The Innovation Plan
Digital innovation is essential for catalyzing an ecosystem of new services and solutions to urban challenges by individuals, Canadian companies, local Toronto entrepreneurs, and other third parties from around the world. But digital innovation raises a number of challenges that cities are just starting to address, such as making sure there is a transparent process for protecting privacy and the public good.
These challenges are especially complicated for “urban data,” which Sidewalk Labs defines as information gathered in the city’s physical environment, including the public realm, publicly accessible spaces, and even some private buildings. There have been important initial strides to advance the conversation around data governance principles, but no place has yet adopted a comprehensive approach to address these challenges and create the conditions for digital innovation to flourish responsibly.
The Sidewalk Toronto project presents a unique opportunity to do just that, and Sidewalk Labs proposes a holistic approach to digital innovation with four core components.
First, Sidewalk Labs proposes to establish open digital infrastructure that provides a shared foundation for using urban data to improve quality of life. This core infrastructure would be anchored by ubiquitous, affordable internet connectivity within the IDEA District, consistent with Waterfront Toronto’s aspirations for closing the digital divide. It would also include physical mounts that can significantly reduce the cost of launching new digital innovations and help ensure that cities do not get locked into using proprietary solutions.
Second, Sidewalk Labs proposes to outline clear standards that make data publicly accessible, secure, and resilient. Today’s urban data tends to be scattered across many owners, outdated, or stored in messy file formats, making it difficult for the community to use as a foundation for new ideas. Clear standards would make (properly protected) urban data accessible to researchers and the community in real time, and make it easy for third parties to build new services or competitive alternatives to existing ones.
Third, Sidewalk Labs proposes a trusted process for responsible data use that builds on existing privacy laws and would apply to all parties (including Sidewalk Labs). This process would be anchored by a Responsible Data Use (RDU) Assessment — an in-depth review that is triggered by any proposal to collect or use urban data — and guided by a set of RDU Guidelines that incorporates globally recognized Privacy by Design principles. The process, including approvals, would be overseen by an independent, government-sanctioned Urban Data Trust created to be a steward of urban data and the public interest without stifling innovation. Furthermore, it would ensure that urban data that does not pose privacy risks (such as air-quality data) would be made publicly accessible by default, enabling companies, community members, and other third parties to use it as a foundation to build new tools.
Finally, Sidewalk Labs proposes to launch a minimal set of digital services that would catalyze this ecosystem of urban innovation. These services and applications — all of which would be open to competition and subject to the proposed responsible data use process — represent innovations currently not being pursued by the market but that remain essential to achieving Waterfront Toronto’s quality-of-life objectives.