Google sister company makes ‘bold bet’ with new tech-focused neighbourhood ‘Sidewalk Toronto’

Waterfront Toronto partners with Sidewalk Labs for futuristic development in Toronto.

Waterfront Toronto has announced that Sidewalk Labs, Google’s city-building sister company, will be its partner in creating a new tech-focused neighbourhood on the eastern Toronto waterfront.

Reports began circulating last spring that Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet Inc., was eyeing the unassuming piece of low-slung industrial area for its first major foray into building a community, as it puts it, “from the internet up.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Premier Kathleen Wynne, Mayor John Tory, and representatives from Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs announced plans for the new residential and business area called ”Sidewalk Toronto.”

“I’m proud that the city of Toronto is emerging as the global centre for urban innovation and technology,” said Tory.

Trudeau said the high-tech neighbourhood will “create a test bed” for new technologies.

“Technologies that will help us build smarter, greener, more inclusive cities, which we hope to see scaled across Toronto’s eastern waterfront, and eventually in other parts of Canada and around the world,” he told reporter

Sidewalk Labs ‘scoured’ world for ideal place to build

In March, Waterfront Toronto, created by all three levels of government to oversee transformation of waterfront land, announced that it was seeking a “funding and innovation” partner to create a complete community along the water near Bonnycastle Street and Queens Quay East.

At the time, Andrew Hilton, then director of communications and public engagement at Waterfront Toronto, described the new area as “a kind of test bed: a place in the city where we can look at trying new approaches, new technologies.”

Sean Mullin, executive director of the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, said the project will give Toronto the opportunity to bring in world leaders to develop urban solutions that are sustainable and livable. These can be tested during the pilot project and applied throughout the city, he said.

“It’s not a tech hub. It’s not an Amazon headquarters, so to speak. It’s a different type of idea pioneering the cities of the future,” he told CBC Toronto.

On Tuesday, Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said in a release the company had “scoured the globe” for the ideal location to build a technology-focused neighbourhood before settling on Toronto because of its diversity and growing tech industry.

Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt touted the city’s multicultural population and Canada’s immigration policy as reasons Sidewalk Labs selected Toronto for its $50-million investment.

“You guys are the home for immigrants — excellent,” said Schmidt, who met with Trudeau shortly after he was elected in 2015 to discuss opportunities in Canada.

“Try to remember that technology is powered by immigrants. I need to tell some people in America, so please continue.”

Sidewalk Labs waterfront project will fund the first planning push for the neighbourhood, he said.

“This is the culmination on our side of almost 10 years of thinking about how technology could improve the quality of people’s lives in the ways that have been defined already, whether it’s inequality and access and opportunity and entrepreneurship,” he said.

Tory said “there is no better place in the world for a global company like Sidewalk Labs to develop technological solutions to help address real urban challenges.”

Project kicks off with year of consultation — and $50M
The release describes Sidewalk Toronto as a place for “tens of thousands of people to live, work, learn and play” where advanced technology like self-driving public transit and ultra-efficient energy systems are a part of everyday life.

Few other details of the development were available.

When Waterfront Toronto announced its search for a development partner, it stipulated that the development be “climate positive” — meaning its carbon emissions clock in at less than zero — and that 20 per cent of new housing units be affordable.

“This is a city that is growing fast, with all of the pressures that involves — on our housing, our transit, our transportation systems, our public spaces and our social support networks,” Tory said, noting the waterfront project will develop solutions to some of Toronto’s most pressing urban problems — including affordable housing, mobility and sustainability.

The release also promises to bring new construction techniques to lower housing costs and connect all Torontonians to “waterfront beaches, parks and communities.

“[Sidewalk Toronto] will start conversations and ask questions that we need to ask, as we continue to grow and serve our residents’ needs in each part of the city,” said Tory.

The project will begin with a year of public consultations, beginning with a community town hall on Nov. 1.

“This is the beginning, just the beginning of an important conversation for our city and for cities around the world,” Tory said.

Another key first step is the Port Lands flood protection project, a $1.25-billion flood-proofing and revitalization effort funded by three levels of government.

By Kate McGillivray , Amara McLaughlin, CBC News