On-demand global city or virtual reality?: City announces technology-focused development deal with Google’s Sidewalk Labs

Oct. 20, 2017

By Arianne Robinson

Who will be the real winner in Waterfront Toronto’s partnership with Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs?

This past Tuesday, at a large announcement with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Premier Kathleen Wynne, and Mayor John Tory, Waterfront Toronto announced a vision for a group of developments on the waterfront that will test new technologies while collecting data about how humans interact with them. The partner for the project on the waterfront between Sherbourne and just east of Parliament is Alphabet’s Sidewalks Labs (Alphabet also owns Google).

Unlike a traditional development plan, the vision for this neighbourhood, called Quayside, is all about the potential for for technology in urban life. “What is new is the ability to create a ‘digital layer’ of technology and data…” reads one statement on the Sidewalk Labs website. “We see protecting privacy in the context of creating this digital layer as a key responsibility – and an opportunity.”

What that opportunity will really mean, and look like, is still unknown. The request for proposal submission by Sidewalk describes creating a technological system within a neighbourhood focused on collecting data from human interaction within the neighbourhood. Think sensors embedded in streets and buildings, taxibots, bike and pedestrian paths that can be heated to melt snow, embedded LED lights in “flexible space allocations” that can activate a temporary bike lane or become a pedestrian laneway on demand.

Statements from Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs say, “the company has committed $50 million USD to an initial phase of joint planning and pilot project testing.” Sidewalk also estimates in their RFP that “at full build, the Quayside neighborhood will house more than 5,500 jobs and generate more than 50 million CAD of annual property taxes. And depending on the scope of the development program agreed upon by Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto for the Eastern Waterfront, its impact on jobs and tax generation when fully built could be ten times that of Quayside.”

When asked Friday about the commitment by Sidewalk Labs, City Councillor Paula Fletcher, local councillor for the neighbouring Port Lands, said the mechanics of the partnership are not straightforward. “What’s clear is that there’s a year before they can pull the plug. We can pull the plug. Does it proceed, or is it just a great idea? Sometimes you can do something for a year and you get a lot of great ideas, you don’t actually implement it but it gives you a platform for some new ideas.”

Mayor Tory is also optimistic about the idea-generating process and thinks it’s a good deal for the city. When asked if he thinks the commitment to funds in the future is actually enough in terms of how Sidewalk Labs and Alphabet could stand to benefit from Toronto’s public in the future, Tory said to reporters, “I would say that when we can have one of the most respected, innovative companies in the world want to come to Toronto, bid here, that the board of directors of Waterfront Toronto took their $50 million and their deep commitment to really enhance our reputation and theirs by the work they do here to make us the centre of urban innovation – this is a huge step forward.”

If the plans do turn into something long term, City Councillor and Advocate for the Innovation Economy Michelle Holland says it will mean a lot of possibility for newer companies. “For Toronto’s tech startup community this is the best possible news as it will connect our innovation ecosystem with one of the most exciting projects in technology anywhere in the world. The opportunities will be enormous in terms of urban innovation,” Holland wrote via email on Friday.

At this stage, the significance of the announcement is more about that possibility for what could happen than about something definitive. “[In the case of Quayside] what we wanted to have developed was a very special kind of precinct neighbourhood in which we would see technology and take full advantage of technology to create a truly twenty-first century community that helped with housing and transportation and open space using technology,” Tory explained to reporters on Friday. “So there was an open competition, which Google won. Sidewalk’s Google. It goes no further than that,” Tory said making clear that Sidewalk will have to go through the city’s development process like everyone else.

Fletcher sees it differently. When asked if this is a new way of planning in Toronto, the veteran councillor says it’s unprecedented. “I think it’s a new way to do things. It’s an American model and we’ll have to see how it works here,” Fletcher said. “The non-profit group that’s won this is coming in to lay out a planning framework with, it appears, a preselected corporation to fit into their plans. That really isn’t how we do it.”

It’s too early to tell who will benefit and in what ways from the partnership between the Waterfront Toronto, the public advocates and stewards of Toronto’s waterfront revitalization, and Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs. In the meantime, Toronto residents who enjoy a public consultation about city planning are in luck – there is a town hall for this project on Nov. 1.