Wednesday, July 18, 2018

There Is Something Weird Going On With Google's Sidewalk Labs Project In Toronto (GOOG)

We've been posting on 'smart' cities' in general and Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs in particular for a bit over three years, with quite a few of the stories (see after the jumps) being techno-dystopia stuff.
Here's another, but more important are the links immediately following.

From Politico, July/August 2018: 

Google Is Building a City of the Future in Toronto. Would Anyone Want to Live There?
It could be the coolest new neighborhood on the planet—or a peek into the Orwellian metropolis that knows everything you did last night.
TORONTO—Even with a chilly mid-May breeze blowing off Lake Ontario, this city’s western waterfront approaches idyllic. The lake laps up against the boardwalk, people sit in colorful Adirondack chairs and footfalls of pedestrians compete with the cry of gulls. But walk east, and the scene quickly changes. Cut off from gleaming downtown Toronto by the Gardiner Expressway, the city trails off into a dusty landscape of rock-strewn parking lots and heaps of construction materials. Toronto’s eastern waterfront is bleak enough that Guillermo del Toro’s gothic film The Shape of Water used it as a plausible stand-in for Baltimore circa 1962. Says Adam Vaughan, a former journalist who represents this district in Canada’s Parliament, “It’s this weird industrial land that’s just been sitting there—acres and acres of it. And no one’s really known what to do with it.”
That was before Google.

This past October, a coalition of the Toronto, Ontario and Canadian governments contracted with Sidewalk Labs, a sister company of Google, to come up with a $50 million design for a dozen acres on the waterfront’s far eastern end. The idea is to reimagine Toronto’s derelict waterfront as “the world’s first neighborhood built from the internet up,” as Sidewalk describes it. The neighborhood, called Quayside, would leapfrog the usual slow walk of gentrification to build an entire zone, all at once, as a “smart city,” a sensor-enabled, highly wired metropolis that can run itself.

Toronto’s choice of the Google-affiliated firm immediately captured the attention of urban planners and city officials all over the world; magazine stories trumpeted “Google’s Guinea-Pig City” and “A Smarter Smart City.” Still in its early days, the partnership has left people curious but wary. Google? What does a tech company know about running a real live city?

In one sense, what’s perhaps surprising is that it has taken this long. Silicon Valley’s innovators have long had side obsessions with making the world a better place, driven largely by the confidence that their own brainpower and a near-total disregard for tradition can break old logjams. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel helped seed the “seasteading” movement to create offshore libertarian paradises; the tech incubator YCombinator is currently running a public-policy experiment in Oakland, California, giving residents a guaranteed monthly stipend to see how it might improve their quality of life.

The notion of the feedback-rich “smart city” has circulated for years, and in practice has mostly taken the shape of centuries-old cities like New York or Boston adopting sensor-enabled stoplights or equipping their residents with an app for spotting potholes. But the real dream, a place whose constant data flow lets it optimize services constantly, requires something different, a ground-up project not only woven through with sensors and Wi-Fi, but shaped around waves of innovation still to come, like self-driving cars. Thanks to a host of technological advances, that’s practical now in a way it never has been before. Mass-produced sensors now cost less than a dollar apiece, even for hobbyists; high-speed broadband and cheap cloud computing mean that a city can collect and analyze reams of data in real time.

In Toronto, Sidewalk sketches out a picture of a neighborhood where intelligent “pay-as-you-throw” garbage chutes separate out recyclables and charge households by waste output; where hyperlocal weather sensors could detect a coming squall and heat up a snow-melting sidewalk. Apps would tell residents when the Adirondack chairs on the waterfront are open, and neighbors would crowdsource approvals for block-party permits, giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down based on the noise the gathering was expected to produce. Traffic signals could auto-calibrate to ease pedestrian congestion during public events, or to ensure a smooth rush hour. The data from such systems would feed back into the city, which would constantly learn, optimizing its own operations from month to month, year to year. Sidewalk promises “the most measurable community in the world.”...MUCH MORE
It's a very solid overview of most of the issues.
On a more granular, and thus more useful-for-analysis level, there is Jamie Powell's series at FT Alphaville.
Spoiler Alert: there are some deep problems.
In chronological order (the sting is in the tail):

March 9
Embracing waterfront Google-fication in Toronto
March 22 
Google-fication, an update
May 9 
Google-fication, continued
July 1 
Sidewalk Toronto: delays and NDAs
July 6
Waterfront Toronto CEO departs

What we are guessing happened was that after the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story broke at the NYT and Guardian on March 17 and was further investigated and disseminated in April and May the  backlash made the original big data business plan socially and politically untenable.

The model Sidewalk was using was to get one revenue stream from consulting/managing, another revenue stream from software (and even hardware, think GOOG's TPU's for AI) and the third and largest revenue stream from monetizing all the data collected.

And there's the rub.
And it's such a big part of what makes the project interesting to Google that unless they can figure out how to replace that leg the stool falls over.

Thanks Jamie.

And just to hammer the point home, this is our guess, Sidewalk has not invited us to any of the meetings and we could be way, way off.
And for the factual reporting, all glory and honor is Mr. Powell's.

Some of our previous posts, in no particular order:

Smart Cities: "Welcome to the neighbourhood. Have you read the terms of service?"
"London mayor Sadiq Khan taps ex-NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg's consultancy to help draft smart city strategy"
As we've mentioned, there are some gigantic financial interests behind all of this....
"Google’s plan to revolutionise cities is a takeover in all but name"
Smart City Report: Sidewalk Labs and Data In Toronto (GOOG)
NVIDIA Wants to Run Your City: Smart City Control Centers (NVDA)
Here's Google's Sidewalk Labs' Pitch To Insert Itself Into America’s Urban Transportation Infrastructure (GOOG) 
"Alphabet is plotting a digital city full of Google cars, high-speed Internet and maybe more!" (GOOG) 
As former Deputy Mayor to Michael Bloomberg, Doctoroff pretty much epitomizes the intersection of big money/big politics. That Medium post is not quite a blueprint but interesting nonetheless. 
"Nvidia's Slightly Terrifying Metropolis Platform Paves the Way for Smarter Cities" (NVDA)
Although this article is 11 months old it is a good introduction to one piece of what we were foreshadowing with Tuesday's "NVIDIA Wants to Be the Brains Behind the Surveillance State (NVDA)". In fact the camera surveillance integration AI is only one part of the Metropolis platform which is itself only one part of what the rest of NVIDIA's offerings will consist of....
And many more, use the 'search blog' box upper left, if interested.
The reason we're paying attention?
Profit motive.
From Cision PR, March 6:
Smart Cities Market Size Worth $2.57 Trillion by 2025 | CAGR: 18.4%: Grand View Research, Inc.