Sidewalk Labs just released its draft Master Innovation and Development Plan (“MIDP”) for Toronto’s eastern waterfront. It’s called Toronto Tomorrow: A New Approach for Inclusive Growth, and it’s massive. Over 1,500 pages. It consists of an overview and 3 volumes, all of which can be downloaded here.
At a high-level, the objectives of the plan are twofold. They want to revitalize the eastern waterfront (it’s currently appalling) and they want to test new urban ideas that could benefit the broader city, as well as the rest of the world. Deploying new technologies at a larger scale is one of the ways the company intends to make money.
I am still working my way through the plan (I may never finish), but here’s a breakdown of the development program for the Quayside precinct:
If you’re looking for a quick overview of the plan, here are five things to know about the Sidewalk Toronto project and here is an overview of the public-private partnership that they are proposing. Of course, there’s also no shortage of criticism on Sidewalk’s plans for the waterfront. Some links here, here, and here (paywall).
Sidewalk Labs is trying to assuage public concerns through some of its open commitments. They have said that they will not seek special tax subsidies, control urban data, sell personal info and/or use it for ads, or develop the entire eastern waterfront themselves. But the plan remains highly controversial.
I think part of the issue is that, because so much of what they are proposing hasn’t been done before, there are a lot of unanswered questions and a great deal of uncertainty around the future. Many are interpreting this as the company hiding its true intentions. Maybe it is. Or maybe it isn’t.
But let’s not forget what Waterfront Toronto requested back in 2017 for these lands. It wanted an innovation and funding partner:
Waterfront Toronto is seeking a unique partner, one with invention ingrained in its culture, which can transform conventional business practices and help to establish a benchmark climate positive approach that will lead the world in city building practices.
There’s no question that what Sidewalk Toronto has put forward is bold. As I scanned through the plans today, I found myself hard pressed to think of any “conventional” developer that would be willing to come forward with a proposal as ambitious as this one.
As you all know, Sidewalk Labs’ parent company is called Alphabet. But I think it’s worth mentioning that “alpha” is a finance term that refers to the excess return of a strategy beyond that of a benchmark index. Put differently: How much better are you than the status quo?
The whole point of Alphabet is that they’re supposed to make “alpha bets” on ambitious projects. They are given the “resources, freedom, and focus” to try new things. Sometimes those projects will fail. But in other cases they will succeed in moving the world forward.
Every city today is trying to grow a thriving technology ecosystem. We want to be innovative. We want to transform conventional businesses practices. And we want to lead the world. Unfortunately, that rise to the top is almost never a smooth and linear one. There will be mistakes along the way.
How badly do we want to lead?