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Sidewalk Labs reaches smart-city deal with Toronto

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Via Financial Times

Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs has clipped its ambitions for a smart city development in Toronto in order to secure a deal to keep the project alive after pushback from local authorities and activists.

Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto, the government body overseeing the high-tech development, reached an agreement on Thursday to allow the project to go forward. Waterfront Toronto will now begin formal study of Sidewalk’s plans, before a final approval of the project in March 2020.

“This is not a done deal,” Waterfront Toronto chair Stephen Diamond said in a statement. “There is still much work to do before a final decision.”

Thursday’s agreement saw Sidewalk back away from several proposals that had threatened to derail the project, including their approach to privacy protection and plans to develop a larger area than was originally agreed.

Since 2017, Sidewalk has been drawing up plans to develop the Toronto neighbourhood “from the internet up”, including self-driving cars, moving sidewalks, and underground delivery robots. Their approach calls for “ubiquitous sensing” throughout the smart city, collecting data on everything from rubbish disposal to park benches.

In June, Sidewalk submitted its plan to create a 190-acre “Idea District” on the waterfront, encompassing 16 times more real estate than was initially set aside for the project. City officials called the scheme a “land grab” and a “non-starter”.

Images of proposed Smart City by Sidewalk Labs in Toronto from their press site - Aerial view looking west with downtown Toronto in the background
In June, Sidewalk submitted its plan to create a 190-acre “Idea District” on the waterfront – 16 times more land than was initially set aside for the project © DroneBoy/Sidewalk Labs

The project was opposed by privacy advocates and local activists, and Sidewalk has now agreed to scrap the “Idea District” and return to the original 12-acre plot. It also committed to pay fair market value for the land, currently valued at C$590m if the development goes forward.

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The deal also throws out the central tenet of Sidewalk’s plans to manage data in the new development. The idea of an independent Urban Data Trust to hold information collected in sensor-filled neighbourhoods has been dropped.

Waterfront Toronto will now lead the effort to set up privacy protections and work with Sidewalk to come up with a new “Innovation Plan”, based on Sidewalk’s earlier proposals. The city, regional and federal government will also have a say in whether the project goes ahead.

Public criticism put pressure on Waterfront Toronto to stand up to Sidewalk, said Blayne Haggart, an academic who has closely watched the project.

“Waterfront Toronto is pushing back, but the big question is whether they have the capacity to exercise meaningful oversight,” he said.

Images of proposed Smart City by Sidewalk Labs in Toronto from their press site - Quayside Pedway
Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto, the government body overseeing the high-tech development, reached an agreement to allow the project to go forward © Heatherwick Studios/Sidewalk Labs

There were hints in Thursday’s announcement that Sidewalk’s ambition to develop a second plot of prime waterfront real estate into a new 500,000 sq ft Canadian headquarters for Google might still be on the table. Waterfront Toronto lacks the authority to hand over the land, called Villiers West, but — in a letter released with the agreement — city officials laid out steps for the headquarters plan to go ahead.

Sidewalk noted in a statement that the deal “recognises the potential for expanding our ideas to a larger geography such as Villiers West if the Quayside project is successful.”

John Tory, mayor of Toronto, told the Financial Times in October that he would support locating the new Google office on the city-owned land, subject to a competitive bidding process. The city’s letter added that Toronto is “interested” in realising “the entire vision of a Google Canada headquarters . . . in a shorter timeframe”.

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Mr Tory and Dan Doctoroff, Sidewalk chief executive, welcomed the agreement on Thursday.

Getting to yes: how Sidewalk Labs came to Toronto

March 2017

Waterfront Toronto, a government body tasked with developing tracts of the waterfront, launches a public bid for an “Innovation and Funding Partner” to turn a 12-acre site called Quayside into a “globally-significant community that will showcase advanced technologies”.

October 2017

Sidewalk Labs wins the bid to build a “smart city” in Quayside. The New York-based urban planning subsidiary of Alphabet, parent company of Google, announced the deal in a ceremony with then-chairman Eric Schmidt and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau.

June 2019

Sidewalk releases its 1,500-page master plan encompassing 190 acres of waterfront, including a new 500,000 sq ft national headquarters for Google. Local officials called the plan “aggressive” and “a non-starter”.

August 2019

Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk agree to extend the timeframe for evaluating the master plan to March 2020, and set an October 2019 deadline to resolve differences over the scale of the project and data privacy protections.

October 2019

Sidewalk agrees to scrap plans for the larger development in a deal with Waterfront Toronto to keep the project alive. The agreement also drops Sidewalk’s proposed approach to managing data in the smart city.

March 2020

Waterfront Toronto is set to complete its full review of Sidewalk’s plans and make a final decision on how the development will proceed. The next steps will have to be agreed with Sidewalk and signed off by the city, provincial, and federal governments in Canada.

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