At Google’s second annual Go North conference held in Toronto, Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff took to the stage with Waterfront Toronto CEO Will Fleissig to discuss the new “Quayside” smart neighbourhood project set for the city’s harbourfront.
The discussion began with the question of why technology and a partnership like the one between Sidewalk Labs and Toronto is needed to tackle basic urban planning problems like transit and housing.
“You have to figure out a way to bring the technologist and the urbanist together,” said Doctoroff, who described how humanity is at the dawn of the fourth urban technology revolution: an age of connectivity that is capable of reshaping cities.
Quayside will become a test bed to look at new forms of financing, new methods to get around, new ways to use the grid to communicate and more. Sidewalk Labs wants to see how they can work and then possibly apply these changes to larger urban areas. This doesn’t always have to come through technology necessarily, which is a common misnomer attributed to Sidewalk Labs due to their parent company Google.
“Sidewalk Labs does not consider itself to be ‘big tech.’ Most of us come from a background of urbanism, kind of melded with technology,” said Doctoroff.
“We spent two years thinking of what a city will look like in the internet age and we convinced ourselves that the opportunities are so great that if we can get this right that people will be very excited,” he added.
An urban neighbourhood with digital innovations like Quayside could address the city’s challenges including affordable housing, efficient transit and green energy. But Doctoroff explained the planning of Quayside can’t revolve around checking off these boxes, commenting that all great neighbourhoods have quirks that polished and streamlined design will just simply overlook.
“This notion of creating a platform itself is designed to avoid that notion of checking boxes and becoming some omnipotent wizard trying to plan a place,” said Doctoroff. “Leaving the co-creation to the unexpected—the people who want to participate—that’s what keeps a place fresh. The organic nature comes from people with new ideas responding to demands.”
The platform Doctoroff is referring to an analogy he made at Sidewalk Labs’ inaugural town hall on November 1, where over 900 people attended to share ideas about the planning process for Quayside. Doctoroff said the first iPhone became a platform for entrepreneurs and creatives to design their own work on in the form of apps, and Quayside may turn into a platform for everyone to add to—not just tech people, but any kind of citizen in the city.
“People at the town hall were incredibly thoughtful, with a hugely diverse audience,” said Doctoroff. “If we make good on our promise to continue this level of outreach, [Quayside] will be responsive to the needs of Toronto, and also become globally historic.”
The town hall went over a few key factors for the development of Quayside, including timelines. The planning process will take a year, and Toronto Waterfront can walk away at any time if they see the project is not coming along as intended. Sidewalk Labs has invested $50 million USD to the project, and Doctoroff noted that the funding means they are fully ready to work with any interested parties.
In terms of what’s next, Doctoroff and Fleissig said a lot of engagement needed. Still, Fleissig gave a timeline of three years to see the first buildings going up in Quayside. There will still be pilots started before then, dealing in traffic mitigation, healthcare and more. These pilots can happen anywhere in the city too, not just the waterfront location.
“One of the great benefits of Quayside is that here in Toronto, here in Canada, it can be the global hub of what might be a huge industry: urban innovation,” said Doctoroff. “If we can have that impact, as well as the kind we want to have in people’s lives, that would satisfy our desire to do something important.”
There will be more town halls and engagement meetings as the Sidewalk Labs project continues. The two ended their discussion by encouraging anyone with an idea or project to improve Quayside should head to the site and submit it for consideration.