Sidewalk Labs believes its dual expertise in technology and urban design makes it different. The company is based in New York rather than Silicon Valley to distill a sense of city living in its employees. That DNA also shaped its bid and, consequently, the ideas that it's pushing forward for Quayside. The buildings, for instance, will use a modular design that's cheaper and faster to build. Some of them will utilize Loft, a minimalistic interior that means they can be quickly repurposed. In this scenario, a parking lot could be converted into an office as more people start to embrace electric and autonomous ride-sharing options.
Buildings will be made from eco-friendly buildings materials, including tall timber skeletons and mycelium insulation, and powered by renewable energy sources, including roof and wall-mounted solar panels. They'll be warmed and cooled by a thermal grid that leverages waste heat from sewers and buildings as well as geothermal sources and nearby lakes. Homes will also be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified and meet the energy-efficient Passive House standard developed by two professors in Germany (where it's known as Passivhaus) in the early 1990s.
"By far the most important issue is affordability."
Sidewalk is committed to affordability and avoiding Songdo's reputation as a half-empty city for the rich. It's banking on a blend of simple and old-fashioned pricing models, including social tenants, private renters, subsidized renters and full-fledged homeowners. "A partial homeownership program might be a perfect fit for a family looking to settle down, whereas a retiree on a fixed income may require a rental subsidy," the company explained. "Sidewalk proposes to make Quayside a living laboratory for housing policy innovation that delivers a mixed- occupancy community that mirrors Toronto's socioeconomic diversity."
Doctoroff pushed this point at a community town hall meeting last November. "By far the most important issue is all about affordability," he said. "We certainly see everyday people, middle class, lower-middle and lower-income people, being priced out of areas, suffering from the incapacity to get opportunities because distances are too great or the costs are too great. If we don't fundamentally address that issue, the fabric of society and the whole notion of this being an inclusive community begins to fray."
Sidewalk Labs is serious about ditching cars too. The team wants the Eastern Waterfront to be the first district in Toronto where only shared and self-driving vehicles are allowed. Non-emergency vehicles will be banned from "a large portion" of the neighborhood, giving space back to pedestrians and cyclists. A "transition zone" will exist for people who need to travel beyond Quayside, but the idea is to promote a walking, cycling and public transit culture in the center.
The absence of private cars should make the roads feel quieter and safer. It will also eliminate the need for curbside parking, freeing up crucial space for sidewalks and stores. "It's all about getting rid of stationary cars," Alan Penn, a professor in Architectural and Urban Computing at UCL, said. "That can transform what somewhere feels like."
Sidewalk plans to extend Toronto's existing bike-share scheme into Quayside. It's also considering an LED system that can create, widen and narrow temporary bike lanes on the road. The latter is experimental but perhaps unnecessary. Michael Seth Wexler, an urban designer at cycling consultancy Copenhagenize, said permanent, protected cycleways will be critical if the city wants to get more people on two wheels. If they disappear or they're few and far between, people won't be able to rely on them -- and casual cyclists will default to other forms of transportation.
"It's all about getting rid of stationary cars. That can transform what somewhere feels like."
"To know that there's always going to be a protected path that you can take down the main street," Wexler explained, "before any modern technology is implemented, that's a baseline that will create a sense of reliability in the transport system."
Above all, people want to feel safe. "They won't feel safe unless they have a separation from other modes of transport," Wexler added. "You don't want to be cycling slowly with a tram zooming right by you and then you have to duck out of the way of a transport truck or even an automated vehicle." It's worrying, he said, that none of the illustrations in the Sidewalk Labs pitch document show a protected cycleway.
Wexler welcomes technology, however, and how it could make cycling a more efficient and attractive option in Quayside. Sidewalk Labs will pilot an "adaptive traffic light" concept that can detect and prioritize cyclists at busy intersections. It would be similar to the green-wave system in Copenhagen, which ensures that cyclists traveling at 20KMH hit green lights all the way into the city center. The company has some new ideas, too, such as automatic, retractable canopies and heated bike paths that melt snow in the winter.
Technologists vs. urbanists
Doctoroff was brought onboard to bring urban planning and design expertise to Google's traditionally technological background. Blending these two worlds hasn't been easy though. Developers will often use A/B testing, for instance -- two versions of the same software, quietly distributed to different users -- to see which solution works best. In a city, however, that's often not an option. You can't A/B test a traffic light system if there's a chance one of them will cause accidents on the road. Similarly, "fail fast, fail often" is a bad ethos when lives are at risk.
Urbanists act more deliberately but can often see solutions as unchangeable. When a home is built or a cycle path is put in place, they see it as a semipermanent development. Sidewalk Labs found it "difficult" to balance these two cultures in its first year of operations. "It led to some conflicts," said Rit Aggarwala, chief policy officer at Sidewalk Labs. "It led to a bunch of misunderstandings where it wasn't an intentional conflict. We just realized we weren't speaking the same language with each other."
The urbanists had to be more explicit about the risks they were identifying, and the technologists had to be more attuned to where something could go wrong. Similarly, the developers needed to retain their enthusiasm and speed while protecting the values that urbanists believe are important.
Sidewalk Labs is envisioning Quayside as a series of layers. At the bottom is a network of tunnels, or utility channels, which serves as the city's near-invisible infrastructure. Above is the public realm, or street level, which serves as a foundation for its mobility and building concepts. At the highest level is the digital layer, which combines a network of sensors, a detailed map of the neighborhood, simulation software and a platform where citizens can log in and manage their public and private data.
Google makes its money by tracking internet users and serving them highly targeted ads. It's the revenue engine for Alphabet that, in turn, allows Sidewalk Labs to operate so freely. As a result, people are worried about Quayside and how residents' data will be treated. Will Sidewalk Labs have full access to the information collected by its sensors? How will data be shared with the company's partners? Will citizens be able to opt out of certain programs, and if so, how will it affect their quality of life in the city?
People are worried about Quayside and how residents' data will be treated.
Aggarwala is promising a privacy-by-design approach. That means limiting data capture to the "bare minimum" throughout the city. The company's internal Sense Lab, for instance, is developing a camera system that strips surveillance footage down to a series of faint outlines. "We don't need an image of you," Aggarwala said. "What we need is your outline, because then the computer can tell, 'Oh, that's a human. That's a person walking.' If all I do is outline your body and there's no face, no color, no nothing, then there's no way I can identify you. I've eliminated the privacy issue, but I've accomplished the goal."
Not everyone is convinced. To make a service smarter, or more user-friendly, you generally need more information. Let's say someone clambers into an elevator; with a motion sensor you can detect their presence and light up a control panel. If you know who they are, however, you can also play their favorite song or take them to their hotel room automatically. "They can anonymize the information," Cerrudo explained, "but in the end, the less they anonymize it, the more functionality they can give to the end user."
Part of the solution is a simulation platform called Model. It will be "metro area scale" and cover the movement of every Quayside resident who might wander through its virtual net. Sidewalk Labs will use this data to test possible changes to roadway pricing, ride-sharing and its multiuse buildings. It will also accept data collected by the Sense Lab team to simulate what will happen in the next five, 15 and 30 minutes. Over time, the company will use the platform to test long-term changes to water, energy and other public infrastructure. It will also grow more accurate and sophisticated with use, to the point where someone could ask, "Where were the 20 people on this bus really starting from, and where were they really going?"