Toronto Waterfront Welcomes Google’s Sister Company and a Bold Vision

Whether the Toronto Waterfront is home turf or your favourite lakeside retreat, get ready to see some world-scale transformation over the next few years. We are part of an experiment to create the next-generation city for the Internet age. Like the animated space-aged Hanna-Barbara series, the Jetsons, this could turn the Eastern Waterfront into a cool new version of “Orbit City” for the 21st century.

This will happen with the help of Sidewalk Labs, the urban development division of the world’s second most valuable company: Alphabet, Google’s parent company. They won an international bid last fall to be Waterfront Toronto’s innovation and funding partner. The two organizations launched Sidewalk Toronto, a joint venture to develop a grand vision of the “city of the future”, bridging the latest urban development ideas with the most futuristic technology. Sidewalk Labs committed $50 million dollars for consultations and research over the next year, to develop a master plan for Waterfront Toronto’s 12-acre Quayside site located at Queens Quay East and Parliament. If the three levels of government embrace this final plan in 2019, then implementation planning can begin.

Bridging the Urbanist and Technologist divide for People-centric Neighbourhoods

The idea is to re-imagine a purpose-built city where urbanists, technologists and partners come together in an agile, open and collaborative fashion, to design the best quality of life for urban living in today’s transformative times. The idea is firmly focused on design thinking based on people who live and work there first, aimed at solving many existing urban issues. It is about making cities more affordable, healthier, sustainable, inclusive, diverse and easy to navigate, while incorporating the latest technologies from the very beginning. This could offer a blueprint of ideas to replicate over the larger 800-acre Portlands area.

This vision is rooted in building “the city” as a platform, like the hardware, software, design guidelines and apps of a smart phone, providing a base to make it functional. On top of this, you can build city functions and services, and data and analytics that could optimize the resident or user experience and responsiveness. For example, buildings could be flexible structures easily morphed for different purposes as needed, built with the newest and most sustainable materials. Self-driving taxi-bots could provide mobility to leave more room for public space and people. An underground tunnel system using robotic vehicles for waste and freight could offer efficiency and cost savings. Sensors and AI (artificial intelligence) could be used for air quality, energy use, noise levels and traffic flows.

Sidewalk Labs was born just three years ago. It represents the keen interest of Larry Page, Alphabet’s Co-Founder, to explore how to make cities better through design and technology. The company is led by Dan Doctoroff, a former deputy mayor of New York City and CEO of Bloomberg. In a recent public meeting, he stressed how important Toronto and Quayside is to his company’s future; “everything directly or indirectly relates to this”. As one company official noted, they don’t see themselves as a tech company selling gizmos or apps: “we are all about solving urban problems”.

Seeking Local Input, Feedback and Partnerships

Sidewalk Toronto is conducting a series of public presentations, roundtables and neighbourhood meetings seeking local input over the rest of this year. They have appointed advisory boards, established programs for youth input, and plan to seek feedback through design charrettes and a civic lab exploring pilot projects and prototypes. Doctoroff indicated an “insatiable desire for partnerships” with a myriad of technology, sustainability and energy companies, for innovations and pilot projects that could be incorporated into the plan.

Feedback from public consultations have uncovered heightened concerns about potential use of people’s data for the wrong reasons like advertising. Sidewalk Labs officials recently remarked they clearly heard and understand how passionate Torontonians are about the privacy of their data, particularly insistence that it stays in Canada. They have vowed to adhere to all Canadian privacy laws and regulations, and work closely with leading Canadian privacy and data governance experts to insure data is used for right quality of life purposes. They’ve also pledged commitment to open data standards−providing access and benefit for multiple stakeholders.

Shortly, you will be able to visit Sidewalk Toronto pop-up stations located in various neighbourhoods or the Sidewalk Toronto Pavilion, you can learn more at www.sidewalklabs.ca. The Jetsons’ space-age city never had congestion, affordability or climate change issues, the urban realities of today. Sidewalk Toronto could potentially add another spoke to Toronto’s growing innovation reputation: a rising hub for a new industry of urban innovation.

Linda Montgomery is Business and Technology Editor of Toronto Waterfront Magazine, a technology industry executive and a Toronto Waterfront resident. @lindamont3