Toronto’s Bianca Wylie has learned how tech companies think and is using her insight to protest development of a “smart city” which may pose issues to democracy and privacy.

It takes a true leader to stand up to one of the biggest tech companies in the world, and that’s exactly what Bianca Wylie has been doing for the past 18 months.

Wylie is a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation in Canada and an early, vocal critic of an ambitious and aggressive plan to redevelop Toronto’s neglected eastern waterfront. On paper, the Sidewalk Toronto plan enables Sidewalk Labs (a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet) to build a “smart city” with trash-picking robots, heated sidewalks that melt snow, automatic awnings that extend and retract based on weather, as well as a new Google Canada headquarters. 

What could be wrong with that? Plenty, according to Wylie, now a leader in Toronto’s #BlockSidewalk campaign.

Back in spring 2017, Waterfront Toronto—a tri-governmental organization tasked with revitalizing an industrial area of Toronto along Lake Ontario—put out a call for proposals to develop (and pay for) a specific area known as Quayside. That fall, Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs formed Sidewalk Toronto to create a city of the future, “built from the Internet up.”

The vision was lofty: a data-driven city that pushed forward “new standards of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity.” The language was vague: “Sidewalk Toronto is about improving people’s lives, not developing technology for technology’s sake.”

The concept immediately set off alarm bells for Wylie, who questioned why Google, a corporation, was adopting the language of the democratically-elected government. She wondered why the local government was handing over the controls for city planning to an unregulated multinational conglomerate. While Wylie has focused much of her critique on the lack of democratic process, other early critics decried the plan’s unprecedented levels of surveillance, and its incursions against privacy. They wondered: Who controls, and profits from, the data compiled from sensors that measure a person’s daily movements in a smart city that tracks your every move?  

Bianca Wylie.

From the start, Sidewalk Toronto’s renderings and goals had significant support. “This is a moment for Toronto,” Toronto Mayor John Tory said. “By having Sidewalk interested in coming here, we’re building up our credentials as the place to be in the world.” But Wylie was able to see the various threats, because each chapter in her life had given her the insight. 

“I wouldn’t say this is the fight of my life,” said Wylie. “This is just a fight that I’m well-positioned to fight.”

Wylie’s varied career began during the tech boom of the early 2000s, and she rose through the ranks of the tech industry—in operations, infrastructure, corporate training, and product management—at various companies including Thomas Reuters, despite not coming from a technical background. During this period, Wylie learned how tech companies think. She then shifted gears to do work around democratic processes, which solidified her belief in the institution of democracy, despite its flaws. Then, Wylie shifted again to dig deeper into data and advocacy, ongoing work which has given her insight into the threat to privacy and the skills to do something about it. 

So, when Sidewalk Toronto was announced, all the pieces just clicked.

The process also tapped into a deep sense of injustice that dates back to Wylie’s childhood. Inequity appears to have been a thing that bothered me,” said Wylie. “I despised lying.” 

Sidewalk Toronto’s plans have been secretive, with little space for public comment, per Fast Company. Wylie herself posts regularly about the “doublespeak and deception” that she’s unearthed. Indeed, the true scope of the plan seemed much broader than the 12 acres of Quayside. This suspicion was confirmed in spring 2019 when leaked documents revealed plans to develop more than 350 neighboring acres known as Port Lands. All the while, the company line from Sidewalk Toronto downplayed privacy risks, including how personal data will be safe-guarded and used, and remains strategically vague about process and goals. “It’s abuse of power, pretending things are normal or fine when they’re not.” 

And that, for Wylie, is what fuels the fight to speak truth to power.

“I’d like to wake up in the morning and not be mad, but I am,” she said. “I would like to be able to see people lying and not care, but I can’t. There’s this urgency, to say things out loud, but it’s okay if you don’t agree. I don’t care if I’m wrong. I say it all the time—if I’m wrong, I’ll change my mind. I can handle it.” 

Mock-up of Sidewalk Toronto Project. Courtesy of Sidewalk Labs.

If Torontonians want Sidewalk Toronto, Wylie said she can accept it—she just wants the public to be engaged and aware of what they might be giving up.  

“That’s democracy,” she said. “No one person gets to be in charge of the outcome.” Wylie credits her mother her strength to be bold and “not scared to screw up.” 

Wylie’s mother was an immigrant from northern Italy and raised two children as a single parent, beginning when Wylie was 12. She encouraged Wylie to go to Germany at age 15 for a four-month apprenticeship. “There was a trust and a confidence,” Wylie explained. The trust and confidence remained when she dropped out of university (Wylie later finished her degree, which is in political science). 

“When I look back on [dropping out], it wasn’t the best call,” she said. “But it definitely changed my life in a way that ended up being great. There was a lot of permission to try stuff and to fail and to screw up and let that be okay. I had the freedom to operate. She always let me make my way.” It’s a lesson Wylie, now 40, tries to embrace as she raises her own two young children. 

A year-and-a-half in, Wylie and the #BlockSidewalk movement at large, are both far from failing.

Facing the fourth-largest tech company in the world and its immeasurably deep pockets, they’ve encouraged citizens to speak out by empowering them with knowledge. Their efforts have slowed what once felt like a runaway train. 

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, among others, has brought a lawsuit, claiming Waterfront Toronto “sold out our constitutional rights to freedom from surveillance and sold it to the global surveillance mammoth of behavioral data collection: Google.” TechCrunch has called the project “the apotheosis of surveillance capitalism;” The New York Times reported on the “loss of privacy and of democratic control.” And, tellingly, preliminary comments from Waterfront Toronto’s own Digital Strategy Advisory Panel—which must meet a key approval deadline on Oct. 31, 2019—called aspects of the plan “irrelevant,” “unnecessary,” and “frustratingly abstract.” There’s a steady drumbeat, moving toward a more informed, more democratic process—and Wylie is there, not alone, but surely in the lead. 

“All of us have already achieved a ton,” the tenacious leader said. “They’re not just doing whatever they want. This is not going down the way that they had hoped.” 

In a David and Goliath-esque story, such as this, the key has been for Wylie and Torontonians to recognize the power of their voices and informed opinions, as well as their collective force when working together. “Our work going forward,” said Wylie, “is to figure out how we share our power to come to progress, together.”

Laura Lambert is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. You can read her work on Facebook.