- Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation arm of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, plans to invest $900 million in a high-tech neighborhood that will serve as a test bed for new technologies.
- The company recently released its 1,500-page master plan for the neighborhood, as well as a larger innovation district, along Toronto’s eastern waterfront.
- Members of a local opposition group called Block Sidewalk have been calling for the project to disband for months, citing concerns about Sidewalk Labs using the neighborhood as a profit center.
- The release of the master plan, they said, affirmed their concerns.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more.
The wait is finally over. After nearly two years of brainstorming ideas, Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs released a 1,500-page master plan for a high-tech neighborhood in Toronto that would serve as a test bed for emerging technologies like trash-carrying robots and traffic sensors that adjust to the speed of pedestrians.
For the development’s longtime critics, the plan has either affirmed or exacerbated their concerns.
Sidewalk Lab envisions an entire high-tech district, not just a neighborhood
Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images
Sidewalk’s proposal for the 12-acre neighborhood, known as Quayside, should be familiar to those who studied its initial plans. In the past, the company has released prototypes featuring designs such as heated pavers, building raincoats, and mass timber construction — elements that ultimately made it into the master plan.
But the plan also included something unexpected: A vision for a 350-acre innovation district, or series of high-tech neighborhoods, for which Quayside would serve as phase one. From there, Sidewalk Labs intends to develop Villiers West, a 20-acre campus similar to Cornell Tech, but anchored by Google’s Canadian headquarters.
As early as 2017, there were hints that Sidewalk envisioned a community beyond Quayside. In its request for proposal, the organization wrote that it might be "beneficial" to advance its ideas through "subsequent developments on the eastern waterfront."
Though Sidewalk has outlined ideas for the entire district, it doesn’t intend to develop beyond Villiers West. Instead, it will play a "supporting role as innovation and funding partner" should the government decide to keep the project going.
The proposal still raises red flags for members of Block Sidewalk, an opposition campaign that has called for Sidewalk Labs to abandon its development plans altogether. Since forming earlier this year, the movement has swelled to encompass hundreds of people with reservations about the project.
One of the leaders of that campaign and the co-founder of Tech Reset Canada, Bianca Wylie, said the master plan "confirms" her belief that Sidewalk Labs is "turning neighborhoods into profit centers."
In previous interviews with Business Insider, Wylie expressed concern that Sidewalk Labs would be more accountable to Alphabet shareholders than private citizens in Toronto. Regardless of "the component bits and pieces" of the master plan, she said, "nothing in the plan resolves this problem."
Her comments were echoed by other members of Block Sidewalk, who felt there was little the company could say or do to assuage their worries — other than back out of the project.
"The details hardly matter," said Melissa Goldstein, a Torontonian who’s been vocally opposed to the development.
Sidewalk’s association with Google has sewn mistrust
Sidewalk Labs has characterized its new development as an "urban toolkit" that can help cities become safer, more inclusive, and more efficient. Part of that mission involves deploying new technologies in Quayside and Villiers West, with the company deciding which technologies are best suited for the neighborhoods.
If Sidewalk Labs chooses to implement one of its own products, like a dynamic curb that can be converted to flexible public space, the company has said it’s willing to share 10% of the profits with Waterfront Toronto, its government-affiliated development partner, for the next ten years.
Block Sidewalk members argue that Sidewalk Labs shouldn’t be dictating those terms at all.
"It’s the idea of a powerful private institution suggesting rules by which they would play. That’s a conflict of interest," said Milan Gokhale, a product manager at the data company NLogic Canada.
While many Torontontians remain enthusiastic about the project, local activists have pointed to Sidewalk’s sister company, Google, as an example of how the company might behave in the future.
"I take their proposals about profit-sharing with a grain of salt," said Goldstein. "The first test of a company’s interest in sharing profits with the public is how they approach paying taxes, and we all know that Google is an overachiever when it comes to tax avoidance." (Google has been scrutinized in the past for taking advantage of tax loopholes.)
In an interview with Business Insider, Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said he knew the project would be controversial, but he was baffled by the suggestion that Sidewalk Labs would somehow withhold profits from the public.
"If somebody is always going to be opposed to a tech company playing a role in their city, then it’s going to be hard to convince them, but I also hope people will begin to understand Sidewalk Labs for what it is," Doctoroff said. "What we are is a place-making company."
Privacy concerns still linger — but they’re not the main issue
In the months leading up to the master plan, Sidewalk Labs generated some criticism from local privacy experts who worried about the company’s approach to data collection.
Last October, a technology expert on Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, which focuses on guiding the fair and safe use of data technology in Quayside, resigned over a lack of transparency. That same month, a privacy consultant for Sidewalk Labs resigned over concerns that the company wouldn’t properly govern people’s information.
Sidewalk plans to install sensors that capture information about residents’ daily movements and behaviors, like when a person is stopped at a traffic light or seated on a park bench. To guard this data, Sidewalk has called for the creation of an independent trust that prevents any company, including Sidewalk, from selling personal information or disclosing it to third parties without explicit consent.
"We have said we should not be in control of urban data," Doctoroff told Business Insider. The data trust, he added, would be even more protective than existing privacy laws in Ontario and Canada.
But a few privacy experts worry there are still loopholes that would grant other companies access to private information.
"Sidewalk Labs proposing the laws that will regulate their behavior is like the fox proposing the design of the hen house," said Goldstein.
The master plan, she said, is a "proposed overthrow of our government — a coup — outlined over 1,500-plus pages in flowery language and illustrated with pretty pictures."
"I find it somewhere between disturbing and hilarious that a private company would make recommendations for how to regulate private companies," said Gokhale. "The people that are in the best position to make those calls are people who are elected."
Housing experts worry Sidewalk’s development along the waterfront could be a ‘Trojan horse’
Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images
As an urban planning professor who specializes in housing and neighborhoods at the University of Toronto, David Hulchanski said he was looking forward to Sidewalk’s vision for the 12-acre Quayside community. But when the master plan was released on Monday, he was surprised to see that Sidewalk had outlined a vision for a much larger swathe of land.
"That’s the last remaining really big chunk of publicly owned land in the city," he said. "It’s almost the size of existing downtown Toronto."
Hulchanski, who is not affiliated with the Block Sidewalk campaign, now sees the Quayside development as a "Trojan horse" to infiltrate the waterfront. The fact that Sidewalk plans to build a factory for mass timber and new innovation campus for a Google headquarters is concerning, he said, because it takes away from other benefits like affordable housing.
Though Sidewalk plans to build 1,700 below-market residential units, only half these homes meet Toronto’s standard of affordability (households paying less than 100% of the average market rent). Even fewer homes (5% of residential units) are considered "deeply affordable," which the company defines as 60% of the average market rent, or about $895 a month.
"Those are very small numbers," said Hulchanski, who worried that Quayside would price out Toronto’s minimum wage workers, repeating a pattern seen throughout the city.
While he admits that Toronto has lagged in terms of investments in housing and transit, he said the city shouldn’t hand the issue to a corporation "that does not have to tell us what they’re up to."
For members of the Block Sidewalk campaign, faith in the project dissipated long before the release of the master plan.
"They are a company that can’t be trusted on a very fundamental level," said Goldstein. "There isn’t anything that they can propose that will address my concerns."
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