Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs unveils expansive Toronto smart city proposal

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The Alphabet-owned urban design business Sidewalk Labs on Monday unveiled its long-awaited proposal for an expansive, tech-driven overhaul of Toronto’s eastern waterfront. Called Sidewalk Toronto, the smart city plan ambitiously claims it “breaks new ground” across “nearly every dimension of urban life,” including mobility, sustainability, public spaces, buildings and digital innovation. 

“That includes the first neighbourhood built entirely of mass timber, dynamic streets that can adapt to a neighbourhood’s changing needs, weather mitigation systems, and a thermal grid for heating and cooling,” reads the Sidewalk Toronto website. The project, it says, would create “a global model for combining cutting-edge technology and great urban design to dramatically improve quality of life.” 

Development would begin in two neighborhoods, Quayside and Villiers West. This phase of the project, Sidewalk Labs forecasts, would cost $3.9 billion, with the company investing $900 million. The project could then potentially expand to the surrounding two neighborhoods on the Toronto waterfront, which Sidewalk Labs has dubbed the IDEA District. 

Sidewalk Labs’ proposal has been 18 months in the making and fills more than 1,500 pages. Still, it’s facing pushback from Toronto leaders concerned about a variety of issues, including privacy and surveillance concerns. 

There are some parts of the plan “where it is clear that Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs have very different perspectives about what is required for success,” Stephen Diamond, board chairman of Waterfront Toronto, wrote in an open letter on Monday. That includes Sidewalk Labs’ initial proposals relating to data collection, data use and digital governance, the letter said. 

Waterfront Toronto is a publicly-funded organization that worked with Sidewalk Labs early on in the research phase of this project. However, Diamond stressed in his letter that the group “did not co-create” the draft Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) that Sidewalk Labs unveiled on Monday. The MIDP will have to win the approval of Waterfront Toronto’s board of directors, as well as the Toronto city council, before moving forward. 

Meanwhile, as CNET notes, some Sidewalk Toronto project advisers resigned last year over data collection concerns, including Ann Cavoukian, the former Information and Privacy Commissioner for Ontario.

Sidewalk’s proposed solution to questions about data collection is to form an independent, government-sanctioned “Urban Data Trust” to serve as a steward of urban data and the public interest, “without stifling innovation.” The entity would be guided by a “responsible data use” review process. 

Sidewalk Labs says it will not sell personal information to third parties or use it for advertising purposes. It also said it commits to not disclose personal information to third parties, including other Alphabet companies, without explicit consent. However, it’s unclear what other companies would be allowed to do with the data collected under Sidewalk Labs’ proposal.

Within the sphere of urban planning, “there have been important initial strides to advance the conversation around data governance principles,” the Sidewalk Toronto site says, “but no place has yet adopted a comprehensive approach to address these challenges and create the conditions for digital innovation to flourish responsibly.”
 
It adds, “The Sidewalk Toronto project presents a unique opportunity to do just that.”  

Its “holistic approach to digital innovation” covers four components. Along with responsible data use, that includes the maintenance of open digital infrastructure, secure and open data standards and core digital services. 

In the area of digital infrastructure, Sidewalk Labs lays out a vision for ubiquitous connectivity internet network powered by a new Super-PON technology. It also proposes establishing physical mounts throughout the development that could serve as a sort of “urban USB port,” letting the city easily and cheaply deploy digital devices like Wi-Fi antennae or air-quality sensors.

The project’s tech-driven proposals go beyond digital infrastructure, into areas like mobility. For instance, the project proposes an underground tunnel network that would connect buildings, allowing self-driving delivery dollies to quickly and safely make deliveries throughout the neighborhood. 

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