A Google-Related Plan Brings Futuristic Vision, Privacy Concerns To Toronto : All Tech Considered Sidewalk Labs, a sibling company to Google, plans to redevelop Toronto's waterfront as a high-tech, livable lab. Some residents wonder what a data-driven development could mean for privacy.
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A Google-Related Plan Brings Futuristic Vision, Privacy Concerns To Toronto

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A Google-Related Plan Brings Futuristic Vision, Privacy Concerns To Toronto

A Google-Related Plan Brings Futuristic Vision, Privacy Concerns To Toronto

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(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SNAUSS' "NOTHING HAPPENS IN JUNE")

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

What would a neighborhood look like if Google designed it? We'll take a peek in this week's All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SNAUSS' "NOTHING HAPPENS IN JUNE")

SHAPIRO: This question is something that executives at Google's parent company, Alphabet, have wondered about for a while. Here's Alphabet's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt.

ERIC SCHMIDT: Google is an unusual place. And we sit there. And years ago, we were sitting there thinking, wouldn't it be nice if you could take technical things that we know and apply them to cities? And our founders got really excited about this, and we started talking about all of these things that we could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge.

SHAPIRO: Well, now Schmidt has his chance. An Alphabet unit called Sidewalk Labs is partnering with Toronto to redesign its eastern waterfront as a high-tech urban neighborhood. Reporter Katie Toth has more.

KATIE TOTH, BYLINE: When Dan Doctoroff and I look at a nearly vacant lot facing Lake Ontario, it's hard to imagine some kind of futuristic utopia.

Why don't you describe a bit about what we're seeing here?

DAN DOCTOROFF: Well, we're not actually seeing a lot right on this location.

TOTH: Right now it's a dirt-filled patch of land with some film industry trucks and a few old grain silos in the distance, but the CEO of Sidewalk Labs who was once New York City's deputy mayor sees it differently.

DOCTOROFF: I see this place as a place where the streets literally come alive with activity.

TOTH: Below the street, he imagines a series of underground channels.

DOCTOROFF: That carry the infrastructure, may haul away trash, for example, so that we don't see that on the streets.

TOTH: Instead on the streets, he pictures a self-driving bus shuttling people to nearby bars or the beach and, in chilly Toronto, heated bike and pedestrian lanes to melt the snow. Doctoroff says there will be less traffic so narrower streets. And that means...

DOCTOROFF: Putting everyone within literally spitting distance of a park or an open space.

TOTH: Along with Sidewalk and Google, Alphabet owns Waymo, a self-driving car company, and Nest, which focuses on technology for the home. Now, these ideas for Toronto aren't set in stone, and how Sidewalk Labs plans to make money doesn't seem set in stone either. On the way to the site, I asked Doctoroff about that.

DOCTOROFF: If you can provide really dramatic benefits to people, there are always ways of making money. Now, what will those ways be? They might be associated with development. They might be the licensing of technology. We have plenty of time to figure that out.

TOTH: Sidewalk won a public competition to come up with a plan for the waterfront site. It's promised to spend $50 million over the next year on the plan. Canadian officials say the development will also bring well-paying jobs to the city, but people in Toronto aren't sure what to think.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: One hundred percent more affordable housing, more affordable housing, more...

TOTH: A small group of housing activists gathered outside a recent town hall meeting. Alejandra Ruiz Vargas wants homes for low-income people included in Sidewalk Lab's plan.

ALEJANDRA RUIZ VARGAS: This is a concern because we are in a crisis. This is a city that has a housing crisis.

TOTH: Sidewalk Labs says they're hoping to increase affordability with technologies that make construction cheaper. And a lot of people going to the town hall were excited about this new plan.

ASMA KHAN: My name is Asma Khan, and I am 35 years old. And I'm a project manager at a tech startup in the city.

TOTH: Khan lives near the waterfront.

KHAN: We've always over the years talked and pondered about how abandoned it feels.

TOTH: Other local residents had questions about what a data-driven development could mean for people's privacy.

DONNA PATTERSON: We're worried that Google might be using this as a lab to test the people that live there, and we just want to make sure that people's privacy is protected.

TOTH: Donna Patterson was at the event with her husband, Arthur Klimowicz. He explains why they were there.

ARTHUR KLIMOWICZ: It's a big mystery right now. And also keep an eye on it so it doesn't go in the wrong direction but also to be smart about it so I understand it, too.

TOTH: Sidewalk Lab's Doctoroff is promising privacy will be baked into the design.

DOCTOROFF: We all know that privacy in public space today is sort of a mess. You know, everybody has cameras. We don't know where they are. People are collecting data in all sorts of different ways. There are no standards for it. Having an opportunity to have this conversation we think can be an incredibly valuable service not just here in Toronto but in other places around the world.

TOTH: Government officials expect the plan for the waterfront site won't be finished until the end of 2018. They're promising lots of conversations about privacy before then. For NPR News, I'm Katie Toth in Toronto.

SHAPIRO: And we should say that Google is an NPR sponsor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINOTAUR SHOCK'S "MY BURR")

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