Five Questions You Should Have About Google’s Plan to Reinvent Cities

A waterfront neighborhood in Toronto will be a test bed for technological innovations. It also raises concerns about privacy.

One proposed feature is a system where trash would be separated and removed through underground tunnels. (Sidewalk Labs)
smithsonian.com

It’s no longer surprising when Google—or its parent company, Alphabet—takes on prodigious challenges far beyond delivering rapid-fire search results. It has, after all, mapped much of the planet, sparked the development of driverless cars and started building a network of high-altitude balloons designed to provide broadband service for rural and remote locations.

Now, however, it’s about to tackle something even more ambitious and complex—reinventing how people live in cities.

This fall, Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet subsidiary, and a public agency called Waterfront Toronto announced a partnership to redevelop a plot of aging industrial property near Lake Ontario into a cutting-edge urban neighborhood, one that, through the use of the latest digital technology, will attempt to create a model for 21st-century city life.  

The launch of the project, known as Sidewalk Toronto, came with plenty of hoopla. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was there. So was Eric Schmidt, Alphabet’s executive chairman. That same day, Schmidt, along with Daniel Doctoroff, the former deputy mayor of New York who’s now CEO of Sidewalk Labs, published an op-ed piece in the Toronto Globe and Mail that offered glimpses of the company’s vision—a “next-generation transit system” built around self-driving shuttles, construction innovations aimed at ensuring more affordable housing, and a focus on renewable energy and sustainable design with the goal of creating a “climate-positive blueprint for cities around the world.”

The goal, as the Sidewalk Labs’ proposal put it, is to produce the “world’s first neighborhood built from the internet up.”

That sounds impressive, but we wanted to dig a little deeper. Here are five questions we asked Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto.

Why Toronto?

“We really wanted to find a place where we could build a neighborhood from the ground up,” explains Rohit Aggarwala, head of Urban Systems at Sidewalk Labs. “We’ve been thinking about this for about a year now. We looked at a wide variety of sites in a lot of cities. We looked all over North America and a bunch of sites in Europe.”

Another factor, according to Meg Davis, Waterfront Toronto’s chief development officer, is that the city has a vibrant high-tech community, including many startups focusing on technology central to addressing modern urban issues, such as clean tech, artificial intelligence and mobility innovation.

Created by the Canadian government, province of Ontario and Toronto to oversee revitalization of the city’s lakefront, Waterfront Toronto was looking for a private partner to develop a 12-acre chunk of a larger 800-acre site as a test bed for emerging digital technologies and innovative ideas. The reconstituted neighborhood will be named Quayside.

“Quayside is an ideal area for a variety of reasons, including that there is very little there currently, in terms of buildings and infrastructure, and because of its proximity to the downtown core,” Davis says.

That aligned nicely with Sidewalk Labs’ mission of applying technological solutions to urban challenges. And, there were other qualities of the city that the company found appealing.

“A bunch of things stood out about Toronto,” Aggarwala says. “It is firmly a tier-one North American city. It has a strong economy, a robust labor pool, and highly enlightened immigration policies that make it easier to attract global talent. It has very strong fundamentals.

“Finally, the government partner [Waterfront Toronto] is really attractive to work with,” he adds.  “It’s really a joint venture of the city, the province and the national government. So that helps avoid the situation you often see of one level of government saying something is the other one’s problem. And, there’s real enthusiasm at the federal level about the development of the country’s cities. So, it all added up.”

Alphabet has already committed to moving its Canadian headquarters to the Quayside neighborhood.

What kind of innovations are being considered?

Two of Sidewalk’s top priorities are to make the neighborhood pedestrian-friendly, in part by effectively and safely making use of autonomous vehicles, and to incorporate mixed-use, modular construction that keeps housing costs lower by allowing buildings to be easily converted, for instance, from retail to residential. Other ideas highlighted in its proposal include ways to dispose of garbage and recycled trash through underground tunnels, design policies and an energy grid that keep the development carbon neutral, and “weather mitigation” components, such as wind shields and heated bike paths.

There would also, not surprisingly, be cameras and sensors. They could be used to constantly monitor such things as air quality and noise levels, and be part of an adaptive traffic light system that detects pedestrians and bicyclists, and prioritizes their movement through intersections. But sensors will not be Quayside’s signature feature, according to Aggarwala. 

“Cameras and sensors are often the first thing people think about when they think about urban technology,” he acknowledges. “But a sidewalk is technology. A sewer system is technology. The way we think about technology is what’s different about this. It’s not just what is digital. Cameras and sensors are just the digital layer. What’s really interesting is when you have the digital, physical and human layers interact.

“It’s not just about having cameras everywhere. But what if you have a good sensor system that understands traffic flow and pedestrian flow? Can you, in real time, reallocate how streets are used? Usage patterns in big cities can be very different at rush hours than they are at lunchtime. And, on weekends, they’re totally different again. So, how can information that you gather from sensors and cameras have an impact on how we manage physical space, and how we help guide people in the right way?”

Aggarwala also believes that overall, space in urban neighborhoods could be used more efficiently. He imagines a shift from having private space that doesn’t get a lot of use, such as dining rooms, to an environment where people more often utilize shared spaces. 

“One thing that digital technology does very well is allow people to coordinate sharing,” he says. 

Likewise, he sees potential for reducing wasted storage space in people’s homes.  

“So much storage space is taken up with a lot of stuff you don’t need immediate access to. Maybe you could use other spaces in a building and make use of robotic delivery services.  You have robots fetch something for you,” he says.

For the folks at Waterfront Toronto, it’s important that Quayside is not simply a technological showpiece, but that it’s integrated and connected to the rest of Toronto and reflects its diversity. And, they want the project’s impact to extend way beyond the city limits.

“We hope it becomes a global hub of urban innovation that not only makes Toronto and Canada a world leader in this new tech sector, but also inspires cities around the world to apply the lessons we learn here,” says Kristina Verner, the agency’s vice president of innovation, sustainability and prosperity.

How can Sidewalk ensure that Quayside feels like a real city instead of an over-engineered environment?

Sidewalk officials insist that the project will not feel like some kind of urban laboratory designed for testing digital products and new ideas. They contend that while information will constantly be gathered, it will be with the goal of always making the neighborhood work better and be more livable.

Daniel Doctoroff made that case in a recent interview with the Toronto Star.

“The objective here is about finding ways to address our biggest urban challenges. It is about for the average person, improving quality of life,” he said. Doctoroff suggested that “innovation mixed with really thoughtful design” could help reduce a person’s cost of living by $10,000 to $15,000 per year or enable them to get around easily without owning a car.

And that will be part of Quayside’s appeal, according to the company’s proposal, which notes, “Sidewalk expects that residents, in general, will be attracted by living in a place that will continuously improve.”

Aggarwala says that a key to keeping the neighborhood from feeling too engineered will be how responsive it can be to how humans interact with the physical space, how they move through it and where they spend their time.

“Anything new can feel a bit sterile,” he says. “We’re trying to think through how we can create a place that people can very quickly customize and make their own. Digital technology should allow us to do that, because if we can get more information on what people want and how they want to use things, and we design a certain amount of flexibility into the streetscapes and the storefronts, we should be able to accommodate the evolution of the neighborhood much more quickly.”

But as nimble as its boosters want the project to be, it won’t be operating in a vacuum. It still will be part of a city with plenty of rules and regulations. That, acknowledges Meg Davis, of Waterfront Toronto, could be “very challenging.”

“We plan to work collaboratively with the city and other relevant stakeholders to work through these challenges,” she says.

With so much data being gathered on people and places in Quayside, how will privacy be protected?

Data collection is at the heart of the Toronto Sidewalk proposal and the basis for keeping the neighborhood responsive to the needs and behaviors of its residents and businesses. There’s also a component of the plan in which Quayside residents would have accounts enabling them to “interact with the city environment and services.” That would require an identity authentication process.  

All of which raises questions about privacy and what kind of safeguards would be incorporated. 

Sidewalk’s proposal acknowledges those concerns; one of its stated principles is “Never compromise user privacy.” It goes on to say that technical protections aren’t enough, and that people need to be able to “understand how their data are used, and be able to control those uses.

“Platforms can only flourish if their users trust and value them,” it adds. “And that trust comes from clear, consistent, and well-enforced policies for handling personal information.”

What those policies are is still being determined. But Aggarwala points out that one of the project’s advantages is that it’s essentially starting from scratch, so privacy protections can be baked into its systems.

“We have embraced from the beginning a concept called privacy by design, where you must incorporate thinking about privacy every step of the way, rather than what usually happens where it’s ‘Here’s a technology product. Let’s bolt on some protections.’  We want to be thinking about privacy from the very inception of our ideas,” he says.

He provides an example of a system tracking activity on city streets. “You may think of it as a camera taking a photo, but what it’s actually doing is converting an image into a set of line drawings. There’s no way to tell one human from another when it’s just an outline of their figures," he says. "We don’t need to know what your face looks like. We just need to know if you’re a person who’s walking or if it’s bike or if it’s a car.”

Aggarwala also offers assurances that the purpose of gathering so much data is not a commercial one. “This isn’t about trying to figure out how we make money from capturing all this information for advertisers. That’s not our objective,” he says. “Our objective is to build a great neighborhood. The only reason we want to capture information is to provide better urban services.”

Davis says Waterfront Toronto is likewise concerned about the potential consequences of so much data collection. She notes that the agency has begun working with a group of legal and privacy experts to ensure that a policy and technical framework is in place to protect neighborhood residents.

What are the next steps?

Sidewalk Labs has committed to spending $50 million over the next year, in part to both refine a detailed plan for the Quayside plot and to develop a proposal for the entire 800-acre waterfront site. During that time, Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto will hold a series of hearings to get feedback from experts, policymakers and the general public.

At the first meeting in early November, according to Davis, people raised questions about data and privacy, housing affordability, sustainability and how the project will maintain a people-first approach in its planning.

“We are working on distilling and analyzing everything we heard,” she says.

Sidewalk intends to also pilot some of its ideas in other Toronto neighborhoods, such as a smart garbage disposal chute that separates trash and recyclables, and a different type of urban health care clinic called Neighborhood Health Hubs. Aggarwala says the company will test its traffic sensors elsewhere in the city because the Quayside site has few pedestrians right now.

“We have an aggressive agenda to pilot as many of these things as possible,” he says. “We want the people of Toronto to see how they work.”

Aggarwala notes that planners will need to focus more intently on the real-world implications of some of the proposed innovations.

“For example, we think a chunk of this neighborhood should be reserved for self-driving vehicles,” he says. “That could mean an entirely new design of the streets. But how do you design a street that’s only for autonomous vehicles? There will be a bunch of questions like that.”

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