A Google-Related Plan Brings Futuristic Vision, Privacy Concerns To Toronto

Originally published on November 20, 2017 11:56 pm

Years ago, Google's founders wondered what would happen if they could take their pieces of technical knowledge and apply them to cities.

"We started talking about all of these things that we could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge," Eric Schmidt, CEO of Alphabet, Google's parent company, joked recently.

Last month, after a public competition, an Alphabet subsidiary called Sidewalk Labs was chosen as an "innovation and funding partner" to help Toronto come up with an ambitious, tech-heavy plan for a small part of the city's waterfront.

When Waterfront Toronto, the government-created entity tasked with revitalizing the area, asked for proposals for the future neighborhood, Sidewalk Labs responded with a vision of a futuristic, sci-fi-ready smart city.

The company suggested heated pedestrian lanes to melt the snow; a self-driving bus; and a series of underground channels where trash is hauled away, packages might be delivered, and utilities are easier to reach and repair.

Sidewalk Labs has promised to spend $50 million planning the project over the next year. The proposal has raised concerns related to affordability and privacy — it does involve the thinkers behind Google after all.

But, for now, looking at the nearly vacant lot facing Lake Ontario, it's hard to imagine some kind of futuristic utopia. While condos are being rapidly built on nearby lots, the future community remains a dirt-filled patch of land, home to some film-industry trucks with a few historic grain silos on a nearby property.

Nonetheless, Dan Doctoroff, the CEO of Sidewalk Labs and New York City's former deputy mayor, hopes to craft "a place where the streets literally come alive with activity."

It's early days for all these plans. Sidewalk Labs will be making a master plan for the site with Waterfront Toronto, which is expected to take at least a year. Doctoroff hopes that if that goes well Sidewalk may become a "co-master-developer" with Waterfront Toronto for the larger site on which this 12-acre plot is situated.

Doctoroff says he envisions a community where polite taxi-bots and van-bots someday shuttle people around, avoiding pedestrians or cyclists, and transit or bike shares are chosen over car ownership. Thanks to these conscientious self-driving vehicles and the plethora of non-car options, streets will be able to be narrower, he says. And that will mean more room for parks and public spaces.

Along with Sidewalk and Google, Alphabet owns Waymo, a self-driving car company, and Nest, which focuses on technology for the home. (Google is an NPR sponsor.)

At a news conference in early October, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the development would also bring well-paying jobs to the city by creating an urban "innovation hub."

Torontonians seem to have mixed views on the project.

At a town hall meeting Sidewalk Labs held for Torontonians to talk about the upcoming plan, a small group of housing activists with ACORN Canada protested outside, saying that the company's vision for affordable housing had not been adequately laid out.

Alejandra Ruiz Vargas, a local ACORN spokesperson, said she wants homes for low-income people included in Sidewalk Lab's plan. "This is a concern," she said. "Because we're in ... a housing crisis."

Sidewalk Labs says it's hoping to increase affordability with modular construction technologies that make buildings easier to erect, and easier to change depending on the needs of the neighborhood.

Others at the event were excited about the new project. Asma Khan, a 35-year-old project manager at a tech startup in Toronto, lives near the waterfront. She said that for years she and her friends have "talked and pondered about how abandoned it feels."

Other local residents had questions about what a data-driven development could mean for people's privacy.

"We're worried that Google might be using this as a lab to test the people that live there — and we just want to make sure that people's privacy is protected," said Donna Patterson, a neighborhood activist who says she lives near the site.

In Sidewalk Labs' response to Waterfront Toronto's request for proposals, the company also details how it will use sensors and data collection to measure how different urban designs are working.

Sidewalk Labs' Doctoroff says data collection has one goal: to "improve quality of life." Because the neighborhood is starting from scratch on an empty lot, he says, privacy can be baked into the design of the plan.

"We all know that privacy in public space today is sort of a mess," he says. "Everybody has cameras; we don't know where they are; people are collecting data in all sorts of different ways; there are no standards for it."

In Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, Doctoroff was quoted describing the plan as a "real estate play," but in an interview, he seems to have a broader outlook on what could come next.

"If you can provide really dramatic benefits to people there are always ways of making money," he says. "Now, what will those ways be? They might be associated with development. They might be the licensing of technology. We have plenty of time to figure that out."

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(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SNAUSS' "NOTHING HAPPENS IN JUNE")

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

What would a neighborhood look like if Google designed it? We'll take a peek in this week's All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SNAUSS' "NOTHING HAPPENS IN JUNE")

SHAPIRO: This question is something that executives at Google's parent company, Alphabet, have wondered about for a while. Here's Alphabet's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt.

ERIC SCHMIDT: Google is an unusual place. And we sit there. And years ago, we were sitting there thinking, wouldn't it be nice if you could take technical things that we know and apply them to cities? And our founders got really excited about this, and we started talking about all of these things that we could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge.

SHAPIRO: Well, now Schmidt has his chance. An Alphabet unit called Sidewalk Labs is partnering with Toronto to redesign its eastern waterfront as a high-tech urban neighborhood. Reporter Katie Toth has more.

KATIE TOTH, BYLINE: When Dan Doctoroff and I look at a nearly vacant lot facing Lake Ontario, it's hard to imagine some kind of futuristic utopia.

Why don't you describe a bit about what we're seeing here?

DAN DOCTOROFF: Well, we're not actually seeing a lot right on this location.

TOTH: Right now it's a dirt-filled patch of land with some film industry trucks and a few old grain silos in the distance, but the CEO of Sidewalk Labs who was once New York City's deputy mayor sees it differently.

DOCTOROFF: I see this place as a place where the streets literally come alive with activity.

TOTH: Below the street, he imagines a series of underground channels.

DOCTOROFF: That carry the infrastructure, may haul away trash, for example, so that we don't see that on the streets.

TOTH: Instead on the streets, he pictures a self-driving bus shuttling people to nearby bars or the beach and, in chilly Toronto, heated bike and pedestrian lanes to melt the snow. Doctoroff says there will be less traffic so narrower streets. And that means...

DOCTOROFF: Putting everyone within literally spitting distance of a park or an open space.

TOTH: Along with Sidewalk and Google, Alphabet owns Waymo, a self-driving car company, and Nest, which focuses on technology for the home. Now, these ideas for Toronto aren't set in stone, and how Sidewalk Labs plans to make money doesn't seem set in stone either. On the way to the site, I asked Doctoroff about that.

DOCTOROFF: If you can provide really dramatic benefits to people, there are always ways of making money. Now, what will those ways be? They might be associated with development. They might be the licensing of technology. We have plenty of time to figure that out.

TOTH: Sidewalk won a public competition to come up with a plan for the waterfront site. It's promised to spend $50 million over the next year on the plan. Canadian officials say the development will also bring well-paying jobs to the city, but people in Toronto aren't sure what to think.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: One hundred percent more affordable housing, more affordable housing, more...

TOTH: A small group of housing activists gathered outside a recent town hall meeting. Alejandra Ruiz Vargas wants homes for low-income people included in Sidewalk Lab's plan.

ALEJANDRA RUIZ VARGAS: This is a concern because we are in a crisis. This is a city that has a housing crisis.

TOTH: Sidewalk Labs says they're hoping to increase affordability with technologies that make construction cheaper. And a lot of people going to the town hall were excited about this new plan.

ASMA KHAN: My name is Asma Khan, and I am 35 years old. And I'm a project manager at a tech startup in the city.

TOTH: Khan lives near the waterfront.

KHAN: We've always over the years talked and pondered about how abandoned it feels.

TOTH: Other local residents had questions about what a data-driven development could mean for people's privacy.

DONNA PATTERSON: We're worried that Google might be using this as a lab to test the people that live there, and we just want to make sure that people's privacy is protected.

TOTH: Donna Patterson was at the event with her husband, Arthur Klimowicz. He explains why they were there.

ARTHUR KLIMOWICZ: It's a big mystery right now. And also keep an eye on it so it doesn't go in the wrong direction but also to be smart about it so I understand it, too.

TOTH: Sidewalk Lab's Doctoroff is promising privacy will be baked into the design.

DOCTOROFF: We all know that privacy in public space today is sort of a mess. You know, everybody has cameras. We don't know where they are. People are collecting data in all sorts of different ways. There are no standards for it. Having an opportunity to have this conversation we think can be an incredibly valuable service not just here in Toronto but in other places around the world.

TOTH: Government officials expect the plan for the waterfront site won't be finished until the end of 2018. They're promising lots of conversations about privacy before then. For NPR News, I'm Katie Toth in Toronto.

SHAPIRO: And we should say that Google is an NPR sponsor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINOTAUR SHOCK'S "MY BURR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.