People take photographs of the Toronto skyline and waterfront before Alphabet Inc, the owner of Google, announced the project "Sidewalk Toronto", that will develop an area of Toronto's waterfront using new technologies to develop high-tech urban areas in Toronto, Ontario, Canada October 17, 2017.    REUTERS/Mark Blinch
© Reuters

Alphabet is setting out to build the city of the future, starting with a downtown district of Toronto, in what it hopes will serve as a proving ground for technology-enabled urban environments around the world. 

In a first-of-its-kind project, Alphabet’s subsidiary Sidewalk Labs will develop a 12-acre waterfront district, Quayside, with a view to expand across 800 acres of Toronto’s post-industrial waterfront zone.

Self-driving shuttles, adaptive traffic lights that sense pedestrians, modular housing and freight-delivering robots that travel in underground tunnels might all be part of the new development, according to the winning bid submitted by Sidewalk Labs.

In its proposal, Sidewalk also said that Toronto would need to waive or exempt many existing regulations in areas like building codes, transportation, and energy in order to build the city it envisioned. The project may need “substantial forbearances from existing laws and regulations,” the group said.

Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau announced the deal on Tuesday in Toronto. 

“We started thinking about all the things we could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge,” said Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet. “That’s not how it works, for all sorts of good reasons,” he added with a laugh. 

For Alphabet, the project presents a chance to experiment with new ways to use technology — and data — in the real world. “This is not some random activity from our perspective. This is the culmination of almost 10 years of thinking about how technology could improve people’s lives,” said Mr Schmidt.

Despite a growing political backlash against big tech in the US, where politicians are grappling with the growing influence of Alphabet, Facebook and Amazon, the company’s city-building effort has been undeterred. 

Mr Trudeau described the project as a “test bed for new technologies . . . that will help us build cleaner, smarter, greener, cities”. 

“Eric [Schmidt] and I have been talking about collaborating on this for a few years, and seeing it all come together now is extraordinarily exciting,” he added. 

Justin Trudeau, Canada's prime minister, left, laughs with Dan Doctoroff, chief executive officer of Sidewalk Labs LLC, during an event in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. Sidewalk Labs LLC, the urban innovation unit of Alphabet Inc., and Waterfront Toronto plan to foster the development of a high-tech community from scratch along Lake Ontario in Canada's biggest city. The area aims to become an innovation hub for technologies that improve city life, from green energy systems, to self-driving transit and new construction techniques that can lower housing costs, the companies said in a a statement. Photographer: Cole Burston/Bloomberg
Justin Trudeau, Canada's prime minister, with Dan Doctoroff, chief executive of Sidewalk Labs © Bloomberg

One of the challenges for the new district will be setting data policies and addressing concerns over privacy, which are particularly acute because smart city technologies often rely on collecting vast amounts of data to make cities run more efficiently. 

In the vision statement submitted as part of its bid, Sidewalk describes a vast system of sensors that will monitor everything from park benches and overflowing waste bins, to noise and pollution levels in housing. The development will also pioneer new approaches to energy, including a thermal grid and on-site generation, and tech-enabled primary healthcare that will be integrated with social services. 

The transportation proposal for the district includes restricting private vehicles, and instead offering self-driving shuttles and bike paths that are heated in the winter, according to the vision document. A series of underground utility tunnels will house utilities like electrical wires and water pipes, and also provide pathways for freight-delivering robots. 

Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet that was founded in 2015 by Dan Doctoroff, a former deputy mayor of New York, will spend $50m on initial planning and testing for the development. As part of the effort, Google will also move its Canadian headquarters to Toronto. 

Mr Doctoroff said the group would present a detailed plan in one year, following extensive consultations with the community. “Our goal here is to listen, to understand,” he said. “This has to be a community conversation . . . otherwise it won’t have the political credibility to do things that are quite bold.” 

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