Following the agreement reached by Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs on Thursday, to move forward with the smart city development project at Quayside, Sidewalk CEO Dan Doctoroff still believes his Alphabet Inc. subsidiary can create the smart city it envisioned.
“It’s been a real crucible and we’ve learned a lot.”
– Dan Doctoroff, CEO Sidewalk Labs
The agreement reached by Sidewalk and the tri-government body, Waterfront Toronto, was part of a process that had been marred by concerns and controversy from many local leaders, organizations, government officials, and even Waterfront Toronto board chair Steve Diamond. The finalized agreement reached on Thursday addressed many of those concerns and saw some of the momentum shift from Sidewalk to the public entity.
Doctoroff told BetaKit on Thursday afternoon that Sidewalk was actually appreciative of the way the process panned out.
“One of the reasons that we’re actually grateful for, and this may sound a bit ironic, but grateful for some of the pain that we’ve been through here, is it’s been a real crucible and we’ve learned a lot,” he said.
“[We’ve] come to a much higher, more nuanced level, of understanding of the complexity of these issues,” Doctoroff added. “And there’s kind of no way to really do that other than go through this, and so we’re just smarter and more sensitive than we were a year ago or two years ago, or three years ago, and that we’re better for that.”
The agreement pushed forward by Waterfront Toronto saw Sidewalk bending on a number of proposals it had laid out in its 1,500-page Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP), released in June. The development has been scaled back to its original 12-acre Quayside plot, limiting Sidewalk’s IDEA District, making no guarantees on a Light-Rail Transit line (LRT), and eliminating even the use of the term ‘Urban Data,’ causing a realignment of Sidewalk’s proposed Urban Data Trust.
Doctoroff explained that he did not see the agreement as Sidewalk having to bend, rather it was an issue of the size of the project and the scale it could achieve.
“There’s a lot of things that we’re doing here that have never been done before and we have very ambitious goals.”
He argued that Sidewalk had actually asked for 30 acres in its MIDP, rather than 190, despite the fact that the MIDP lays out maps and plans for the much larger plot, called the IDEA District. Sidewalk’s MIDP also proposed that it should be the lead real estate developer beyond the development of the 12 acres at Quayside. The revised agreement tabled on Thursday denied that request, calling for a competitive procurement process for any vertical development along the waterfront.
Doctoroff told BetaKit that his company felt there was no obligation on the government’s part beyond 30 acres, simply that it was part of a potentially larger plan.
“After a lot of thinking about that, we concluded that in reality, the point that government, particularly the city, was making is not unreasonable,” Doctoroff stated. “There’s a lot of things that we’re doing here that have never been done before and we have very ambitious goals, and it’s not unreasonable for us to have to prove ourselves.”
He noted, however, that the breadth of what Sidewalk had dreamed of achieving is scaled back. “We believed that in order to achieve Waterfront Toronto’s priority objectives, which are incredibly ambitious, that we would need more scale,” Doctoroff said. “[Waterfront Toronto], in fact, acknowledged that in their original RFP and you know, with a smaller size, while we can move forward faster, which is a good thing, in some of those cases, we won’t be able to be quite as ambitious.”
The CEO pointed to Sidewalk’s hope to achieve climate positivity, arguing that with the limited size of the development, that would no longer be completely possible.
With the limited amount of land comes changes to Sidewalk’s plans for its IDEA District, which was meant to be a hub for technology, innovation, and entrepreneurs. Thursday’s agreement laid out an Innovation Plan instead, which would respond to emerging technologies and address regulatory issues around new technologies.
Doctoroff explained that while the term IDEA District no longer exists in Sidewalk’s plan, nothing changes from the perspective of creating a smart city focused on innovation.
“The IDEA district, in a way, was really about creating the governmental and regulatory environment in order to enable the innovation agenda to get done,” he said, noting that the Innovation Plan, under a different name, does not stray far from Sidewalk’s original idea.
He stated that the plan is still about bringing together working groups made of up government actors that are working to create plans around dealing with new technologies and the regulatory issues that arise from that.
Doctoroff also spoke to a recent Globe and Mail story that revealed Sidewalk’s early planning document called, the ‘Yellow Book.’ Created in 2016, prior to Sidewalk’s agreement with Waterfront Toronto to develop Quayside, the documents laid out ideas of Sidewalk having strong controls over taxes, public services, and personal data.
The Sidewalk CEO called the documents simply a feasibility study, noting that the company did not interact with any government officials or members of the public when coming up with its contents.
“It was to see whether what would be sort of an approach to innovation, and could that actually be financially feasible,” Doctoroff explained. “We proved to ourselves, satisfied ourselves, that that was possible. But going from concept feasibility study to plan, which is what we did in the MIDP [and] involved talking to hundreds of public officials and 20,000 members of the public, you begin to understand what the sensitivities are, and respond.”
He called the MIDP the “most accurate reflection” of what Sidewalk was hoping to create with its smart city. “That was just a different moment in time with a different purpose and to interpret [it] … as anything more than that is being sort of ridiculous,” said Doctoroff.
“If this is not the most innovative neighbourhood district in the world … then we wouldn’t go ahead.”
He also pushed aside concerns over parent company Alphabet having access to any data collected inside the city, stating that Sidewalk’s parent company would have no access to data.
“When we announced the actual approach to responsible data use a year ago, we reiterated it and amplified it, now we are even amplifying it more,” he said in regards to Alphabet’s data access.
With Thursday’s agreement also not offering much clarity on the creation of an LRT system, Doctoroff remained optimistic. Having previously declared that the transit expansion was integral to Sidewalk’s project, Docotorff did not back down on that statement, but offered no clarity on what it would mean for Sidewalk moving forward. He demurred, calling the LRT important to the development of the entire region, expressing hopes that Sidewalk’s promotion of the concept has actually forced the government to give greater focus to the idea in general.
Overall, Doctoroff stated that he felt confident Sidewalk could achieve the smart city it set out to create – given that things go well in the coming months. Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk will now move forward to formal evaluation and public consultation with a final vote deadline of March 2020.
“We have zero interest in just a ‘cool’ development. The two standards that we are always focused on is, can we have that bold innovation agenda across all these different urban systems and, secondly, can we earn a reasonable return,” said Doctoroff.
“We would not be moving forward unless we believed … that we can achieve both. So if this is not the most innovative neighbourhood district in the world, and we don’t believe we can achieve that, then we wouldn’t go ahead.”
Image source Google via YouTube