Click to zoom. Quayside is the first component of the ambitious plan. (Beyer Blinder Belle, Heatherwick Studio)

Editor’s Note: On May 7, 2020, Sidewalk Labs announced it would no longer pursue the Quayside project in Toronto.

Big tech is taking its turn in the harsh spotlight. From invading our privacy to predatory monopolistic practices, the major technology companies have had a rough couple of years. Yet two of these firms, Amazon and Google—or more precisely, Google’s parent, Alphabet—have driven two of the most compelling urban stories of the past 24 months: Amazon, with its closely watched HQ2 selection process, and Google’s sister company, Sidewalk Labs, with its plan for Toronto’s waterfront. As the dust settles from HQ2, attention now can shift to Toronto, where Sidewalk recently unveiled its plan for Quayside.

Most neutral observers would agree that, as a general proposition, the actual progress of “smart cities” over the past decade has fallen well short of the hype. Yes, we have app-enabled scooters scattered about many cities, but with few exceptions—energy management in commercial buildings being perhaps the most prominent—the actual application of data-driven solutions to the challenges of designing and managing urban environments remains scarce. And during this same period, our collective faith in big tech to solve big problems has waned.

In March 2017, Waterfront Toronto, an organization funded by the local, provincial, and federal governments, issued an unconventional request for proposals (RFP) to help develop Quayside, a 17-acre (7 ha) underused site along Lake Ontario. The agency sought “a unique partner, one with invention ingrained in its culture, which can transform conventional business practices and help to establish a benchmark climate-positive approach that will lead the world in city building practices.” It envisioned a more or less conventional planning process, but also wanted significantly more, including the capacity to drive real, executable innovation and the capability of bringing major funding to the table. The ambitious vision would have challenged even the most experienced developers and consultants.

Enter Sidewalk Labs. Founded in 2015, just as interest in smart cities began to take off, Google’s leaders tapped Dan Doctoroff—then president of Bloomberg LP, but fresh off managing the public-sector side of New York City’s Hudson Yards project—as Sidewalk’s CEO. In the short time since its founding, Sidewalk had launched a number of smaller-scale initiatives, including stylish kiosks in Manhattan that provided free internet access and other information. Interesting, but hardly game-changing. The company had also served as something of an incubator for new urban technologies, including innovative approaches to transportation planning and modeling. Importantly, Sidewalk had also assembled a nucleus of talented urban technologists, a team that would grow dramatically over the ensuing 24 months.

In the Quayside RFP, Sidewalk saw a key opportunity for a demonstration project unbound by the conventions of traditional urban planning or real estate economics. This was something new: a chance to innovate at the urban scale, to develop, deploy, and measure the success of a web of new technologies in an actual neighborhood.

Sidewalk’s proposal was mind-blowing, not only in the scale and depth of its vision, but also in its financial commitment, including a promise to invest up to $50 million just to create a plan. The commitment came with no promise of planning permissions, site control, development rights, or an expanded site.

And Sidewalk delivered, undertaking what must be one of the most inclusive planning processes ever, a commitment to soliciting and incorporating public input that went far beyond the traditional public meetings and workshops. Emblematic of this effort was 307, a project-headquarters space in an old fish-processing facility near the Quayside site. Part communications hub, part neighborhood clubhouse, part design studio and lab, 307 even hosted a summer camp for budding urbanists.

The firm’s talented team, fluent in both planning and tech, was augmented by leading designers and consultants from Canada and beyond. The result is no ordinary plan. Its four volumes and 1,500 pages envision, in many ways, an old-fashioned neighborhood: human scale, mixed use, with lots of ways to get around; streets safe for pedestrians; buildings that can be adapted to accommodate new uses over time; and residents at a range of income levels. In other ways, the plan offers clever new solutions, ranging from building “raincoats” that can be deployed during nasty weather to smart paving that uses digital technology to allocate and manage street space.

Much of the innovation would be enabled and optimized by the collection of large amounts of data, and here is where the planning process got tricky. Skeptics pointed to the business model of Sidewalk’s sister company, Google, which, of course, provides incredibly valuable products to people free of charge; all we have to do is allow Google to monetize the data generated by people’s use of its products. Opponents of Sidewalk’s Quayside plan feared that this model would be applied at an urban scale, with ubiquitous sensors constantly capturing data that could in effect be sold or otherwise subject to misuse.

Churning away in the background was a constant barrage of stories about how big tech was invading people’s privacy, threatening democracy, and basically ruining lives. Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto, in the view of many, were slow to recognize the threat to the plan of being tarred with this brush. Some of Sidewalk’s early statements regarding data collection seemed to exacerbate the public concern. In Canada, privacy is taken quite seriously: there is even a provincial commissioner of privacy. In fact, Sidewalk hired a former commissioner—a champion of “privacy by design,” or of treating privacy as a fundamental component of a system—as a consultant to help develop a constructive response to the flap. (She later quit, claiming the privacy protections were insufficient.)

Sidewalk’s business model also remained fairly opaque until late in the planning process. While this may have been difficult to avoid given the unconventional nature of the plan and the still-uncertain implementation roles of Sidewalk and the government, the lack of clarity helped fuel the data-governance controversy.

But the wraps are now off Sidewalk’s plan. The business model and the proposed role of the public sector, as well as the prospects for involvement by other developers, are clearly stated in the documents submitted by Sidewalk. The firm has committed to robust data safeguards and proposes to make money the old-fashioned way—by creating real estate value.
The plan is now in the hands of Waterfront Toronto and will receive a thorough public vetting before the process moves forward. Reflecting the importance of scale to the successful implementation of many of its ideas, the plan has evolved to encompass a larger portion of Toronto’s waterfront. It also now includes such politically savvy moves as creating a new location for Google’s Canadian headquarters. The plan advances important connectivity goals and feels overall more reflective of the economic, social, and political realities it must face to be realized. It is incumbent on Toronto’s residents and political leaders to assess the plan on its merits, not on the kind of guilt by association that has dogged Sidewalk throughout the planning process.

Sidewalk Labs did an extraordinary job. Whether its plan is implemented as envisioned or, more likely, it is adjusted to reflect changing social and economic conditions and emerging technologies, it shows us the clearest pathway yet to harnessing technology to help us create inclusive, adaptable, and sustainable communities.

PATRICK L. PHILLIPS, the former global chief executive officer of ULI, works with developers, planners, and nonprofit organizations to help build communities that thrive.