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Wired reports that Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, a sister company to Google, has released detailed plans for its Toronto project, where the city has given the company access to an undeveloped section of the waterfront and, in essence, offered it the opportunity to create the neighborhood of the future.

According to the story, “The four-volume plan highlights ambitious and sometimes flashy innovations from Sidewalk Labs, which has pledged to spend $1.3 billion on the project if it goes forward. The company hopes to construct all the buildings with timber, which it says is better for the environment, and build an underground pneumatic tube system for garbage removal. It wants residents to lean on public transit, walking, and biking rather than personal vehicles, and plans to build streets with autonomous vehicles - perhaps from its sister company, Waymo - in mind.

“Delivery robots might trundle down its wide sidewalks. The strategic use of very large, umbrella-like coverings might make outdoor spaces comfortable all year round (no small feat in lakeshore Canada). Sidewalk wants to designate 20 percent of the apartments as ‘affordable’ and another 20 percent as ‘middle income,’ for those who don’t generally qualify for social programs.”

However, Wired notes that there is a very Google-like, data-centric sensibility at the core of this development: “Sensors would stud the Quayside development, tracking everything from which street furniture residents use to how quickly they cross the street.

“This data collection is the most controversial part of Sidewalk’s plan. The company says the data is essential to building a new kind of urban space, where traffic, pollution, and noise levels are calibrated to keep residents happy. In this, it follows a new strain of tech-influenced urban planners, who believe a more rigorous approach to city planning might create places more pleasant for all. But advocates in and outside of Canada have questioned how the private company - which generates the vast majority of its revenue selling advertising - intends to safeguard the personal data it collects.”

The story says that Sidewalk Labs has “pledged to create new methods of protecting data collected in public areas, where residents and visitors aren’t actively consenting to its collection. It said all information would be depersonalized and disaggregated, to shield identities and sensitive information. It said it would never sell data to third parties. And it promised to create a transparent process through which it might allow others access to its collected data.”

The plan needs to be approved by the Toronto City Council and Waterfront Toronto by late 2020 in order to move from concept to implementation.
KC's View:
I had the opportunity last year, as part of a Retail Tomorrow immersion conference, to visit the Sidewalk Labs outpost in Toronto, and I was very impressed … and you can read or see my FaceTime commentary here.

I found what they are doing to be fascinating, very much the model of where cities are going, and one of the reasons young people are lured by urban environments - they are about tomorrow.

There need to be safeguards. But the possibilities are endless.