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Former RIM CEO voices concerns over Sidewalk Labs

Last Updated Jun 6, 2019 at 7:03 pm EDT

Sidewalk Labs unveiled more details around the high-tech community is hoping to build in Toronto, shown in this artist's rendering. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Handout/Sidewalk Labs

Balsillie is urging the city to be very cautious with its next steps.

Sidewalk Labs has said in the past that it hopes to set a new standard in responsible data use.

The future of Toronto’s waterfront could be very high tech, but is it the right move?

That’s what some are wondering as the mayor’s executive committee considers a new report about the proposed Side walk Labs community being planned for Quayside.

Sidewalk Labs, a sister company of Google, is an ambitious high-tech mixed-use project set on the city’s waterfront, featuring data driven technology used to make the area more efficient for people.

“From creating a path to the largest climate-positive neighbourhood in North America to the creation of tens of thousands of jobs (and) thousands of units of affordable housing, we will do all of this with an array of local partners,” Micha Lasher of Sidewalk Labs explained.

But some are concerned about the way the project is moving forward — including former Research in Motion CEO Jim Balsillie.

“These are the most sophisticated and predatory companies in the world. I absolutely assure you they know what they’re doing, they know the side doors,” he explained.

“I did this game for decades, I know how it’s played, and they look to prey on vulnerability and those that they can use.”

Sidewalk Labs Micha Lasher insists privacy will be protected.

“All of the protections that Torontonians enjoy today under existing Canadian privacy laws — there is no suggestion that they would not enjoy them at Quayside. (It’s) quite the contrary, we are proposing a layer of protection to sit on top of that,” Lasher explained.

Balsillie said he isn’t suggesting the City of Toronto should not go forward with the plan, but the way they’re going forward with it currently is “like putting on your shoes before your socks.”

“I think you’re bringing in a tremendous amount of risk and shunting aside the urgent process of the pre-work if you indulge this kind of exercise, which, I think, if people could do it all over again I think they would have put the socks on first.”

He’s urging the city to be very cautious with its next steps.

“This will be the most important decision you make of your political careers because it sets the digital nervous system for generations to come.”

There’s still a lot of work to be done, John Tory said on Thursday, and the city has to ensure it gets it right.

“No huge opportunity comes without, often times, significant risk,” Tory said.

Various speakers at the executive committee meeting were in support of the project, including urban planner Ken Greenberg who thinks Sidewalk Labs would make a vital contribution to the city.

Balsillie isn’t the first person in the tech world to raise concerns over the project.

On Wednesday, venture capitalist Roger McNamee, who was an early investor in Facebook and other technology giants, wrote in a letter to Toronto city council that the project is a “dystopian vision that has no place in a democratic society.”

BlockSidewalk, a group looking to stop the project, sent a letter to the Waterfront Toronto board earlier this week asking it to not even assess the development plan Sidewalk Labs is expected to submit in the coming weeks.

Michele Romanow, a Canadian technology entrepreneur, tweeted about her support, saying that the project “is a great opportunity for this city. Now is the time to be bold. Let’s not miss the larger opportunity in favour of protectionism and NIMBYism.”

Waterfront Toronto says a vote on whether to move forward on the development project will be pushed to sometime in December or January to allow for a thorough evaluation.

Sidewalk Labs has said in the past that it hopes to set a new standard in responsible data use, and plans to have a independent trust manage the data generated by the smart city development.

With files from The Canadian Press