BARCELONA, SPAIN — During a fireside chat at Smart City Expo World Congress on Wednesday, Sidewalk Labs' Head of Urban Systems Rit Aggarwala had exciting news to share beyond detailing plans of his company's massive development project in Toronto.
Aggarawala has been at the forefront of advancing the company's Sidewalk Toronto project alongside Waterfront Toronto. And, just days prior to his presentation in Barcelona, the company made a significant step forward in the project by submitting its 483-page Digital Innovation Appendix (DIA), a lengthy addition to its 1,500-page Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP).
The DIA set out to address a number of concerns raised by Waterfront Toronto regarding Sidewalk's data collection plans in the Quayside neighborhood. The appendix marks a significant step forward for the project, pushing its plan into the formal evaluation and public comment phase.
So where does the company stand now on data collection and transparency? Smart Cities Dive caught up with Aggarwala to hear his thoughts on public perception of data and the challenges of innovating the real estate sector.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
SMART CITIES DIVE: You made many points in your talk to say Sidewalk Labs is a sister company of Google, not owned by Google. Do you think your tie to Google has influenced the public perception of how Sidewalk Labs collects its data?
RIT AGGARWALA: There's no question. I think we have some critics who just hate us. They're going to use any excuse and any rationale … Some of that is they don’t want a foreign company, the don’t want- whatever. But I think for the folks who are genuinely concerned about privacy … One of the things they're concerned about is, "Wait a minute, so what does their tie to Google mean? Does this go into the general pool of Google targeting information?" The reality is that it doesn't. But association with a gigantic famous company that pretty much everyone uses many times a day, it’s very hard to get people to appreciate the nuance. It’s not their fault, it’s a legitimate confusion.
So how has that relationship to Google influenced the way Sidewalk Labs looks at data collection?
AGGARWALA: A lot of our team comes from Google … We have a lot of Google DNA which thinks very creatively, which understands the implications of data, which sees opportunities in data, which has a working style that's obviously very successful in terms of developing technology and products. But at the same time, I think they [Google] as well as we realize how important public trust is, and the extent to which the use cases have to drive everything.
We certainly benefit from Google, in addition to just the capital that Alphabet provides which is all Google profits. But in a very real way, I like to say we don’t have any business connections but we do have to take each other's phone calls. If we need advice, if we need our thinking to be tested, there is that kind of exchange. But it never goes to the level of data.
On the topic of public trust, Sidewalk Labs has taken several measures to show transparency, including the development of a visual language around data collection. How do you plan to implement that and educate the public on how it’s used?
AGGARWALA: It’s called DTPR, design transparency in the public realm, led by my colleague Jackie Lu … The fundamental idea is that these sensors are all around us already and we don't notice. In fact, as we were doing the DIA, because we wanted to understand the baseline we were already living in, we sent folks around downtown Toronto to take pictures of all of the sensors out there. On a single street car in Toronto we counted 14 cameras. It's crazy.
And [the city] is using that responsibly and all, but [sensors] are kind of hidden, you really have to be looking for them. Because it's not possible to actually get meaningful consent in a public space — you can’t turn it off, it applies to everybody — it’s only, "If you don't want your picture taken, don't go over there." That's not a meaningful option.
To a certain extent, collecting data in the public realm is the kind of thing like putting fluoride in the water system, or deciding we're taking a census and everybody by law has to respond. It's a public thing. The flip side is that there’s responsibility to be really clear with the pubic about what’s going on who’s doing it, why and how they can find out more. Those are the four components of this DTPR visual language.
Because it is so pervasive, it cannot be fine print and legal disclaimers. It has to be something that becomes iconic, in the same way that you look at the icons that direct you where you’re going in an airport or in the subway, or you understand all of the different road signs, most of which are not written. They’re symbols. But you learn them once or twice and you never forget them, it’s immediate, you recognize them.
So the idea is this four-part visual item has an icon for what's being collected (Is it video? Is it photos? Is it sound?); something to indicate who's doing it (Is it Sidewalk Labs? The city government? The police force?); what it's being used for; and either a QR code or website [to offer more information].
We've actually seen anecdotally a couple of companies and entities experimenting with it on their own, which is super exciting. Because at the end of the day it's not a product, we're not selling this, it's just a visual language we think ought to exist ... We clearly realize that both the tech industry and the city governments have got to get people comfortable with what’s going on and find the right set of rules for what should be acceptable and what shouldn’t be.
When you first released the MIDP, someone from Waterfront Toronto wrote how your original plan was 'frustratingly abstract,' regardless of it being 1,500 pages. Was that surprising to hear? Do you think the DIA has addressed concerns?
AGGARWALA: I think it was a little surprising. Of course, the irony is that many of our detractors, especially the ones who I think are using any excuse, say we're burying them in information, it’s unfair it's so detailed. But at the same time there's people saying the opposite. So it was a little but of a surprise.
Recognizing the perspective of this digital advisory board that Waterfront Toronto convened, they just wanted to know how these systems are going to be laid out in terms of the digital infrastructure. It was a reasonable request. So we’ve now, I think, fulfilled it. Was it surprising? A little bit. Was it irrational? In retrospect, certainly not.
How do you hope to influence the real estate and development industry to follow your lead in becoming more digitized and innovative?
AGGARWALA: It’s far more important to become innovative than digitized ... It's the fundamental economics of real estate that actually have to be transformed if cities are going to become more inclusive. And that’s a much bigger challenge.
The way we hope to do it, number one, is by example. We are very much a mission-driven company but we believe that making the project profitable is part of the mission. If it’s unprofitable, the whole real estate industry will simply say, "Yeah, you can do anything if someone will subsidize it." … There’s nothing replicable about subsidization. We can make this work and we can make a profit on it, we can show the industry that it’s a viable approach. It may also increase the expectations of cities of the real estate industry, which I think ought to happen.
I think the real estate industry often talks about what the constraints on its innovation are, but they can do more. What cities ought to be doing is demanding more of them that is smart as opposed to just community benefits, agreements and other things that are merely asking for cash on top, which his not really useful.
The other more direct way is, we are beginning to look for developers who would be interested in working with us on their projects. I don’t think we have the aspiration of being the leader of a project again the way we were with Toronto. We view this very much as a learning experience for us as a flagship project, but the project itself is not our business.
We're interested in working with companies that have sites, pieces of land, projects that they’re staring up that they would be interested in using some of the ideas that we’ve developed for Toronto, or developing similar ideas.
The second link is in the companies that we are likely to generate or the business lines we’re likely to start. If all goes well, the business of the factories for buildings could be a great sidewalk labs business unit. And that could be far beyond just Ontario … This could be a worldwide business. There are others that are even more widely relevant, around energy controls or mobility concepts. A lot of it to us is around taking the innovations we’ve developed for Toronto, turning them into business and then bringing them to customers where we de-risk it and it’s now easy for you to be a great innovator.