Sidewalk Labs reveals vision for ‘smart city’ project, provides no answers on data collection policy

It wasn’t exactly a scene from Netflix’s sci-fi dystopian show Black Mirror, but Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto finally shed more light on their vision for a smart city and it includes heated pavement, automated cars, and wooden skyscrapers.

The contentious deal that has unanswered data privacy questions was finalized between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto about two weeks ago with an agreement that was made public after months of closed-door meetings. The third public roundtable discussion on Aug. 14, was hosted at Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto headquarters, located in the middle of the 12-acre land that will be turned into a sustainable living compound.

How data would be collected for optimal living conditions and questions around data ownership were not addressed at Tuesday evening’s discussion. 

“We’re really not going to tell anything new on that topic,” Rit Aggarwala, Sidewalk Labs’ head of urban systems, said to reporters before the event took place. A second public roundtable event is set to be hosted tonight in the same location to get more input and ideas from Torontonians.

Several directors, engineers and senior executives of the project spoke to members of the public and media about their vision for what the future of smart living could be in Toronto. 

Some guests were seated on top of a prototype wooden platform that demonstrated what would eventually be concrete slabs covering the ground throughout Quayside. The prototype was 11-metres and were basically hexagonal-shaped pieces assembled, which Jessie Shapins, director of public realm at Sidewalk Labs, said could easily be removed and replaced if damages, like potholes, occur. This ground design would replace a neighbourhood’s typical concrete sidewalks and asphalt roads.

“Some of the things a new type of paving might have is it could include heating. So certain areas could be heated, which means in the winter there would never be any snow or ice much easier and safer to walk bicycle and roll; also really good for the environment which means there would be no salt,” Shapins said. 

A prototype of what the pavements will look like in Quayside. Source: Sidewalk Labs

He reassured the audience that Sidewalk’s vision did not include a cluttered streetscape with hexagonal pavements, but would be integrated with lots of “green zones,” or areas that are “dedicated landscape zones to bring green into streets and absorb stormwater.”

Heated pavements could be a future possibility in certain areas of Quayside. Source: Sidewalk Labs

Along with heated pavements, the idea behind comfortable living spaces included comfortable outdoor spaces with a goal to double the amount of time Torontonians spend outdoors.

That could mean having a “building raincoat” that is made of a loose, lightweight, translucent material that “could easily” be attached to the facade of a building and “it would appear and disappear based on real-time weather, so maybe when it’s raining it knows to come out, when it’s sunny it can go away.”

The building raincoat coming out to protect people during the winter time. Source: Sidewalk Labs

Sidewalk Labs’ director of buildings Karim Kahlifa suggested that buildings, which would incorporate a mixture of concrete and mostly timber wood, would have a panel system “that could grow and shrink over time” based on individual needs. 

“Think about families starting out with a one bedroom and wanting to go to a two bedroom, then three bedroom as they have more children, and then as they age in the same place, wanting to shrink that space and not really have to move,” Kahlifa said.

Sidewalk Labs suggested taking inspiration from current buildings that already incorporate wood and concrete. Pictured is the Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, Ont. Source: Sidewalk Labs

He also added that the building space could have “radical mixed-use” where a certain percentage of buildings would allow for people to co-exist with retail workspaces. Kahlifa said Sidewalk Labs suggested the use of “sensor technology” to “measure things that are nuisances.”

“So if I know that somebody is emitting too much sound, they should be notified, but if they don’t emit any more sound than normal and is not a nuisance to me they could be next door no matter what they are doing,” Kahlifa said.

“I could do air quality, I can make sure there isn’t a long queue at somebody’s door, I can make sure that some people don’t bring in really heavy material that someone didn’t define, and we can use that space collectively.”

An example of what a gym could look like using wood and concrete materials. Source: Sidewalk Labs

As it stands, more public discussions on data governance and privacy would be had in the fall, according to the slideshow during the Tuesday meeting.

Sidewalk Labs hopes to use autonomous vehicles as the primary mode of transportation.

An example of what streets could look like with controlled autonomous vehicles. Source: Sidewalk Labs

Willa Ng, director of mobility and streets at Sidewalk Labs, said its vision is to have autonomous vehicles that would have controlled speed limits and would be monitored by engineers to ensure safety.

“We [could] imagine starting to reclaim space for pedestrians, transit, and cyclists,” she said, adding that the idea would be to have different streets that would have different widths, speed limits, and “are prioritized for different modes.”

Sidewalk Toronto is hosting another roundtable on Wednesday night and Public Roundtable #4 in November.

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Shruti Shekar
Shruti Shekar
Shruti Shekar is a video producer and reporter for IT World Canada. She was formerly a political reporter at The Hill Times and was based in Ottawa. Her beats included political culture, lobbying, telecom and technology, and the diplomatic community. She was also was the editor of The Lobby Monitor, and a reporter at The Wire Report; two trade publications that are part of The Hill Times. She received a MA in journalism from Western University and a double BA honours in communication studies and human rights from Carleton University. She was born in India, grew up mostly in Singapore and currently resides in Canada.

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