Alphabet bailing on futuristic Toronto neighborhood plans


Alphabet subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, is officially stepping away from its plans to build a futuristic neighborhood along the Toronto waterfront. The project, which would have developed the Quayside neighborhood, has been controversial since it began in 2017. Many were concerned about how much data the company would collect on its citizens.

Alphabet committed over $50 million to the endeavor initially and planned to spend nearly $1 billion in total. A few of the more innovative features included all-timber high-rises, geothermal heating and cooling, and solar power implementation. The neighborhood would also utilize next-gen technology to reduce traffic congestion, waste, and carbon emissions.

However, things came to a head amidst ongoing financial pressures. “But as unprecedented economic uncertainty has set in around the world and in the Toronto real estate market, it has become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan,” said Sidewalk Labs’ CEO Daniel Doctoroff in a recent blog post.

Controversial From the Beginning

In the 1,500-page original proposal, Sidewalk Labs included details around how it hoped to minimize traffic and optimize signals for both vehicles and pedestrians. The subsidiary planned to install sensors at interactions that would track movement and adjust flow patterns accordingly, which didn’t sit well with privacy campaigners.

In response to the intense backlash, Sidewalk Labs committed to establishing an urban data trust. All neighborhood information would be subjected to independent stewardship and oversight. The trust would make decisions around how data would be collected and used.

Plans were also scaled back in October 2019 after Alphabet tried and failed to get certain approvals from Waterfront Toronto, the government body overseeing the project. Both sides appeared to reach a compromise when Sidewalk Labs cut back on the plot of land designated for the project.

Even with Sidewalk Labs out of the picture today, it appears Waterfront Toronto will push forward. “While this is not the outcome we had hoped for, Waterfront Toronto offers thanks and appreciation to Sidewalk Labs for its vision, effort, and the many commitments that both the company and its employees have made to the future of Toronto.”

What’s Next for Sidewalk Labs?

Sidewalk Labs was founded in 2015 to improve the quality of life for people in cities all over the world. The business recognizes the many challenges urban areas will face as they become more congested. From higher rents to longer commutes, Sidewalk Labs is tackling a wide range of complex issues through smart city applications.

The Alphabet subsidiary believes technology can solve problems on several fronts. For example, Sidewalk Labs’ generative design tool relies on machine learning to help urban developers make more holistic decisions. Through the company’s CommonSpace app, park operators and community leaders can conduct studies around public life.

It appears Sidewalk Labs also believes it has a role to play in the COVID-19 response and future crises. The business already invests in a personalized health company, Cityblock, which aims to deliver primary care, behavioral health care, and social services to individuals. In the wake of the Toronto fall out, CEO Doctoroff sees opportunity to push further in this direction.


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