All eyes are on Sidewalk Labs' futuristic plans for a data-driven neighborhood in Toronto. But no one's watching more closely than Bianca Wylie.

“I remember listening to everyone saying that this is going to resolve problems with democracy, that there was going to be transparency and accountability now,” she said. But she quickly realized that the intersection of technology and urban planning would be “horrific” for public discourse. “They’re both full of jargon and elitism and privilege,” ... What’s a data trust? What is a platform? Why are certain types of data more valued than others?

The latest rendering of Quayside, a waterfront development now being planned for Toronto by Sidewalk Labs.
The latest rendering of Quayside, a waterfront development now being planned for Toronto by Sidewalk Labs. © Sidewalk Toronto

Regular citizens and, frequently, elected officials lack clear language to talk about what it means to integrate technology into normal democratic governance, Wylie believes. Self-driving vehicles, pavement tiles that can sense traffic and absorb rainwater, micro-dwellings, and common spaces monitored by “smart” energy systems—the sort of elements that Sidewalk Labs has mapped out for the land—sound great, but the problem as Wylie sees it is that they’ve been framed as the only option for developing public land. Sensors and software may well belong in the public realm, but Wylie thinks citizens should direct how to use them, not the private sector. “I really think there’s opportunity for governments to use technology well,” she said. “It’s a question of how do you get the confidence built up in government—how to make them realize, ‘you’re in charge! You’re the ones driving!’ ”

Wylie’s criticism of the Quayside project has focused primarily on Sidewalk Labs, but she has not spared the government proxies in Waterfront Toronto who invited the company to begin with, nor the public officials who could intervene. And she has done as good a job as anyone of articulating what is at stake if cities allow themselves to become the tools of companies, according to Kevin Webb, who has worked both for the World Bank and Sidewalk Labs, and is a leading commentator on data and open government. The promise of integrating technology into the public realm has huge potential, he said, but if it’s going to happen democratically, for the benefit of city dwellers, conversations need to happen in words everyone can use.

“Cities have always involved the public and the private and we’ve been able to manage that in physical space: that’s what planning is about,” he said. “But we don’t have an equivalent for digital, and it turns out it matters just as much.” Anthony Townsend, the urban futurist and technology consultant, who has also worked with Sidewalk Labs, told me he thinks of Wylie as “the Jane Jacobs of the smart city.”