‘Most people don’t like change’: CEO of Sidewalk Labs says criticism of project was inevitable
One day after the Canadian Civil Liberties Association published an incendiary open letter calling for a stop to the Sidewalk Labs development in downtown Toronto, the chief executive of the company behind the project said opposition was inevitable.
“Most people don’t like change, or at least they’re afraid of it in some way, and their natural tendency when they hear something new is to step back and say ‘no,’” Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff told the Financial Post in an interview Wednesday.
“You are naive if you don’t think that there’s going to be controversy when you’re trying to do something that’s hard, or never been done before.”
Sidewalk Labs, owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, was selected to develop a smart city plan for a new neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront, but as public consultation has dragged on throughout 2018 and early 2019, critics have raised fears about data collection and corporate overreach by the tech giant.
On Tuesday, the CCLA threatened to go to court to block the project, arguing that until proper regulation is in place for smart cities, the project is premature and risks creating a “non-consensual, state-authorized mass capture of Canadians’ personal information.”
Doctoroff said he believes that claim is “without merit” and the idea that the project should be halted until governments can legislate clear rules for data collection is “a very silly response.”
“We all know that this issue with data — particularly data in public and semi-public spaces — is a big issue in society for which there are basically no rules. It’s the Wild West out there,” he said.
Doctoroff said that the Sidewalk Labs proposal of an independent civic data trust to regulate and hold all urban data inevitably means that government regulation will happen before the project gets off the ground.
“This place won’t get set up unless, whether it’s an independent data trust or something else is in place to actually do it, and ultimately it’s going to be government that has to do it. We’re not going to do it on our own,” he said.
Thus far, Sidewalk Labs has tried to put the emphasis on proposed urban innovations that might be included in the development, such as “raincoats” for buildings that would create usable outdoor public space regardless of the weather.
But now the project is moving toward a critical phase, with Sidewalk Labs expected to deliver a draft version of a Master and Innovation Development Plan (MIDP) that will lay out its detailed vision for the project.
Doctoroff says the draft MIDP will be published sometime this “spring” before soliciting public feedback, but criticism of the project is already mounting.
In addition to the CCLA letter, a group of activists have recently come together to launch the Block Sidewalk campaign. A report in the Toronto Star detailing secret Alphabet documents about the MIDP sparked a flurry of critical media coverage.
According to the report, Sidewalk Labs is looking for a share of property tax and development fees that the city collects in the development area, and the company also wants to be paid for “a share in the uptick in land value on the entire geography.”
Doctoroff confirmed that they’re asking for a share of the development fees and property taxes in the port lands, arguing that the company is only asking for a share of incremental revenue that the city would not otherwise receive without an “essential catalyst” spurring development.
You are naive if you don’t think that there’s going to be controversy
He also confirmed that Sidewalk Labs is proposing to finance a light-rail transit extension into the development, though the company has no aspirations to actually operate the transit line — it would still be run by the TTC.
Doctoroff was vague on the broader topic of the Sidewalk Labs business plan, saying that it is still a work in progress. For example, on the Sidewalk Labs support for tall wood buildings, he said that once they prove that it can work, the company can make money “in some isolated cases from the technology we create” being used in other cases.
But when asked if that means patenting and licencing their technology, Doctoroff responded, “I don’t know about patenting or licencing, what the method will be, but if people look to this place and see that we’ve actually been successful in what we’re trying to do, presumably there might be business opportunities elsewhere.”
One area of the business model he was very clear about was to say that Sidewalk Labs does not intend to monetize data.
Despite the fact that Google is a sister company to Sidewalk Labs, he said there’s no linkage between the two companies’ revenue plans.
“From a business model perspective, it is completely 100 per cent separate,” Doctoroff said.
Published at Thu, 07 Mar 2019 03:50:57 +0000