In making my way through Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan (first actual MIDP post arriving tomorrow! Tell your friends.), I’ve started wondering why Sidewalk Labs needs all of these changes to existing laws and new institutions that it’s asking for.
The pitch has always been that the Quayside development offers the opportunity to build a community from scratch, “from the Internet up,” as Sidewalk Labs used to say before people realized that tech companies don’t necessarily have their best interests at heart. Working from scratch would allow Sidewalk Labs (and other companies) to develop and test new tech that it could then sell to other cities.
But it’s hardly realistic to assume that urban tech – including that developed in partnership with Sidewalk Labs – would be deployed elsewhere on a blank slate. It would, one assumes, be deployed in cities with their own laws, idiosyncrasies and existing infrastructure. From this perspective, how suitable would blank-slate tech be for other cities?
Technology exists in particular social, political and regulatory milieus. Understanding this point, I think, helps us better understand what Sidewalk Labs is up to in Toronto.
Sidewalk Labs is not just (or perhaps mainly) interested in developing specific technologies, which would then have to be adapted to other cities’ particular needs, or not be adopted at all.
Rather than traditional technology, Sidewalk Labs is working to create and develop an off-the-shelf social-norms, regulatory and standards framework that aligns with the technologies and services that companies like Google would then sell to those cities that adopt its framework. They’re as much (if not more) a service provide than a tech manufacturer or software developer.
In other words, Sidewalk Labs isn’t a tech company; it’s Google’s Division of Urban Policy.
It seems to me that for Sidewalk Labs, the Toronto Smart City project is not primarily about developing technology to fit other cities needs. It’s about developing standards and norms that will redefine other cities’ norms about what they want to ensure that their perspectives coincide with those of Sidewalk Labs and Google.
It’s about getting cities to adapt to a particular technological vision of the world, rather than adapting technology to what citizens have determined they want and need, as set out in their laws and norms. It’s about the law adapting to fit a particular technology (which embodies a particular view of the world), rather than technology adapting to fit the (democratically enacted) law.
In short, if you want to understand Sidewalk Labs and its Toronto project, focus on the regulations and standards, not the tech.