Sidewalk Toronto Credit Sidewalk Labs
Sidewalk Toronto: Image by Sidewalk Labs

Sidewalk Labs steps away from Toronto smart city

Sidewalk Labs has aborted plans to create a smart city on the Toronto waterfront due to “unprecedented economic uncertainty” which has made the 12-acre project “too difficult to make… financially viable”, according to CEO of the Alphabet subsidiary Dan Doctoroff.

The ambitious proposals were launched in 2017 and were closely watched by real estate professionals keen to see how the Google spin-out would handle data, climate change and other large urban design challenges.

Sidewalk Labs last year unveiled a 1,500-page Master Innovation + Development Plan for the C$3.9bn high-tech development, which was set to include thousands pof residential units and a 7m sq ft innovation district.

Doctoroff commented: “While we won’t be pursuing this particular project, the current health emergency makes us feel even more strongly about the importance of reimagining cities for the future. I believe that the ideas we have developed over the last two-and-a-half years will represent a meaningful contribution to the work of tackling big urban problems, particularly in the areas of affordability and sustainability. This is a vital societal endeavor, and Sidewalk Labs will continue our work to contribute to it.

On these fronts, we’ve already started innovative companies addressing urban mobilitynext-generation infrastructure, and community-based healthcare, and invested in startups working on everything from robotic furniture to digital electricity. We continue to work internally on factory-made mass timber construction that can improve housing affordability and sustainability, a digital master-planning tool that can improve quality of life outcomes and project economics, and a new approach to all-electric neighborhoods.”

Sidewalk will continue to support its startups in the smart city arena.

The company’s Toronto plans faced increasing scrutiny over the past three years, including over its approach to data privacy.

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It’s important not to give up now on encouraging private-sector investment & innovation into Toronto’s waterfront. Most importantly, lessons should be learned from this Waterfront Toronto/Sidewalk Labs experience.

It’s very difficult to get anything done on Toronto’s waterfront. Believe me, I know it first hand. While we have witnessed varied commitment to proper spending of government (taxpayers’) funds there, it’s even harder to encourage private-sector investment. At TEDCO, our team had some success in developing a Portlands film studio using a P3 model, plus we built the LEED Gold HQ for Corus Entertainment; yet after that it was nearly 10 years before another office building broke ground on the waterfront. Each one of those TEDCO projects were very hard to accomplish and took a team approach… and a stiff backbone. So things CAN indeed get done.

It will be interesting if the governments involved in the waterfront truly understand when & how this WT/Sidewalk saga went off the rails? These can yield useful lessons, otherwise history will sadly repeat itself. Apparently over $16 million of taxpayers funds were spent on it, plus of course what Google’s Sidewalk Labs expended too.

Jeffrey Steiner, Toronto.

By Jeffrey Steiner