Sidewalk Labs advances plans for Toronto smart city

Sidewalk Labs
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Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs is moving forward with its ambition to create a smart neighbourhood in Toronto, after addressing a number of "critical issues" in its initial scheme.

Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, which enlisted the Alphabet subsidiary to oversee the development, released new details of the conditions for the scheme yesterday.

The update follows a mandate placed on Sidewalk Labs to address concerns that the public and stakeholders had with its Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP), which was released earlier this year.

"We are encouraged by today's decision by the Waterfront Toronto board and are pleased to have reached alignment on critical issues with Waterfront Toronto," said Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff.

"We want to be a partner with Waterfront Toronto and governments to build an innovative and inclusive neighbourhood."The agreement means that Sidewalk Labs will continue to develop its proposal, along with Waterfront Toronto's evaluation of the project and further imput from the public. Waterfront Toronto's board will then make a final decision on 31 March 2020.

"After two years in Toronto and engaging and planning with over 21,000 Toronto residents, we are looking forward to the next round of public consultations, entering the evaluation process, and continuing to develop a plan to build the most innovative neighbourhood in the world," Doctoroff added.

Restrictions placed on data collection

Among the new stipulations outlined in the Overview of Realignment of MIDP Threshold Issues are restrictions on Sidewalk Labs' ability to collect data in the smart city. This feature had proved controversial in the wake of the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal, which saw data allegedly used to influence voters in political campaigns.

The team had planned to create an independent, government-sanctioned Urban Data Trust to oversee the collection of information to be used for the neighbourhood's design and acitivies. They had confirmed that data would be de-identified and adhere to Privacy by Design principles so it couldn't be used for advertising or shared with Alphabet companies.

The amends however require the team to follow existing and future privacy legislation, regulations and policy frameworks in Canada. Waterfront Toronto will manage the data collection and be responsible for proposing any amends to the City of Toronto.

"Sidewalk Labs agrees to work with Waterfront Toronto and governments to ensure proposed solutions do not impede accessibility, freedom of association, freedom of expression, equitable treatment of marginalised groups, and public engagement," said the resolution document.

Sidewalk Labs is also required to use established language, which bans it from terms such as Urban Data.

Scale of smart city reduced dramatically

The Innovative Development and Economic Acceleration (IDEA) District, which would cover one-third of the eastern waterfront and be used to pilot a suite of ideas, has also been scrapped. Instead, the collaborators will develop an Innovation Plan that would be applied to gradually introduce emerging technologies.

Cutting the IDEA District aspect has also reduced the scale of the project from 190 acres (76 hectares) to 12 acres (4.8 hectares) on the city's waterfront. The team had already dramatically reduced the size of the scheme since it was first announced, but this amend limits the ability for them to scale it up.

The Master Innovation & Development Plan (MIDP) was released 18 months after the project to develop a high-tech "future city" on Toronto's waterfront was first announced. Rohit Aggarwala, head of urban systems at Sidewalk Labs, spoke to Dezeen about its plans to disrupt the way that city's work.

Other aspects of the scheme include creating an affordable and sustainable built environment made entirely from timber. Thomas Heatherwick's British design studio, which was tapped for the project earlier this year, has designed a group of timber structures for the the development.

Amends follow controversies around project

It also intends to improve public space with features like curbless street design, wider sidewalks, wayfinding beacons and heated pavements. Additional details include Building Raincoats, which offer protection to pavements in harsh weather, and Fanshells, which are folding glass doors that lift up to open the interiors to outside.

"We are working to demonstrate an inclusive neighbourhood here in Toronto where we can shorten commute times, make housing more affordable, create new jobs, and set a new standard for a healthier planet," Doctoroff added.

The proposal to use a tech company to develop a neighbourhood has proved controversial. Block Sidewalk was set up as a petition to stop the scheme completely.

Concerns about smart cities have been raised by others, including architect and television presenter Jason Pomeroy who told Dezeen that existing cities like Barcelona and Amsterdam are doing a better job than new purpose-built "smart cities", which could soon become outdated.

Despite these controversies, Sidewalk Toronto is among a number of smart cities proposed for North America. Italian architect Stefano Boeri recently revealed plans for a smart forest in Mexico, while a cryptocurrency millionaire intends to create a blockchain smart city in Nevada desert.

Sidewalk Labs advances plans for Toronto smart city