Google’s Sidewalk Labs signs deal for ‘smart city’ makeover of Toronto’s waterfront

A unit of Google’s parent company, dedicated to urban invention, has signed a deal to map out a new sort of neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront that could demonstrate how data-driven technology may enhance the quality of citynbsp;life.

On Tuesday, Sidewalk Labs, a division of Alphabet Inc., and the government agency Waterfront Toronto announced a partnership where Sidewalk initially will spend $50-million (U.S.) at a yearlong planning procedure for Quayside, a 12-acre district on the waterfront, and the company has signalled its intentions to go for a far larger area. This is the first such project for Alphabet, and for Sidewalknbsp;Labs.

If the initiative proceeds, it would include at least 3.3 million square feet of residential, office and industrial space, including a new headquarters for Google Canada, in a district which would be a test bed for the mixture of technology andnbsp;urbanism.

“Sidewalk Toronto” would represent North America’s biggest example of the wise city, a metropolitan district that’s built around information technology and utilizes information — about traffic, noise, air quality and the operation of systems such as trash bins and the electric grid — to direct its operation. Access to all those systems and the usage of the data, in this private-public venture, will raise novel policy questions for authorities about privacy andnbsp;governance.

Officials on hand for the announcement included Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Toronto Mayor John Tory and Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt. Mr. Tory hailed the announcement as a step toward creating “a global hub for urban innovation” in Toronto. “This is a moment for Toronto,” he explained in an interview ahead of the statement. “By having Sidewalk interested in coming {}, we are establishing our credentials as the place to maintain thenbsp;planet.”

Sidewalk’s first ideas — in Made public Tuesday — reveal the firm with an agenda that reflects substantial innovation in design, construction and urban design. Within the area it grows, private cars are prohibited; roads would be served by autonomous vehicles and cargo robots moving in subterranean tunnels. Intelligent signs would handle traffic on pedestrian-friendly roads; buildings are designed to be extremely flexible, constructed using modular units which are produced nearby. These are home to what Sidewalk describes as a “radical” combination of offices, retail, residence and manufacturer spaces, a mix that would challenge present zoning and building-codenbsp;regulations.

Those buildings would be connected by means of an energy system which would reduce the district’s energy consumption by 95 percent below city regulations. And a digital coating would quantify movements of people, traffic, energy and products through thenbsp;district.

In a video conference a week, Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel Doctoroff — who also attended Tuesday’s announcement in Toronto — clarified the corporation’s aim: “We feel that by … leveraging technology and combining it with very smart, people-centric urban planning, we might have very dramatic impacts on quality of life,” henbsp;stated.

“But you will need to do it at a place — a place big enough to be a lab for an integrated approach to innovation andnbsp;planning.”

That place, in 2017, is in Toronto. Quayside are the first step toward a bigger project: the development of 750 acres of the surrounding region recently made possible by a $1.185-billion flood-protection program announced innbsp;June.

Waterfront Toronto — an agency controlled by town, provincial and national authorities and tasked with redeveloping 2,000 acres of brownfield land in the vicinity of the city’s old port — aspires to “utilize the waterfront as a test bed,” CEO Will Fleissig said last week. “In this region, we could not just build more condos. We wish to explore new ideas, new inventions, new ventures which if successful could apply to the remainder of Toronto, other cities in Canada and possibly across thenbsp;world.”

Contrary to the case of Amazon, which is currently soliciting bids from Canadian and American cities for its new “HQ2,” Sidewalk Labs is coming at the invitation of government. It responded to a March, 2017, telephone from Waterfront Toronto for a partner to develop the Quayside website; the bureau asked for a spouse on a “globally significant community” that would be climate-positive and encourage innovation in construction and technology, while also addressing societal goals including affordable housing.

Is filled with ambitious and even radical suggestions (). It promises “the opportunity to demonstrate how emerging technologies can make cities cheaper, easier to travel inside, and much more environmentallynbsp;sustainable.”

Sidewalk’s business model isn’t yet clear. Mr. Doctoroff said the development “primarily is a real-estatenbsp;drama{}”

Many of Sidewalk’s executives share a common history in the data-driven management of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and in the financial information and media company he founded, Bloombergnbsp;LP.

Mr. Doctoroff was Mr. Bloomberg’s deputy mayor; among his most visible attempts was kicking off the growth of Hudson Yards, a 28-acre, $20-billlion redevelopment over rail yards in Manhattan. (Sidewalk’s headquarters are there.) Other Bloomberg specialists at Sidewalk include sustainability specialist Rohit Aggarwal and head of growth Josh Sirefman, who was later an executive at Brookfield Properties in New York. “We’re fans of towns, and many people have spent our lives in the work of building towns,” said Micah Lasher, Sidewalk’s head of external affairs. “We are designed to bridge the urbanist-technologistnbsp;split.”

‘The ideal city’ for Sidewalk’s eyesight

by Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel Doctoroff, top, and Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt on why they chose Toronto for their neighbourhood of the future.

Up to now the firm’s most visible project has been LinkNYC, a set of kiosks on New York roads offering WiFi and internet access together with advertisingnbsp;displays.

Since Sidewalk prepares for a far bigger public-sector venture in Toronto, the history and influence of its parent firm raises questions. Much like Facebook and Apple, Alphabet proceeds to create its headquarters on a closed suburban website, and prizes secrecy in its operations. Its principal business, Google, relies on collecting and monetizing privatenbsp;information.

What would a private-public relationship look like? Sidewalk intends an “urban innovation institute” that would bring together academics, Sidewalk staff and outsidenbsp;programmers.

Sidewalk says its Toronto development would have an assortment of sensors to “[gather] useful data about the urban environment{}” As examples, the organization cites “hyperlocal weather” detectors, air-quality detectors, sound sensors — and cameras connected with artificial intelligence that can monitor the flow of traffic and, it says, “make use of dynamic signage, flexible road furniture and advice from smartphone programs … to produce better pedestriannbsp;stream.”

The access to these sensors would be available, Sidewalk states. However, this form of collection and analysis of information across an entire community has seldom been tried, rather than by Sidewalk or in Canada; this may require new law to control access to information and personalnbsp;solitude.

“This is the major frontier around smart cities,” stated Pamela Robinson, a professor at Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning who’s exploring data and smart cities. “Do proprietary connections between governments and corporations make data more shut? Likely they do, but governments have made commitments to open information. Just how can that getnbsp;solved?”

The planning process for Quayside, which starts with a public meeting Nov. 1, will address that as a fundamental question, Mr. Fleissignbsp;stated.

Likewise, if a business like Sidewalk develops a device or procedure to be used in a city, who owns the intellectual property? And what access do competitions or startups have into the stage? Sidewalk says it needs to create its “digital coating” broadly accessible. “We see ourselves as an urban innovation stage,” Mr. Doctoroff said. “We feel that our role is to create the conditions for others to innovate on top of. And that is what cities have always done: A road grid is a stage. We don’t think we are coming in with all of the answers; we view it as a process, and with the community and elected officials, we believe we can make something reallynbsp;historical.”

Mr. Flessig explained that Waterfront Toronto is entering the bargain with its eyes open to problems like these. Sidewalk has made a firm commitment to fund the preparation process, and in the end of a calendar year, either party “has an off-ramp” into the procedure, Mr. Fleissig said; protecting privacy and creating opportunities for Canadian invention are “firmly” one of the aims, henbsp;stated.

The build-out of the website is very likely to involve different partners. Sidewalk has already started discussions with programmers Great Gulf and Dream and a consortium known as 3C, which collectively own approximately 20 acres adjacent to the Quayside website. Beyond that, “We’re open to all sorts of ventures,” Mr. Serifmannbsp;stated.

The bureau gave serious consideration to another bid which includes experienced real-estate programmers. “There might be an opportunity, over time, to bring in a number of the members of another bid,” Mr. Fleissignbsp;stated.

Mr. Fleissig and Waterfront Toronto team wouldn’t comment on the identity of the other shortlisted biddersnonetheless, The Globe and Mail has learned the consortium includes OMERS Ventures, Manulife Financial Corp. and Mattamy Homes, one of othernbsp;spouses.

There is no question that the Sidewalk proposal promises to shake up the worlds of planning, architecture, development and structure. “It will be disruptive, in the best sense,” claims Ken Greenberg, a Toronto urban designer and architect that has been closely involved with the Toronto waterfront redevelopment — and that had been a part of an internal think tank which Sidewalk predicted to form its urbannbsp;schedule.

It “should make the city” — Toronto and many others — “much more receptive to new ideas,” Mr. Greenberg suggested. “And that is important at this moment in history. After the automobile came, it had all sorts of damaging consequences on the city since we did not treat it blatantly.” Smart city technologies “are coming,” he explained, “and we can not stop them this is a opportunity to be intentional about how we embrace them, and see how they can best fit into a town designed fornbsp;individuals.”


THE GOOGLEnbsp;CITY

Sidewalk Labs’s thoughts for design andnbsp;urbanism


Sidewalk Labs has announced a partnership with Waterfront Toronto to plan a new neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront, which will let it test technologies that could reshape how cities have been built. The organization released a 220-page record on Tuesday outlining some of its aspirations for buildings, roads and urban infrastructure — ranging from familiar ideas to moonshots.


Self-driving taxibots andnbsp;buses

Sidewalk suggests “taxibots” since the transport backbone of this neighbourhood: little self-driving cars controlled by app-based services like Waymo and Lyft. Larger self-driving buses are the next larger scale — and the company suggests piloting that technologies early in the project.


Parking

Through an program developed by the Sidewalk company Flow, Sidewalk would “pilot a program that keeps parking costs high, but provides discounts to people that are coming from regions, or occasionally, when transit alternatives are restricted. Technology will enable pricing to change in real time based on transit accessibility.”


Garbage robots

Industrial robots, moving in an underground network of utility tunnels, would handle the collection of garbage and recyclables.


Deeply flexiblenbsp;buildings

Having a concept they call “The Attic,” Sidewalk intends to reevaluate how buildings are constructed and split. Like the production lofts of a century ago, these buildings could have a solid structure but their insides are built around a standardized five-by-five-foot grid and standardized building components, allowing “continuing and frequent interior alterations.”


Modular building

Deciding on a widespread dream in the design world, Sidewalk would establish a program of modular structure, producing sections of a building in a controlled factory setting prior to bringing them into the building site for fast assembly. The business says it would unite three-dimensional components with two-dimensional pieces, like structurally insulated panels and components of cross-laminated wood, to make a “versatile product library” that will allow rapid customization — and decrease the time required for “home production” to one-third of what traditional construction requires. The guarantee is “entire neighbourhoods of lower-cost, quicker-to-build housing.” (Sidewalk indicates that the Hearn Generating Station, a former power plant in Toronto’s Port Lands, could become a manufacturing plant for all these units.)


New materials

Sidewalk will pilot the structure of “tall timber,” using new kinds of wood technologies that allow for safe construction of big and tall buildings — a set of ideas that’s already being researched by Canadian architects and contractors.


‘Weather mitigation’

By organizing buildings carefully to create comfortable microclimates — sheltered by canopies, shielded from wind — the company indicates it could double the time where it is comfortable to be out in Toronto’s climate.


Outcome-based code

Sidewalk suggests that utilizing building detectors could allow governments to loosen up use limitations: If light, temperature, noise, structural integrity and other features are continuously monitored by sensors, there’ll be no requirement for zoning as it is now. This, Sidewalk states, would allow “radical mixed use” within buildings and neighbourhoods.


Adaptive and walkablenbsp;roads

Sidewalk suggests a heavily pedestrianized district; the business calls for narrow roads that privilege the pedestrian and “an intimate human scale{}” Three scales of roads — from large to very narrow — could serve progressively personal uses. Retail, such as pop-up retail, will come and go inside the spaces at the district’s modular buildings.


DESIGNING TORONTO: MORE FROM THE GLOBE ANDnbsp;MAIL

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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