What Are We Willing To Trade For A “Smart City”?

BY Jodi Shanoff

What’s not to like about a smart city? In the municipal context, “smart” implies efficient, convenient, responsive and seamlessly coordinated. Some even dare to hope a smarter city and its magical efficiencies would deliver long-term financial savings and lower taxes. Enthusiasm about these potential benefits is strong enough that, as recently as the spring of 2015, almost three-quarters of GTA residents preferred local government investment in smart city technology over traditional infrastructure.

Since that time, however, many residents’ calculus has changed. For one thing, traditional infrastructure seems to be a more urgent priority as our existing equipment heaves under a growing population – and as the battering effects of climate change loom. As for smart city technology, residents have cooled on the prospect as their concerns about data privacy have deepened.

The smart city debate has been particularly intense in the City of Toronto, where the tri-government agency Waterfront Toronto is in negotiations with Sidewalk Labs, a Google sister company, about the prospect of designing and implementing a “smart” neighbourhood on Toronto’s eastern waterfront. This futuristic neighbourhood would be equipped with a variety of sensors and cutting-edge digital equipment to ease movement, troubleshoot problems, and support planning and operations. Local politicians, interest groups and privacy experts have voiced concerns about the lack of clarity around how data collected through the neighbourhood’s smart technologies will be protected. Most recently, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner has criticized the project’s proposed data management framework for lacking necessary assurances.

A significant share of residents (37%) says they wouldn’t trust any entity with their data.

Local residents are paying attention to these debates, and likely to the broader landscape in which big technology firms are being criticized for playing fast and loose with users’ information. As of 2019, GTA residents who were willing to give up some of their data privacy and control in exchange for smart-city benefits are outnumbered almost two-to-one by those who prioritize the protection of their data.

The fate of the Sidewalk Labs project itself remains unknown – but if the GTA did eventually begin to adopt smart city technologies, who would residents trust to manage the collection and analysis of the data? Governments are the most trusted stewards: 50 percent of GTA residents say they’d trust various levels of government with the information. Still a significant share of residents (37%) says they wouldn’t trust any entity with their data – and least of all a private business like Sidewalk Labs.

Learn more about what GTA residents think about issues like smart city technologies, data privacy and other policies impacting our municipal experiences by subscribing to Environics Research Focus GTA.

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