Dan Doctoroff, the Urban Policy Expert Imagining Smart Cities of the Future

The CEO’s company, Sidewalk Labs, has released plans for a new high-tech ‘city within a city’ on the Toronto waterfront.

04.07.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo of Parliament Plaza by Sidewalk Labs
Photo of Parliament Plaza by Sidewalk Labs

Think, ‘city of the future,’ and all manner of things might come to mind: self-driving vehicles, personalised air taxis, high-speed metro systems, robot traffic attendants. But, they’d be united around the efficient use of new technologies to make life quicker, simpler and more connected.

If the latest project from Sidewalk Labs is anything to go by, the future may not be so far away. The smart-city company, run under the same umbrella as Google, has released detailed plans for a $1.3 billion vision to transform 12 acres of the Toronto waterways into a high-tech ‘city within a city’—aiming to raise $38 billion in private sector investment by 2040.

There will be trash-collecting robots and smart lights that assess how long people are waiting for at the traffic stops. There will ‘building raincoats’ to help buildings adapt to all weather conditions and ensure residents are able to make maximum use of outdoor spaces. Buildings themselves will be made entirely of timber and always reachable by bicycle; there will be no pavement curbs, and light-rail may be expanded to the area. There will be a “smart-disposal chain” for recycling and a “clean” thermal grid for heating a cooling—helping slice greenhouse gas emissions across the city by 89%.

Behind it all is Sidewalk CEO and former deputy mayor of New York, Dan Doctoroff. He spent six years working on urban development in the US capital, working on what he called the “largest affordable housing plan in the country.” Before joining Sidewalk in 2015, he spent seven years as president and then CEO of Bloomberg.

He’s keen to stress that the plan—two developments, Quayside and Villiers West, which may eventually be scaled up to encompass much more land along the waterway—is one of the most high-tech neighbourhoods in the world, and one in which 40% of houses will be offered at below-market rates, and 20% will meet the criteria for affordable housing.

“This aims to do something extraordinary on Toronto’s eastern waterfront: create the neighbourhood of the future in the right kind of way, with people at its centre, and with cutting edge-technology and forward-thinking urban design combining to achieve ambitious improvements in the urban environment and in the way we all live,” Doctoroff said, as quoted in Dezeen.

Yet, the plan is not without controversy. Some opposition groups express concern that Sidewalk Labs is opaque about its intentions and acts more like a government than a private company. Equally, they are worried about the collection of urban data, such as the amount of time people wait at traffic lights or spend sat on park benches. Who will benefit from the data? How can you be sure that it won’t be sold on to Google, which has had serious issues with privacy?

These were similar concerns that derailed Amazon’s multi-billion dollar to plan to open ‘HQ2’ in Long Island, New York, as a space to house up to 40,000 employees. According to Vox, residents and local politicians were particularly concerned by the $3 billon tax incentives offered to the tech giant by the local government.

In response, Doctoroff says that part of the waterway plan is to create an “independent, government-sanctioned Urban Data Trust” that would oversee and control any information collected. He stresses that Sidewalk Labs would have to request access to the data in the same way as any other group or individual or business—adding to Business Insider that such proposals would be even more stringent than existing privacy laws in cities across the rest of Canada.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Doctoroff emphasised that his role as a city official had taught him that contentious interactions with the public and government officials make plans better if you’re prepared to listen.

“At the end of the day, this can’t be a plan that is imposed on the people of this city.”

He said that he hoped to achieve a ‘critical mass’ of approval from relevant government bodies throughout the second half of 2019, so they can begin the construction on Quayside.

This may take a bit of work. Toronto Waterways—which will work with the city government on approving or rejecting the proposals—tells Verge that there were a “number of proposals” on which the two bodies differ, and that some of the proposals, such as the expansion of the light rail network, are not actually within its remit to approve.

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