I have 2 passions that I never thought would align. They are, I thought, completely unrelated:

  • Container-Based Housing – There are some incredible urban (and remote) housing concepts that use containers. I have an urge to build a small container-based cottage/cabin to hide away from the world in.
  • Blockchain Based Digital Identity – specifically Sovrin and the self sovereign identity / decentralized identity that it provides.

So I was excited as heck to run across some developers from Sidewalk Labs at IIW in October. Knowing that they are active in Toronto was great. To learn that they are looking at hard-core tech solutions that include privacy, identity, and more was awesome.

picture of girder-based containerized housing/office

Sidewalk Labs Toronto – Artist Depiction

I can see a lot of learning happening in Toronto with Sidewalk Labs. They are looking at the bigger picture and insisting that the privacy and security of the data generated is a first-class citizen. That’s a rare thing in many projects – and when data privacy and security are done as an afterthought things don’t work out.

The Globe and Mail published a good video article discussing the potential along with the pros & cons of the approach. I agree that the potential here is absolutely mammoth. The hard question for me is this:

How does Sidewalk Labs meet the mandate of its parent company (Alphabet – parent of Google) while maintaining the privacy and security of residents?

Sidewalk Toronto recently reported on a citizen outreach session that ran in November 2017. I am happy to see that “Other concerns, while voiced by fewer individuals, were highlighted as having important ramifications for the overall Sidewalk Toronto planning…” which included “Privacy, data ownership, and the implications of data-informed city planning”.

That inclusion of a small number of inputs shows how deep the Sidewalk Labs and the Sidewalk Toronto teams are considering the big picture and going deep.

I think some of Doc Searl’s The Intention Economy applies here – where we have an Agent (Doc’s “Fourth Party”) that acts on our behalf – sharing out information, making decisions, etc.

Many more use cases should be examined but I want to focus on where blockchain-enabled digital identity applies.

Where Does Self Sovereign Identity Apply?

I think the biggest impact of SSI in the Sidewalk Labs learning will relate to the concept of Sovrin Agents that act on the behalf of various identity holders. How does a technology like Sovrin and the concept of Agents help here? I see loads of potential here, especially with the privacy-respecting abilities of Sovrin-capable systems.

NOTE: I am using the term “Sovrin Agent” based on the Sovrin glossary definition of agent:

Sovrin agent: a software process acting on behalf of an identity owner to facilitate interactions, using one or more of the identity owner’s Sovrin identities. If not self-hosted, an agent is hosted by an Agency .

I think that Agents will play a key role here. Residents, organizations and even devices can be hooked together via a privacy-first approach that pushes the boundaries of what a city can mean. Imagine your own software agent taking care of you – booking things based on your calendar, recommending routes, monitoring your health proactively and privately. You can imagine a number of Agents – some important and some totally frivolous. Here are just a few ideas off the top of my head:

  • Privacy Agent – Keeps a lock on privacy-invading information being shared unless you want it to be (or need it to be – using a panic button or something) and who you will allow to access it.
  • Delivery Agent – Handles delivery of packages to your residence (even put the eggs in your fridge) while maintaining a secure perimeter.
  • Health Agent – ensures that you’re following the eating approach that you want to, taking time to exercise, and generally checking up on things and staying safe. In the event that something happens to you (e.g. you have fallen and can’t get up) it may reach out on your behalf to your loved ones and/or medical authorities.
  • Home Security Agent – watches your residence and responds to threat and non-threat events for you. If your insurance company needs to know that you are meeting your obligations (e.g. is the alarm actually on when you’re away?) perhaps you could share that information for a reduced premium.
  • Data Use Agent – Sidewalk is building IP that will most likely drive a ton of revenue for Alphabet in the future. What if, as a resident, you could share in some of that revenue? A Data Use Agent would act on your behalf, ensuring you and your city get their fair share of revenue.
  • Buying Agent – Issue purchases on your behalf to vendors that are part of the ecosystem – this is your trusted fridge order you eggs and milk!
  • Marketing Agent – Blocks or allows marketing information to flow through to you. Not really a city-based approach but a key for local vendors to be aware of so they can know how to reach you assuming you want that.

The integration of Sovrin and technologies like Evernym’s Verifiable Claims products will make a lot of these and other scenarios that have never been possible. The idea of sharing my data with the city and other stakeholders, knowing that my privacy is protected and that the other parties know that they can trust me, is powerful.

The project itself is very exciting and started me thinking of a number of ways that Sidewalk Labs Toronto can build incredible capabilities that apply around the world. I’m looking forward to seeing where they take things.


Also published on Medium.