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Sidewalk Labs Releases ‘Toronto Tomorrow’ Master Plan

After a public firestorm surrounding data use and privacy, CEO Dan Doctoroff says the company is committed to complying with whatever data specifications Waterfront Toronto deems appropriate.

After much controversy and anticipation, Sidewalk Labs has released its Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) for Quayside — a 12-acre proposed data-driven, mixed-use, smart community development along Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront.

Announced in October 2017, the Quayside project has received intense criticism for the projected mass collection of citizen data and subsequent risk to privacy. It also has been at the center of a lawsuit; in mid-April, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) sued all three levels of Canadian government for a “reset of the Sidewalk Toronto project.” Sidewalk Toronto is the partnership between Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, a government-appointed nonprofit focused on development.

Despite the havoc, Sidewalk Labs released its plan on June 24. Called Toronto Tomorrow: A new approach for inclusive growth, the three-volume, 1,524-page MIDP is broken into four main sections — project background, the plans, urban innovations and the partnership — and an overview that precedes these sections.

“Informed by more than 18 months of public consultation, the MIDP proposes a comprehensive planning and partnership model that sets a new standard for urban development in the 21st century,” the report states. “It is a work-in-progress meant to be refined by further consultation — not a finished product.”

During a Monday morning press briefing, Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said the Quayside project is the “first true articulation of what’s really possible when you combine cutting-edge innovation and forward-looking urban design [that’s] inclusive community [is] highly responsive to issues many cities are facing today.”

Toronto’s success and growth, he added, have led to challenges such as unaffordable housing, increased traffic, climate change and extreme weather, and increased inequality.

And addressing these challenges is not easy, Doctoroff said, but Toronto Tomorrow intends to do so.

A Look at Quayside Tech

Sidewalk Labs proposes such urban innovations in Quayside as traffic signals that would prioritize pedestrians needing more time to cross the street by deploying technology that would judge their speed. And with the knowledge of a pedestrian’s speed, signals would be adjusted.

“We would not expect to have any unilateral right to deploy that sort of technology,” Doctoroff noted. “We would need approval.”

In addition, he said dynamic curbs would offer flexible street spaces that include passenger loading zones during rush hours and public spaces in the off-peak hours, while a freight logistics hub with underground delivery would reduce truck traffic on the local streets. A self-financing light rail transit (LRT) extension would connect residents to jobs and entice workers and visitors to the waterfront.

Doctoroff also highlighted systems — such as a thermal grid, advanced power infrastructure and stormwater management, and pneumatic waste collection — that ultimately will create the largest “climate-positive community at scale in northern America.”

The development also would tackle accessibility with its curbless street design, wider sidewalks, heated pavement, wayfinding beacons and accessible ride-hail vehicles.

Given the traffic and curb technology along with proposed cycling infrastructure (100 percent of buildings will be reachable by cyclists via a dedicated bike lane or cycling street) and expanded public transit, Sidewalk Labs estimates that once the project is at full scale, 77 percent of trips in Quayside will be via public transit, cycling or walking.

And as for social infrastructure spaces, an online resource called Collab would let community members decide on public space programming.

The Data Dilemma

Following all the controversy about all the citizen data that would be collected in Quayside, Sidewalk Labs proposed that all of it be controlled by an independent Civic Data Trust.

“The Civic Data Trust would be guided by a charter ensuring that urban data is collected and used in a way that is beneficial to the community, protects privacy, and spurs innovation and investment,” wrote Alyssa Harvey Dawson, general counsel and head of legal, privacy and data governance for Sidewalk Labs, in a blog.

In the press briefing, Doctoroff discussed what is now being called the Urban Data Trust, an independent and government-sanctioned entity that will:

  • establish responsible data use guidelines that apply to all entities, including Sidewalk Labs;
  • approve and oversee proposed collections and uses of “urban data,” which it defines as information gathered in the physical environment through rigorous use of a Responsible Data Use Assessment (RDUA);
  • make publicly accessible data that could reasonably be considered a public asset and is properly protected; and
  • improve transparency by publishing RDUA summaries and showing the location of approved devices on a publicly accessible map.
“We will not sell personal information, we will not use personal information for advertising,” Doctoroff said. “We will not disclose personal information to third parties without explicit consent.”

More compliance with Canadian data laws may still be required and likely will be “part of the process of working out a very complex arrangement,” he said. “We expect over the course of the next several months to be working through those things. At the end of the day, it will be their [Waterfront Toronto’s] decision. Whatever they come up with, we’re absolutely prepared to comply with.”

Doctoroff also said that Sidewalk Labs is committed to de-identifying data at the source and never sending it to the cloud, but that ultimately the rules should be decided through the democratic process.

What’s more, Sidewalk Labs’ general approach is that, “if someone else can actually do it, it shouldn’t be us,” Doctoroff said. “We have a clear understanding with our sister companies that there is absolutely no right to be able to deploy tech here, that virtually everything will be done through a competitive process.”

Quayside and Beyond?

In May 2019, a Sidewalk Toronto project update leaked to a local news outlet included project expansion well beyond the Quayside parcel — and it caused an uproar.

But as Doctoroff noted in the press briefing, the Waterfront Toronto RFP may have centered on Quayside, but there was recognition from the beginning that the Quayside project may just be the start, the foundation of the project, which ultimately would support future phases.

“Toronto’s eastern waterfront, with more than 300 hectares (750 acres) of land subject to future revitalization, presents a unique opportunity for governments, private enterprise, technology providers, investors and academic institutions to collaborate on these critical challenges and create a new global benchmark for sustainable, inclusive and accessible urban development,” the RFP states.

Doctoroff noted, however, that Sidewalk Labs’ involvement beyond Quayside is not guaranteed. “We have to earn our way,” he said.

As Andrew Tumilty, media relations and issues advisor for Waterfront Toronto, points out, the project is still in the idea stage. Ultimately, he said, everything in the proposal must adhere to provincial and federal laws and regulations, whether around privacy or land use, or whatever else.

“And then if we were ever talking about implementation, then there would be an unknown number of individual planning and zoning decisions that would be up to the municipality that would have to get passed,” he said. “So, if at the end of our evaluation process, we choose to make a recommendation to pursue parts of this proposal or all of it or none of it, that's just sort of kick-starting another round of process that has to go ahead.”

In Toronto Tomorrow, Sidewalk Labs also outlines its plan for the Villiers West area adjacent to Quayside and the rest of the Innovative Development and Economic Acceleration (IDEA) District, which it notes centers on “strong public-sector control.”

Next Steps

Over the last few months, Waterfront Toronto has worked on solidifying the evaluation process and criteria for assessment, and going through community consultation, said Kristina Verner, its vice president of innovation, sustainability and prosperity.

And now that the MIDP has arrived, she said, “we will have … a real rich and robust discussion with the community and the public to make our informed decision on what the best path forward will be.”

David Stonehouse, director of the city of Toronto Waterfront Secretariat, echoed that sentiment, saying that city staff will review the plan and consult with the public and stakeholders.

“[The city] will then report to Executive Committee and City Council with an analysis of the plan and associated recommendations,” he said. “Public deputations will be heard at Committee.”

And Waterfront Toronto, he added, has committed to public engagement on the proposed plan for Quayside.

The Waterfront Toronto Board decision and vote by the City Council is expected around fall 2019/winter 2020.