion in tax incentives. And Amazon had offered little to address the infrastructure needs of the area or make arrangements to assist with affordable housing. All of these factors played a role in the community backlash that eventually drove Amazon to go elsewhere. It seemed residents of Queens were simply fed up with business as usual.

a photo quote of Bill de Blasio in relation to the current discussions on Sidewalk Labs and smart city initiatives
Mayor Bill de Blasio strongly emphasizes what it takes to make it in NYC

All That Glitters Is Not Necessarily Gold

Increasingly, communities are expressing their concerns over technological changes that businesses are offering. Smart city initiatives offer tremendous promise and opportunities. But, at the same time, urban centers bring a great deal to the table. For businesses wanting to be a part of these smart city initiatives, partnerships with communities will be needed. This case will involve not only addressing specific community needs but likewise ensuring community safeguards are in place.

For Sidewalk Labs and Amazon, they are learning these lessons in real time. Unless they can begin to adopt a broader concern for communities, they may continue to struggle with smart city initiatives in the future. In contrast, companies like DuckDuckGo are listening to specific concerns, such as privacy and data protection. The company offers app and browser extensions that prevent Internet searches from being tracked. Companies that follow the same path will likely be the ones with whom communities prefer to partner in the future. And consequently, these types of partnerships will have the best potential for realizing smart city initiatives.

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