A subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet has unveiled long-awaited plans to transform part of Toronto into a data-driven smart city of the future.
In the extensive blueprint released on Monday, Sidewalk Labs outlined what it hoped could become a model for urban redevelopment, with Dan Doctoroff, chief executive, saying he hoped the ambitious plans would represent “a big day for Toronto and the future of cities”.
The company is putting technology, such as cameras and sensors, at the heart of its proposals to radically modernise Toronto’s Quayside and Villiers West regions. Ideas to help make every day life more efficient include smart traffic lights that could measure how quickly pedestrians were crossing the road, and “dynamic curbs” that could widen or shrink depending on the time of day and how busy the roads were.
To help reduce traffic and improve air quality, the company proposed creating an underground “logistics hub” and a network for subterranean deliveries. Sidewalk Labs also said it aimed to ensure all buildings were accessible via bike lanes or “cycle streets”, while heated pavement would make being outside in Toronto’s freezing winter more comfortable.
“What the plan can achieve is historic,” said Mr Doctoroff, who added that it could make a “dramatic impact on urban life” and be a “hub for urban innovation industry”.
Construction in the area, which currently has few residents, would be done using only timber, which would come from a new Ontario timber factory. The structures would be environmentally sustainable and faster to construct, said Sidewalk Labs, while flexible wall panels would make renovations easier.
Relying on a new local timber supply chain would also create jobs and bolster the local economy, the company said.
According to Sidewalk’s timeline, the first stage of construction could begin as early as 2022, pending approval from local officials and the Canadian government. A consultation period with local government is expected to be carried out this year, with city officials expected to vote on the plans in 2020.
However, Sidewalk Labs acknowledged that sweeping regulatory changes — such as how high buildings made of timber are permitted to be in Toronto — would be necessary before its futuristic ideas could be put into practice.
“So much is new,” said Mr Doctoroff, that “we think it will require a new regulatory framework” to govern the range of new technologies being proposed, such as smart traffic lights. The exact nature of those regulations would be up to the government to decide.
The heavy emphasis on data and technology has also prompted questions about privacy, and how information about those living and working in the area would be collected, stored and used.
In an effort to ease concerns, Sidewalk Labs proposed last year the creation of an independent Urban Data Trust to oversee the project. Mr Doctoroff said he expected the project to have “the strongest governance regime for urban data anywhere in the world”.
Sidewalk Labs also reiterated that it would not sell personal information, use personal information for advertising or disclose personal information to third parties without explicit consent. However, uncertainties remain over some fine details, such as what would be anonymised and how data in aggregate would be treated.
One of the company’s proposals was to make “de-identified urban data” — which does not contain any personally identifying details — freely and publicly accessible. That would increase transparency, it said, and could also lead to innovation from groups such as researchers and start-ups.
Mr Doctoroff said the company expected to play a “lead role” in investing $900m with partners to support the $3.9bn regeneration of Quayside and Villiers West.
Sidewalk Labs said it would only expect to start making money from the project from 2028, with the company’s “performance payments” tied to the success of five “priority outcomes”, such as job creation and improving the supply of affordable housing. However, it also expects to make money from the sale and rental of the buildings.
The company said the project would create up to 1,700 affordable and mid-market homes and an estimated 44,000 jobs. Sidewalk Labs also intends to be the lead investor in a new $10m venture capital fund focused on Canadian urban innovation-focused start-ups.
By its estimated completion in 2040, the project could create 93,000 total jobs and generate $14.2bn in annual gross domestic product, Sidewalk Labs said.
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