Google's Sidewalk Labs wants to make Toronto ‘the first truly 21st-century city,’ CEO says
Many questions, some answers on ‘Sidewalk Toronto’ project as CEO Dan Doctoroff takes questions from Reddit users.
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The living urban lab envisioned by a Google sister company could “stitch” Toronto’s east waterfront together with neighbourhoods on the north side of the elevated Gardiner Expressway, the Sidewalk Labs chief executive said Wednesday.
Doctoroff rejected a questioner’s description of the test-bed neighbourhood, proposed for Waterfront Toronto’s 4.8-hectare (12-acre) patch at Queens Quay E. and Parliament St., as a “bubble” separated from the rest of downtown.
“It should be fully integrated into the fabric of the metropolitan area,” Doctoroff wrote. “We’ve done a lot of work thinking about the ways that this site — which sits on the water, separated by the Gardiner from the rest of downtown — can be stitched together into Toronto’s existing neighbourhoods.
“That includes potential expansions of mass transit, new forms of shuttles (overtime potentially using self-driving technology), heated bike and pedestrian paths, and other ideas.”
On other key points, including who owns the digital mountains of data that would be collected by sensors, and how Sidewalk Labs, owned by Google parent company Alphabet, would profit from innovation experiments on public land, Doctoroff said even he doesn’t know those answers yet.
“There is nothing more important to the success of this project than developing a privacy and data policy that people can trust, and over the course of the next year we’ll be developing that policy in collaboration with the community,” Doctoroff wrote, noting that Ann Cavoukian, a former Ontario information and privacy commissioner, is a privacy consultant for the Sidewalk Labs-Waterfront Toronto partnership they are calling “Sidewalk Toronto.”
“On the revenue model, we’re not overly focused right now on the specifics. What’s important is that we believe very strongly that integrating innovation in a new way into the physical environment can fundamentally improve quality of life, including affordability. If we can do that, we know there will be ways to make money — but quality of life is job one.”
Waterfront Toronto, a federal-provincial-city agency, last March invited proposals to develop the once-industrial “Quayside” site as a new mixed-use neighbourhood. Sidewalk Labs won the competition in October, news that drew Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the launch and focused worldwide attention on the proposal to build a high-tech neighbourhood “from the Internet up” in an existing city.
Sidewalk Labs vowed to spend one year and up to $50 million listening to public input and developing a model with Waterfront Toronto, with no guarantees the firm will get approval to build out the plan.
Concept documents envision low-cost buildings easily reconfigured to simultaneously accommodate residential, commercial and even industrial uses. Small self-driving “taxi-bots,” and possibly buses, would be summoned with an app. Automated trash pickup would happen through underground chambers. Computer sensors would constantly analyze everything from vehicle flow to weather, and adjust the infrastructure to suit.
Sidewalk Labs acknowledges that to test things like new construction technology at scale, it would spill into some of the surrounding 800-acre Port Lands, mostly owned by the City of Toronto. Also, existing city rules for zoning, building codes and more would need to be rewritten for the test district.
“Any time you innovate in a public environment, you’re going to need to work closely with government officials and regulators,” Doctoroff wrote. “For example, if we have an all-autonomous vehicle district, the regulatory regime would have to accommodate that. If we want to have a new form of building codes that enables more flexible — and therefore cheaper — buildings, new regulations will have to be put in place so that can happen.”
He envisions his company as “the co-master developer with Waterfront Toronto. That role includes developing a plan and a vision that the community and its elected officials can rally around and be excited about; working to get the plan approved; and overseeing the eventual development of infrastructure. Part of that plan will be to create standards and design guidelines that developers will have to follow . . .
We want to build the first truly 21st-century city.”