Sidewalk Labs: Building A Neighborhood “From the Internet Up”

While some locals saw an eyesore in a flood-prone, 12-acre stretch of land on Toronto’s eastern waterfront, Sidewalk Labs, Subsidiary of Alphabet, the parent company to Google, saw the ideal place for the “first neighborhood built from the internet up“.

Sidewalks Labs along with Waterfront Toronto, an agency that represents multiple levels of government, is charged with developing the space in a $50m project to overhaul Quayside. Its desire is to turn it into a testing ground for technologies that could eliminate Urban problems like traffic jams, a shortage of affordable housing, and pollution.

If successful, the innovations could spread out across an 800-acre stretch of waterfront- in other words, an area the size of Venice.

Before that, Sidewalk Labs is planning test projects all over Toronto this summer to find out what it wants to deploy in Quayside. Another motivation is to start building familiarity among residents with the systems. If the plans are approved this year, work on Quayside could begin in 2020.

Innovations in that proposal include robots to deliver packages, haul garbage, a thermal energy grid (non-reliant on fossil fuels) and modular buildings that can switch between residential and retail use as needed, adaptive traffic lights, and sidewalks that melt snow. Private cars will be banned in favor of self-driving taxis and shuttles. This would also be the new site of Google’s Canadian headquarters.

Quayside would be underlined by a “digital layer” of sensors to monitor and measure everything from park bench use to noise levels and water use in plumbing. Sidewalk Labs says collection, aggregating, and analyzing big batches of data will help make Quayside sustainable, livable, and efficient, and secure, even letting residents monitor their homes while they are at work.

Other much-hyped smart cities such a Masdar in the United Arab Emirates or South Korea’s Songdo did not pan out to be the successes as planned. Instead, there were delays of a political and financial nature, or a neglect of engagement with locals during construction, according to Deland Chan, an expert on smart cities at Stanford University.

Head of Sidewalk Labs, Dan Doctoroff, who was deputy to Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, says the many projects fail because of “the urbanist-technologist divide”.

Sidewalks will need to bridge the divide between city specialists and tech people before it can dig into Quayside. Critics say Toronto’s politicians have given the project too much leeway due to a desire to become a global hotspot of tech. In its proposal, Sidewalk Labs notes the need for “substantial forbearances from existing [city] laws and regulations”.

Privacy concerns will arise as well, particularly regarding the universe of data collection, security, and storage. Sidewalk Labs claims it won’t use or sell any personal information for advertising purposes. The data will be subjected to “open standards”, letting other companies use it. Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto are advised by a former federal privacy commissioner and a former privacy commissioner of Ontario.

However, privacy experts say these assurances aren’t good enough because of Canada’s lagging framework for data privacy and security.

“You can always choose whether or not to download an app on your phone,” said Kelsey Finch at the Future of Privacy Forum, a think-tank. “You can’t easily opt out of the community that you live in.”