How Google's Sidewalk Labs has outmaneuvered Toronto in its bid to build a "smart city"

Alphabet division Sidewalk Labs (a sister company to Google) is poised to spend $50,000,000 to redevelop a piece of Toronto waterfront called Quayside, filling it with "modular, dynamic" buildings that can be reconfigured as their uses change, data-gathering sensors that will help Sidewalk refine its own products and also allow Quayside to tune its zoning, usage, and management from moment to moment, as well as a new Google headquarters and a bunch of startups, and "affordable" micro-apartments starting at 162 square feet.

Molly Sauter's excellent critical piece on the Sidewalk/Toronto deal in The Atlantic shows how masterfully Sidewalk played the process, presenting incredibly detailed plans for the development that wooed lawmakers and citizens, and then later quietly announcing that these plans were really just guidelines that may or may not be followed in the final build-out; they also managed to get their agreement with the City of Toronto declared a secret, so that virtually no one -- not even key city councillors -- have been allowed to see it.

Sauter interrogates the promises of Sidewalk's smart city, raising the questions the city should have answered before greenlighting any action on the project, such as whether all those shiny startups will benefit Canada, or, as is customary, whether they will relocate to Silicon Valley as soon as they're successful enough to do so -- and also, how families are supposed to live in 162-square-foot apartments.

Sidewalk also seems to want to sidestep existing land-use policies to accomplish its goals. It says “outmoded regulations” hold cities back from achieving their full innovative potential. In order for Sidewalk’s “climate-positive,” “adaptable” buildings to be deployed at a large enough scale to be cost-efficient, “a new paradigm in the building code” will be required. Likewise, innovations in transport and energy production “may require substantial forbearances from existing laws and regulations.” Sidewalk advocates “outcome-based” building and zoning codes, a style of regulating construction and development that relies on modeling and real-time monitoring to allow “flexible buildings” to be used for a broad range of uses in real time.

Prescriptive zoning, Lasher insists, “reduces vibrancy of use and it makes it hard for neighborhoods to adapt over time.” When I ask about specific ordinances and regulations that could be replaced with real-time-monitoring-enabled, outcome-based codes, he cites legal dispensations for autonomous cars and zoning forbearances that would allow light manufacturing (such as woodworking studios) to be placed in residential areas. But ultimately, Lasher insists that the matter will be resolved in collaboration with city policy makers.

Sidewalk is careful to say that the wealth of detail in its vision document is speculative, an example of how things could go on the Eastern Waterfront. It seems that the only thing they know for sure is that Sidewalk Toronto can’t be built to its fullest innovative potential under current methods of city management. By asking preemptively for regulatory dispensation, Sidewalk is making clear that the Toronto city government may not know enough to regulate its own fate, at least not right now. Sidewalk’s “city of the future” might best be compared to a special economic zone, an area of regulatory exemption that allows it to innovate to its heart’s content, beyond the normal laws of its host municipality.

Google’s Guinea-Pig City [Molly Sauter/The Atlantic]

(Thanks, Molly!)

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