Sidewalk Toronto

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Sidewalk Toronto is an urban development project at Quayside, which is a waterfront area in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. This project was first initiated by Waterfront Toronto in 2017 by issuing the Request of Proposal (RPF) of the Quayside area. Sidewalk Labs LLC, which is a subsidiary company of Alphabet, Inc and a sister company of Google, won the bid in 2017. The Master Innovation Development Plan (MIDP) will be developed in early 2019, after a series of public meetings and revisions.[1]


Request for proposal (2017)[edit]

Waterfront Toronto holds the right to develop the eastern waterfront area in Toronto, as the directing agency of the waterfront lands. To develop more than 12 acres in Quayside, Toronto and 200 acres of the eastern waterfront area in Toronto, Waterfront Toronto issued the Request for Proposal (RFP) in 2017[2]. First, they proposed challenges in Quayside: reducing carbon emissions; delivering 500-800 units of affordable rental housing; innovation solutions; active programming; allusion for investment, jobs, and talent. Through this RFP, they aimed to find a “unique partner,” which will help develop a sustainable, inclusive and accessible urban development, thus leading Toronto as a world-class city. The innovation partner is expected to invest from short-term, pre-development research to long-term investments in infrastructure and pilot projects. Waterfront Toronto wanted the Quayside area to be a vibrant and climate-positive area.

Establishment of the partnership (2017)[edit]

Sidewalk Labs won the RFP in October 2017 and officially launched the Sidewalk Toronto. According to the press release, the plan is to “design a new kind of mixed-use, complete community,” and they will be in charge of innovative urban design and applying new digital technology to “create people-centered neighborhoods.”[3] Their final deliverables will be a Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP), which will be the basis for the Quayside development and adjacent to the area including the Eastern Waterfront. Sidewalk Labs committed 50 million USD to test pilot projects and plans and had an agreement to relocate Google’s Canadian headquarters to Quayside.


In the agreement[4] between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, they established eleven different “Pillars” to develop the plan as following: Mobility, Public Realm, Buildings, Community & City Services, Sustainability, Digital Platform, Privacy & Data Governance, Pilots/Early Actions, Housing Affordability, Economic Development, and Development & Planning.

  • Mobility: A mixed mobility environment where an automobile can be mixed with cycling and walking.
  • Public Realm: Stimulating public activity and deliver a more usable and enjoyable public realm.
  • Buildings: Creating adaptable and flexible building modules.
  • Community & City Services: Connecting people easier using digital technologies that allow them to communicate better and empower the community.
  • Sustainability: Creating climate-positive communities that pursue negative carbon emission.
  • Digital Platform: Creating a digital layer that can be integrated with the physical layer from the first place.
  • Privacy & Data Governance: Creating robust use-cases of data governance and considering privacy as a major concern.
  • Pilots/Early Actions: Research and development pilots and technology use cases to collect long-term vision of Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs.
  • Housing Affordability: Provisioning adequate affordable housing units in Quayside and creating a mixed-used income community.
  • Economic Development & Urban Innovation Institute: Establishing an urban innovation institute to foster job creation and economic development of the Quayside area.
  • Development & Planning: Creating a Pillar initiative to foster integrated planning in the development process.

Public engagement plan[5][edit]

It is crucial for the parties to engage with the Torontonians, as Sidewalk Labs has manifested to take the approach of the inclusionary and incremental planning. Thus, they proposed the public engagement plan to engage with citizens and get feedback from them. The public engagement plan consists of the following:

  • Attend meetings: Public Talks, Public Roundtable Meeting, Neighborhood Meeting
  • Engagement: Design Jam, Civic Labs, Kids Camp, Fellows Program, Developing Pilots and Prototypes
  • Online: Youtube, Medium, the podcast “City of the future

Model of design and development[edit]

Sidewalk Labs’ core principles were the mixture of the contemporary urbanists and technologists. They are experienced technologists who know how to implement and utilize technology but they are relatively a new player, compared to IBM and Cisco. Thus, Sidewalk Labs manifested five core principles as follows:

  • Not tech for tech’s sake: They did not want to highlight the technology side of urban development, as they want to differentiate from those tech-infrastructure companies; thus, they mentioned that they “would be interested only if it has a clear impact on solving urban problems and realizing the promise of dense urban communities.”
  • Respect Privacy: They set the privacy problem as severe and tried to people’s privacy as a central matter. As part of this matter, they introduced Privacy by Design the framework of Ryerson University’s expert in residence Ann Cavoukian.
  • Believe Open Standards: Through open standards, they aim to make an environment where government, researchers, developers, and the general public can easily have access to data and technology.
  • Diversity makes them stronger: regarding the demographic diversity of Toronto, it is natural for them to consider diversity. They aim to create hundreds of affordable housing units, thus promoting a concept of “complete communities.”
  • We cannot do this alone: Regarding the process, they want to make the process as continuous discussions and improvement. they believe in support of the government partners and the public is the key to the success of the plan.

The RPF submission[6][edit]

Based on their core principles, Sidewalk Labs appeal their parent company’s “unparalleled expertise” to Waterfront Toronto, and they believe this expertise could integrate the physical environment with technology. However, they argue that they will be put people first, by noting that “The world does not need another plan that falls into the trap of treating the city as a high-tech island.” Their promises are likely that they would deploy technologies only when they think cities and residents would benefit from the technologies, such as when “cities are more affordable, easier to travel within, and more environmentally sustainable.”

What they want to test and achieve through this project is threefold. One is that they want Sidewalk Toronto to be developed with current urban technologies. The roads will be optimized for self-driving vehicles, mixed-used buildings from the beginning of the planning. Second, the urban system will be fully integrated with physical and digital layers, and it will be across every aspect of urban life. Lastly, they want Sidewalk Toronto to be a large testbed where people can test their ideas and develop to the next level.

In the submission, what they consistently proposed is the existence of the digital layer from the first place. The digital layer aims to make the physical layer adaptable to surroundings, thus efficiently operate the neighborhood by managing a unified repository of data, and it will provide a well-documented APIs for third-party developers. The physical layers—Building, Mobility, Public Realm, Infrastructure—and the digital layer will be integrated using permanently installed sensors and the data will be used not just for everyday operations but also for improving relevant services.


For Buildings, they proposed the outcome-based zoning system. Using embedded sensors for real-time monitoring and automated regulation, this system aims to “reward positive behaviors” and “penalize negative ones.” In the outcome-based zoning, they will continuously monitor buildings to change the zoning code dynamically, according to the external criteria that the government will possibly set, such as maximum noise level or air quality. Developers can submit a permitting review, and it will be reviewed automatically using this flexible zoning system; they could provide instant feedback on the building’s design options or safety guidelines, thus accelerating the development process and encouraging the mixed-use community.


For Mobility, they proposed adaptive roads and street lights in their podcast series, and they have a plan to deeply integrate the self-driving scenario to Quayside. They believe deploying a self-driving electric shuttle would make the streets safer and pedestrian-first. Self-driving vehicles are a set of moving sensors, which will continuously collect the data about surroundings, thus allowing them to analyze and formulate policies accordingly, and communicating with the adaptive pavements.

Public Realm[edit]

For the Public Realm, first, they proposed an adaptive and integrated public realm, building on a “robust system of asset monitoring.” This monitoring system will check whether the public realm is attractive; this system will track usage patterns and asset conditions using sensors, but without tracking individuals. Thus, a site manager will be able to track and understand flows and repair needs. This system will also change the usage of streets on demand; for instance, bike lanes could turn into a temporary pedestrian laneway, according to the decision of the site manager.


For Infrastructure, the utility channels will be deployed below the public realm. It will consist of electric wires, waste, and water. The waste management system will have autonomous trash trucks and a Pay-As-You-Throw system, thus incentivizing a family who less dumped. It will be operated in the digital layer of the neighborhood platform.

Civic data trust[edit]

Deep integration of the digital layer shows their main expertise and aspiration about making a city “from the internet up.”[7]. However, since Sidewalk Labs’ parent company is Alphabet, who is a giant tech company and produces profits using internet traffic-related advertisement, there have been numerous critics concerning about “Orwellian” privacy control.[8] As a result of continuous critics about the privacy of residents and commodification of data collection, Sidewalk Labs shifted their direction for constructing the digital layer, introducing a Civic Data Trust as their response to the criticism.

In the updated article[9], Sidewalk Labs renounced the right to own information generated from Quayside. Rather, they suggest that the data should be owned and managed by an independent Civic Data Trust. Rather, they set a boundary of what data should be open to the public. They argue that “urban” data should be considered as a public asset, and de-identified data should be also publicly available. By defining what the public data is, they still open the door for accessing the data which is considered as a public good. Thus, individuals and third-party companies can still have a chance to use urban data to improve city life with a new navigation app, a smarter traffic light, an energy saver tool, or other digital services. In other words, although no one will own the “urban” data, it should be publicly out there.

They argue that this “urban data” will be under the control of an independent Civic Data Trust. An independent Civic Data Trust will become the steward of urban data collected in the physical layers of the plan. This trust would approve and control the collection of the data collected in Quayside. The Civic Data Trust would be guided by a charter ensuring that urban data is collected and used in a way that is beneficial to the community, protects privacy, and spurs innovation and investment. If a company wanted to collect or use the urban data for more proprietary or commercial purposes, or it required personally-identifiable information, approval should be required from the Civic Data Trust.

About the use of data, Sidewalk Labs promised that they will not receive any special treatment. They will use open standards for any digital infrastructure and services it provides — so anyone can plug in or compete. They provide some examples that can be referenced: In Barcelona, collected data is pooled into a central repository and access is managed by the city; In Estonia, companies store their own collected data but make it available via standardized protocols.


According to her critics, the fundamental problem of this project is the Smart City model itself. She argues that the model is formulated because tech corporations are finding “more influences on urban spaces and democratic governance”. She claims that not just Sidewalk Labs, but elected officials and politicians of Toronto considered the plan as a way of boosting the economy and brand the city as a world leader supported by a leading tech company.[10] Moreover, she argues that these kinds of development projects, especially digital government projects, have been considered as stable financial revenue, because if a tech product started to become embedded in the government system, it would be extremely hard to pull out from the system, thus making the government market highly attractive.[11]

There are also various criticisms about the Civic Data Trust. First, unlike the argument that de-identified data is safe to be publicly available, there is a study that de-identified data can be de-anonymized when a dataset is associated with different datasets.[12] Second, even though the public data guarantees de-identifiable, the question of data ownership remains unchanged; only the managing entity was changed. In any case, if a company got access to those public data, then only the company would earn the revenue. Lastly, the producers of the data are erased in those considerations. [11]


  1. ^ "Sidewalk Labs unveils master plan for Toronto's neighbourhood of the future". Retrieved 2019-07-08.
  2. ^ Waterfront Toronto (2017-03-17). "Request for Proposals: Innovation and Funding Partner for the Quayside Development Opportunity" (PDF). Retrieved 2018-11-21.
  3. ^ Webb, Carol; Levitan, Dan (2017-10-17). "New District in Toronto Will Tackle the Challenges of Urban Growth" (PDF). Retrieved 2018-12-10.
  4. ^ Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs LLC (2018-07-31). "Plan Development Agreement between Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation and Sidewalk Labs LLC" (PDF). Sidewalk Toronto. Retrieved 2018-11-12.
  5. ^ Sidewalk Labs LLC (2018-02-02). "Public Engagement Plan" (PDF). Retrieved 2018-11-28.
  6. ^ Sidewalk Toronto (2017-10-17). "Vision Sections of RFP Submission" (PDF). Sidewalk Toronto. Retrieved 2018-11-28.
  7. ^ Doctoroff, Daniel L. (2016-11-30). "Reimagining cities from the internet up". Sidewalk Talk. Retrieved 2018-11-28.
  8. ^ "Opinion | The fight against Google's smart city". Washington Post. Retrieved 2018-11-28.
  9. ^ Dawson, Alyssa Harvey (2018-10-15). "An Update on Data Governance for Sidewalk Toronto". Sidewalk Talk. Retrieved 2018-11-28.
  10. ^ "Google Is Still Planning a 'Smart City' in Toronto Despite Major Privacy Concerns". Motherboard. 2018-08-01. Retrieved 2018-11-28.
  11. ^ a b Centre for Ethics (2018-03-16), Ethics in the City: Bianca Wylie, Countering the Digital Consensus, retrieved 2018-11-28
  12. ^ Montjoye, Yves-Alexandre de; Radaelli, Laura; Singh, Vivek Kumar; Pentland, Alex “Sandy” (2015-01-30). "Unique in the shopping mall: On the reidentifiability of credit card metadata". Science. 347 (6221): 536–539. doi:10.1126/science.1256297. ISSN 0036-8075. PMID 25635097.