How Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs Plans to Transform Toronto’s Waterfront—And Deal With Critics
It hasn’t been all Canada “nice” for Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet’s smart city subsidiary, whose first foray into innovative urban development is a partnership with a tri-government agency to design Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront district.
Two weeks ago, in an op-ed published in Canada’s The Globe and Mail, Jim Balsillie, the former CEO of Blackberry maker Research in Motion, captured the feeling of some skeptical Canadians with a blistering critique of the partnership and Google’s sister company:
If we are to build viable digital cities for the benefit of Canadian citizens, we will need transparency and accountability between the government and its citizens, not a secret deal between an unelected, rogue public corporation and a foreign multinational in the business of mass surveillance.
Dan Doctoroff, Sidewalk Labs’ CEO, speaking at the Fortune Global Forum on Wednesday morning called the criticism unfair and misguided. He noted that the editorial was published while Sidewalk Labs was still in the process of developing a plan and before it had publicly discussed its privacy policies. The company has since published those policies, which Doctoroff said had long been in the works and described as unusually open. Among them, explained Doctoroff, is that urban data, i.e. data garnered in the public realm, will be a public asset and the formation of an “urban data trust” which will serve as an independent body and decide what to do with the data.
So how does Sidewalk Labs plan to make money on all this? Doctoroff said that Toronto is something of a proving ground for innovative urban design. He aspires for the firm’s efforts to be as transformative to people’s lives as was the roll out of the electric grid and to “fundamentally bend the curve when it comes to quality of life.”
He said the Alphabet subsidiary plans to monetize its work from the financing of infrastructure, limited real estate development, and through a small number of services and products provided within the development that are not in the market today but could be big opportunities in the future.
While making it clear that Sidewalk Labs has so far only been engaged in creating a plan, Doctoroff imagines the development project, which he says is a 15-20 year undertaking, will be “something that’s never been done before.”