Josh Sirefman Sidewalk Labs
Josh Sirefman, chief design officer of Sidewalk Labs, urged the audience to accelerate the learning curve of thinking differently

MIPIM: Sidewalk Labs on resistance, risks + flexibility

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Nicola Byrne in New York

On the second day of MIPIM PropTech New York, the keynote which seemed to gather the largest crowd was from Josh Sirefman, chief designer officer of uber cool Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs.

Sirefman gave an up-to-date perspective on the new district of Sidewalk Toronto, which combines people-centered urban design with cutting-edge technology, to serve as a beacon for cities around the world.

The 1,500-page Master Innovation + Development Plan proposed two major pilot developments for the C$3.9bn high-tech development, starting on the 540,000 sq ft Quayside area and then moving onto 840,000 sq ft at Villier’s West.

Sidewalk Labs Toronto Tomorrow June 2019

The original vision for Sidewalk Toronto

Since the firm pitched the smart city development two years ago, the project has received an enormous amount of resistance, controversy and criticism – almost preventing it from going ahead.

However, the firm and Waterfront Toronto, the regulatory agency that’s provided the public space, have recently reeled in plans and given restrictions to move the project forward.

A question from the MIPIM audience asked Sirefman, if in hindsight, would Sidewalk Labs have chosen to work with the private instead of public sector? To which he responded, the company would have had to go through public anyway due to regulations eventually and would have had similar experiences.

Sirefman was asked to comment on the controversy surrounding data collection. He said the team started the project with “a bit of naivety” and now the escalation of risk of data has “come to the forefront.”

The firm sanctioned an Urban Data Trust, which has now evolved to the government playing the role and will set the guidelines, after concerns over Big Tech and privacy continuing to grow.

When asked he could talk about the resistance from stakeholders in Toronto, Sirefman replied with, “we only have 15 minutes.” He went on to talk about how robust the public dialogue has been and how he believes the media coverage has been skewed for the more contentious elements of the project. He added: “Toronto is very engaged. Torontonians are extraordinary.”

Sidewalk Labs engagement

The level of engagement Sidewalk Toronto received

A local Torontonian asked why the firm chose a city known for its terrible weather, and not somewhere easier: “We looked all around the world,” said Sirefman.

He added: “Waterfront Toronto actually came to us. It’s the most diverse city in the world which embraces immigration.”

The project has inspired developers from all round, Sirefman was asked what is the biggest insight the audience could learn from him.

He said: “I’m old, I have already had a 25-year career. I wish I could have accelerated the learning curve of thinking differently sooner.”

The biggest risks Sirefman is trying to mitigate, aside from data and privacy issues? “How to balance certainty with uncertainty,” Sirefman said.

“For example, we’re proposing to build a neighbourhood of timber structures taller than any built in the world to date. We have enormous confidence in the feasibility of timber, but the process we have to go through working with the government to get approvals, to adjust codes, how do you balance?

“At the same time we want to understand some predictability about the economics of the project, the government would like the same. How to balance moving through unknowns to the knowns through the life of the project is probably the greatest risk.”

Sirefman rounded off the audience Q&A looking at how Sidewalks Labs will build in flexibility to assets, given the longevity of real estate assets and the quick development technology cycle.

The hope here is we’re creating an environment where we can keep updating and adapting and embracing new capabilities. This is not a bet on any single technology. It’s about creating infrastructure with flexibility to be upgraded. Some cases that’s a digital quest, other cases it could be very physical.”

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