How Sidewalk Labs can impact Toronto’s evolution
Advances in technology inevitably play a critical part in the evolution of cities. The key question for me comes down to how a “human-centred” urbanism can be aided by technology, not be subverted by it.
When Waterfront Toronto issued an RFP in 2017 for the L-shaped 12-acre site at the Parliament Slip, the opportunity presented itself to put this challenge to the test. Rather than seeking a developer in the traditional way, Waterfront Toronto was seeking an “innovation partner.” Sidewalk Labs was chosen because it had been doing ruly integrated, human-centred thinking around these issues.
A period of deep dive discovery, including meeting with citizens, governments, universities and others was launched as a joint effort to explore what a new kind of “technology-assisted,” mixed-use, complete community on Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront might look and feel like.
The goal was to come up with a model that Waterfront Toronto, the City of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs would find worthy to continue through multiple partnerships that could have broad benefits for the city at large and indeed cities beyond Toronto. The result is the Master Innovation and Development Plan (MDIP) released last week.
What sets this project apart from other smart city efforts is the focus on human experience and a healthy dose of skepticism about technology. It is about creating a remarkable new neighbourhood in a way that is very different from how tech growth has impacted other cities.
There is a robust, strong commitment to affordable housing in perpetuity, great public spaces and social infrastructure supporting community life. And the urban design concept for Villiers West, where Google would locate its headquarters, proposes a radical departure from the self-contained corporate campus with generous public space, vibrant ground floors and public uses connecting to the park and neighbourhood.
Some of the specific aspects to be explored in this neighbourhood, aided by new technological innovation, include but by are not limited to: more intensive mixed-use and mixed-income combining housing for all ages, incomes and capacities; a greater range of mobility options; alternative means of collecting and sorting waste and distributing energy; weather “mitigation” features that could double the time people spend outdoors and wood-composite modular buildings at a large scale.
These and many other ideas are not technological gimmicks. They go to the heart of how we live together in the city. By being combined and interrelated in a test area, their cumulative impact can be vastly greater than scattered throughout the city, but ultimately they are scalable and exportable and will have application throughout the urban region and around the world as we learn to use and manage the array of new means available to us in getting to a more sustainable urban future.
Many big questions will need to be addressed as the plan is carefully assessed, including legitimate concerns around privacy and use of data. Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto have given assurances security and privacy protection will be baked into the new infrastructure. With many eyes on the project the city and civil society are stepping in to negotiate the rules of engagement and to take on this role not only for Sidewalk but for an array of similar advances in technology.
Why is the Sidewalk project worth the risk and potentially so beneficial for Toronto?
We are in the throes of an astonishing growth spurt. Our systems are stretched to the limit and beyond. We need breakthroughs and places to experiment and innovate, but change is hard. Regulatory structures and operating mechanisms that may have served us well in the past as useful bulwarks against making mistakes are now impediments.
We have an urgent need to test them against new realities, to modify, innovate and introduce creative tension between what is and what could be; the Sidewalk partnership may just provide the catalyst, R&D resources, and the time and space we urgently need at this time to help us make the leap in critical areas.
As other cities have demonstrated, we are part of a great collective learning curve as we take turns innovating in different ways. This may be Toronto’s turn to take the lead in yet another way.
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