Google’s Sidewalk Labs takes the lead in ‘smart city’ development in Toronto

Photo: Nicola Betts

Recently, I wrote how Google’s Sidewalk Labs – formally operating under the umbrella of Alphabet – is preparing a key role in smart city development. At that time I did not realize its fast instantiation.

Sidewalk Labs responded to an open call for a proposal for the redevelopment of Quayside, brownfield land around Toronto’s old port. This call was issued by Waterfront Toronto – a public controlled urban development agency that aspires “to explore new ideas, new innovations, new partnerships that if successful could apply to the rest of Toronto, other cities in Canada and potentially across the planet.”

Sidewalk Labs won the competition with a tempting and well-illustrated 220-page document. The company promised “(to) combine forward-thinking urban design and new digital technology to create people-centred neighbourhoods that achieve precedent-setting levels of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity,”

A few weeks ago, Friday, Oktober 17th, the plan has been presented. The presence of the prime minister, Justin Trudeau underlines the interest of Canada in innovation in architecture, construction and urban design. In his words :”Sidewalk Toronto will transform Quayside into a thriving hub for innovation and a community for tens of thousands of people to live, work, and play.” Eric Schmidt (CEO Alphabet) said “The reality is, you can produce all these documents, but you need an actual city.” He added: This plan “is the culmination, from our side, of almost 10 years of thinking about how technology can improve people’s lives.”

A video of the presentation can be watched here:

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A bird’s view of Sidewalk’s plan

The development of the 5 hectares of Quayside is a pilot that – if succesful – will be scaled to another 300 hectares. In Sidewalk Labs’ proposal for smart city development in Quayside, the following characteristics dominate.

Self-driving taxibots

Construction will prioritize walkers and bikers. Taxibots are the transportation backbone of the neighbourhood: small self-driving cars controlled by app-based services such as Waymo and Lyft.

Underground tunnels
Underground tunnels let Quayside’s garbage robots and autonomous vehicles travel the area out of pedestrians’ way.

Flexible and modular buildings
New buildings have a strong structure but their interiors will be designed around a standardized five-by-five-foot grid and standardized building components, allowing “ongoing and frequent interior changes.” The promise is “whole neighbourhoods of lower-cost, quicker-to-build housing.”

New materials
The construction of “tall wood,” will be pilotted, using new types of wood technology that allow for safe construction of large and tall buildings – a set of ideas that is already being explored by Canadian architects and builders.

‘Weather mitigation’
By arranging buildings carefully to produce comfortable microclimates – sheltered by canopies, protected from wind –the time in which it is comfortable to be outside in Toronto’s climate might be doubled.

Outcome-based code
Using building sensors could allow governments to loosen up use restrictions: If temperature, light, sound, structural integrity and other characteristics are constantly monitored by sensors, there will be no need for zoning as it exists today. This will allow “radical mixed use” within buildings and neighbourhoods.

Flexible and walkable streets
There will be a heavily pedestrianized district, without private cars and “an intimate human scale.” Retail, including pop-up retail, would come and go within the spaces in the district’s modular buildings.

In the community everybody will have their own account, “a highly secure, personalized portal through which each resident accesses public services and the public sector.” Use your account to tell everyone in the building to quiet down, to get into your gym, or to give the plumber access to your apartment while you’re at work.

The project will include a variety of sensors to collect useful data about the urban environment. Examples are local weather sensors, air-quality sensors, noise sensors and cameras associated with artificial intelligence that can track the flow of traffic and to create better pedestrian flow.

This overview demonstrate that the smart city concept is developing beyond the application of electronic gadges in the first place. Sidewalk Labs is eager to proof that the realization of people-centered urban design comes first: “I expect very little of the value we create is about information.” Dan Doctoroff (CEO Sidewalk Labs) said.

City development as an interactive process

Sidewalk Labs will invest millions in communication with stakeholders. It says it will spend a year hammering out the details of the community with local policymakers, city leaders, academics, activists and potential inhabitants. Sidewalk Labs’ approach – fast, iterative, and based on observed facts – is to take its cues from people, not lofty design principles. “I think the company needs to show that it can provide city services that are not restricted to white, male millennials,” says Sarah Kaufman, who studies transportation and technology at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation. “That means serving the elderly, the disabled, the poor – all populations that cities serve and private companies do not.”

This is part of the Sidewalk’s mission for the Toronto neighborhood: The company calculates the cost of living in Quayside will be 14 percent lower than the surrounding area. It believes timber-frame construction, modular units that can be assembled on site, microunits, and cohousing can significantly lower housing costs. Other ideas, like mixing office, production, institutional, and residential spaces together in buildings are siren songs for urbanists who lament the segragation of functions in today’s cities.

Reception of the plans

In general, the development from new (smart) cities from scratch meets skepticism. The few existing examples demonstrate that building fancy houses is not that difficult, but to attrack a heterogenous population and sufficient employment at the same time appears to be nearly impossible, apart from the creation of an urban athmosphere and a vibrant community. However, The development of Quaysite and its possible scaling-up can not be compared with the development of completely new towns. The new territory will be part of the city of Toronto and use many of its facilities. When a local reporter asked Dan Doctoroff about his company’s appetite for integration with the wider Toronto community, he called it insatiable.

Heavy opposition from the usually good-natured citizens of Toronto is not expected as the plans can be realized without demolition of beloved buildings. Comments in papers focus at privacy issues in connection with the use of sensors and other surveillance devices. However, compliance with the Canadian law is beyond doubt and Sidewalk Labs will deploy a Dutch-Canedian system, called ‘privacy by design’ that does not focus at protection of privacy but at privacy by default.

The Guardian offers the most critical comment. Jathan Sadowski – a visiting lecturer in ethics of technology at Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands – suggest that the involvement of Google and other tech companies in the development of (smart) cities will take over the role of the mayor and the town council. Sean Meagher, executive director of Social Planning Toronto, says the city will be in the lead and doing this work, Google or not. He urges the city and public to watch Sidewalk’s proposals closely: “Let’s make sure we don’t take our eyes off protecting the public interest.”

Sidewalk Labs proposal is in accordance with visions of many urbanists that unfortunately are seldom practiced: mixed landuse, priority for pedestrians, bicycles and electric self-driving cars, green and sheltered spaces to promote commoning, flexible methods of building, energy-neutral buildings and the smart application of technology and not in the final place citizen participation to discuss ideas and concerns.

Quayside might be a living lab for democratic and participatory smart city development, the orchestration of third parties – like Google – included.

*) This article was brought to you by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.

Herman van den Bosch


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