QUAYSIDE, an area of flood-prone land stretching for 12 acres (4.8 hectares) on Toronto’s eastern waterfront, is home to a vast, pothole-filled parking lot, low-slung buildings and huge soyabean silos—a crumbling vestige of the area’s bygone days as an industrial port. Many consider it an eyesore but for Sidewalk Labs, an “urban innovation” subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, it is an ideal location for the world’s “first neighbourhood built from the internet up”.
Sidewalk Labs is working in partnership with Waterfront Toronto, an agency representing the federal, provincial and municipal governments that is responsible for developing the area, on a $50m project to overhaul Quayside. It aims to make it a “platform” for testing how emerging technologies might ameliorate urban problems such as pollution, traffic jams and a lack of affordable housing. Its innovations could be rolled out across an 800-acre expanse of the waterfront—an area as large as Venice.
First, however, Sidewalk Labs is planning pilot projects across Toronto this summer to test some of the technologies it hopes to employ at Quayside; this is partly to reassure residents. If its detailed plan is approved later this year (by Waterfront Toronto and also by various city authorities), it could start work at Quayside in 2020.
That proposal contains ideas ranging from the familiar to the revolutionary. There will be robots delivering packages and hauling away rubbish via underground tunnels; a thermal energy grid that does not rely on fossil fuels; modular buildings that can shift from residential to retail use; adaptive traffic lights; and snow-melting sidewalks. Private cars are banned; a fleet of self-driving shuttles and robotaxis would roam freely. Google’s Canadian headquarters would relocate there.
Undergirding Quayside would be a “digital layer” with sensors tracking, monitoring and capturing everything from how park benches are used to levels of noise to water use by lavatories. Sidewalk Labs says that collecting, aggregating and analysing such volumes of data will make Quayside efficient, liveable and sustainable. Data would also be fed into a public platform through which residents could, for example, allow maintenance staff into their homes while they are at work.
Similar “smart city” projects, such as Masdar in the United Arab Emirates or South Korea’s Songdo, have spawned lots of hype but are not seen as big successes. Many experience delays because of shifting political and financial winds, or because those overseeing their construction fail to engage locals in the design of communities, says Deland Chan, an expert on smart cities at Stanford University. Dan Doctoroff, the head of Sidewalk Labs, who was deputy to Michael Bloomberg when the latter was mayor of New York City, says that most projects flop because they fail to cross what he terms “the urbanist-technologist divide”.
That divide, between tech types and city-planning specialists, will also need to be bridged before Sidewalk Labs can stick a shovel in the soggy ground at Quayside. Critics of the project worry that in a quest to become a global tech hub, Toronto’s politicians may give it too much freedom. Sidewalk Labs’s proposal notes that the project needs “substantial forbearances from existing [city] laws and regulations”.
It is not yet known what business model Sidewalk Labs plans for Quayside. Rohit Aggarwala, its head of urban systems, said at a public meeting in March that it is “frankly a little unclear” what it will be. Mr Doctoroff says the firm might make money by licensing the products and services it develops in Toronto and selling them to other cities. It is uncertain whether Torontonians who contributed data to hone the services would share the revenue.
Privacy concerns will doubtless arise—over what data the sensors at Quayside will hoover up, who will own them, where they will be housed and so on. For now, Sidewalk Labs has said it will not use or sell personal information for advertising purposes and that the data will be subject to “open standards”, allowing other firms and agencies to make use of it. Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto have brought in a former federal privacy commissioner and a former privacy commissioner of Ontario as advisers.
But privacy experts call such assurances insufficient, because Canada’s legal frameworks for data privacy and security lag behind the latest innovations from tech firms. “You can always choose whether or not to download an app on your phone,” says Kelsey Finch at the Future of Privacy Forum, a think-tank. “You can’t easily opt out of the community that you live in.”