Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 5: Enter the gondola! Every Sidewalk Labs promise to Toronto in its Project Vision document, and the one thing they won’t do

Previous Master Innovation and Development Plan liveblog entries available here

The fun thing about vision statements, particularly those written by tech companies, is that they’re not necessarily constrained by reality. Think Elon Musk’s Hyperloop vision. As Jalopnik’s Aaron Gordon noted, “in a mere two years we’ve gone from a futuristic vision of electric skates zooming around a variety of vehicles in a network of underground tunnels to—and I cannot stress this enough—a very small, paved tunnel that can fit one (1) car.”

Overpromise, underdeliver.

Best to keep this in mind when reading things like the Vision Statement from Sidewalk Labs – a company that has yet to do almost any of the things it has promised Toronto.

But what promises! Below is a list of the promises made by Sidewalk Labs in their Project Vision document. I might’ve missed a few over the document’s 196 pages; I didn’t mention some types of promises, such as to partner with a particular company to achieve a stated goal/promise; and there is a bit of overlap among some of them. That said, it’s pretty clear that a whole lot of imagineering went into this document.

These promises are the hooks that Sidewalk Labs is using to convince the public that their Quayside and (if all goes according to plan) eastern waterfront plan is just awesome. Heated sidewalks! Timber skyscrapers! Some of the proposals are far-fetched (as one engineering professor told me, self-driving cars are five years away, and will be for the foreseeable future), while others may not be.

At the end of the day, these promises, while bright and shiny, are merely a sideshow to the main issue: who will set the rules – who will be the effective government – in Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront. Failure is a fundamental part of innovation. And if you want to build an innovation lab, you have to expect that a lot of your ideas will fail. Or that business conditions will change, rendering your previously fantastic idea unprofitable. This last point is particularly important if a smart city is being implemented by a for-profit company.

What’s more, in the software industry (Google’s home base), overpromising and underdelivering is a huge part of the business model. Most of these promises are vapourware – products that Sidewalk Labs would like to develop but that don’t currently exist and may never exist. That’s par for the course.

But that’s also why the question of who will be setting the rules is so important. Anybody can come up with brilliant, futuristic ideas. Turning the keys to the city, including rule-setting and de facto taxation powers, over to a foreign, for-profit company with no experience in running a city? That’s something else entirely.

But we’ll get back to the governance issues in later posts. In the meantime, here is an incomplete list of Sidewalk Labs’ promises, and one thing they don’t want to do. Enterprising journalists might want to check out this list and determine which proposals have a chance at success, which ones don’t, and exactly would be required (in terms of technology and regulations) to make them work. Evaluating whether Sidewalk Labs is making credible promises, on a proposal-by-proposal basis, would go a long way to injecting some substance into the Quayside debate.

Also, I want a gondola. Seriously – it had better be in the ultimate Master Innovation and Development Plan. #teamgondola

“THIS IMAGE IS FOR ILLUSTRATIVE PURPOSES ONLY AND DOES NOT REFLECT ANY PLANNING PRODUCT”: What Sidewalk Labs promises to do for Quayside and the Eastern Waterfront…

(Illustration label, Appendix, p. 111)

Sidewalk Labs finds a catchphrase and makes a promise

Quayside will be “the world’s first neighbourhood built from the internet up” (p. 15)

A Neighbourhood from the Internet Up (Appendix title)

Building new neighbourhoods from the internet up is a remarkable opportunity to embed emerging digital capabilities into core infrastructure from the start. (p. 12)

A neighbourhood from the internet up combines the advantages of a global city with a close-knit community. (p. 17)

AT THE HEART OF SIDEWALK’S APPROACH to building a neighbourhood from the internet up is viewing it as a platform that integrates the physical environment with digital technology, creating the core conditions for urban innovation. (p. 18)

In this way, the public realm in a neighbourhood from the internet up will be a throwback to cities past. (p. 24)

The public realm in a neighbourhood from the internet up will not be confined to one area. (p. 25)

UTILITIES IN A NEIGHBOURHOOD FROM THE INTERNET UP will be off the streets and easily accessible, housed in a system of utility channels that prevent old infrastructure and messy road work from impeding innovation. (p. 28)

Sidewalk’s approach to making Quayside the first neighbourhood from the internet up centres around five planning goals … (p. 42)

An enormous benefit of building a neighbourhood from the internet up is that needed sensing technology can be built in from the start. (p. 68)

The vision thing

When people look around Quayside, they might see a retail shop turning into artist housing as part of a flexible building pilot. Or a self-driving shuttle dropping off passengers during a test ride. Or a community group using a digital kiosk to provide feedback on a local planning discussion. Or a new urban innovation institute, home to a campus of entrepreneurs itching to solve the toughest problems facing cities. (p. 15)

Several things will make this project globally significant. First, the firsts: the things that have never been done. The Eastern Waterfront will be the first district where the only vehicles are shared and self-driving, where buildings have no static use, where streets are never dug up. (p. 16)

Nowhere else will mobility innovation meet streets designed for it. Nowhere else will housing be more affordable based not on policy alone but on how things are built. And nowhere else will all this innovation exist in a single place. (p. 16)

Economic development

Sidewalk will work with local institutions such as the University of Toronto and Ryerson University to establish an urban innovation institute, bringing together academia, industry, government, and entrepreneurs to address the growth challenges facing cities. This applied research institute can create a talent pipeline and a real-time knowledge-exchange with pioneering companies, just as Stanford does with digital startups in Silicon Valley, and Cornell Tech does with engineers in New York. (p. 31)

The urban innovation institute “will support cross-discipline, graduate-level degree programs, a broad range of faculty research with areas of deep specialty, such as application of artificial intelligence, and research and curriculum with potential reach into policy, governance, finance, and other relevant disciplines.” (Appendix, p. 70)

…the cluster will extend beyond core mobility products. New companies in areas like financial services, operations, infrastructure, technology, and energy will gather or emerge to provide related services. Insurance companies might use the data-rich environment to explore new underwriting models. Cleantech companies might deploy new types of charging stations for self-driving electric vehicles. (p. 31)

Sidewalk will partner with large tech employers and local institutions to establish an advanced skills training program—a target identified in the recent federal budget—where workers can develop high-demand skillsets for the digital economy. (p. 31)

Sidewalk will work with the Waterfront Toronto Employment Initiative to identify talent from the surrounding neighbourhoods for technology training programs, as well as broader employment opportunities created by the cluster. (p. 31)

by offering programs geared toward school children, the training effort can inspire the next generation of technology entrepreneurs in addition to training today’s workforce. (p. 31)

once this living laboratory expands to the scale of the Eastern Waterfront, Toronto will become the urban innovation anchor for the world, generating new economic activity from unexpected places. (p. 31)

Sidewalk estimates that, at full build, the Quayside neighborhood will house more than 5,500 jobs and generate more than 50 million CAD of annual property taxes. (p. 32)

depending on the scope of the development program agreed upon by Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto for the Eastern Waterfront, its impact on jobs and tax generation when fully built could be ten times that of Quayside. (p. 32)

Sidewalk will explore ways for early-stage companies to deploy innovations to “alpha” communities of early adopters who opt in, leading to faster testing and iteration of new urban innovations. (p. 33)

Sidewalk will also look to provide early-stage companies with makerspace to test new materials or manufacturing capabilities … (pp. 33-34)

Sidewalk will create opportunities for marquee North American VCs (and their talent networks) to participate directly in the funding of innovations. (p. 34)

In Quayside, Sidewalk’s team will scan the marketplace and engage relevant early-stage companies. (p. 34)

Sidewalk will provide a co-working space for students, entrepreneurs, and academics who want to advance the state of the art in urban technology. (Appendix, p. 70)

Sidewalk will engage local manufacturers on circular economy concepts, devising pilot projects where appropriate, if it is determined to be a priority by Waterfront Toronto in the context of the overall project. (Technical Appendix, p. 168)

Sidewalk will explore approaches to tagging reusable components, if it is determined to be a priority by Waterfront Toronto in the context of the overall project. (Technical Appendix, p. 169)

At the Urban Innovation Institute:

A dedicated staff will nurture the developer community and make connections between groups. A dedicated technical staff deeply versed in the details of the digital layer will be able to advise on its use, help new developers get up to speed, debug issues, and take lessons from this process back to the platform development team to effect improvements to the platform and APIs themselves. (Appendix, p. 70)

Energy and the environment: Climate change

In Toronto, deploying similar innovations, Sidewalk believes it is feasible for Quayside to approach carbon-neutrality, and for the Eastern Waterfront to realize Waterfront Toronto’s climate-positive goal. (p. 32)

Through the microgrid, “enabling the Eastern Waterfront to export clean thermal energy to downtown neighbourhoods and achieve Waterfront Toronto’s climate-positive ambition.” (p. 21)

Energy and the environment: Energy production

a thermal grid that taps multiple existing sources of energy for circulation and reuse, making it possible to heat and cool buildings without fossil fuels (p. 18)

capture enough renewable energy through an advanced microgrid to meet Waterfront Toronto’s goals for onsite power generation. (p. 18)

realize Waterfront Toronto’s target of 10 percent onsite power generation using roof and façade photovoltaics, as well as battery storage. Between these efforts, Sidewalk expects to reduce draw from the Toronto Hydro electric grid by 75 percent per capita versus existing conditions. (p. 22)

Sidewalk will seek to pilot in Quayside, and scale up across the Eastern Waterfront, a multi-source district heating and cooling system called the thermal grid. Unlike systems that only rely on a single source, the thermal grid will tap and export multiple sources of waste or free heat and cool in the area: geothermal, waste heat from sewers and the Portlands Energy Centre, deep lake cooling, and the capture and reuse of waste heat and cool from within the buildings themselves. (p. 23)

Sidewalk will pilot a thermal grid in Quayside using waste heat from building and ground sources, but tapping the large sources of waste heat and Lake Ontario cooling will require the scale of the Eastern Waterfront to be economical. (p. 24)

Energy and the environment: Housing

adopt Passive House building standards that go beyond LEED to manage the thermal load that is the largest cause of energy demand in buildings.” (p. 18)

A cluster of Passive House buildings at Quayside will climb the learning curve and make it possible for the Eastern Waterfront to be entirely Passive House at no incremental cost. (p. 21)

To reduce construction waste, Sidewalk will experiment with more eco-friendly building materials, such as tall timber. (p. 18)

Energy and the environment: Waste disposal

Sidewalk will implement the smart disposal system in Quayside, including macerators in kitchens, smart chutes with PAYT capability for inorganic waste, a robot-powered waste movement system, and an onsite anaerobic digester at either the neighbourhood or the building scale. (Appendix, p. 96)

The waste-disposal details:

  • pilot a smart disposal chain in multifamily buildings that consists of sensor-enabled waste separation for recycling and onsite anaerobic digestion for composting, dramatically reducing landfill waste. (p. 18)

  • a robotic sorting system that diverts more than 90 percent of waste without the hassle of manual separation. (p. 21) Robots will transport solid waste underground and out of sight. (p. 21)

  • Sidewalk will deploy a digitally enabled smart chute system that will help pay-as-you-throw waste regimes succeed in multifamily buildings by making it possible to differentiate between recyclables and trash. (p. 22)

  • handle organic waste through a separate system culminating in an onsite anaerobic digester. Such a system will require minimal additional effort from users but will achieve vastly better outcomes— at a minimum, a 90 percent landfill diversion in household waste. (p. 22)

Energy and the environment: Water disposal

“an intuitive purple-pipe pilot will help tenants reuse greywater.” (p. 18) “While Sidewalk will explore onsite rainwater capture and treatment for potable uses, the Ashbridges Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant could easily supply the entire Eastern Waterfront (including Quayside) with nonpotable water” (p. 24). The system would work “indoors as well as outdoors, … so residents and workers become familiar with the idea of not using drinking water for all domestic purposes.” (p. 22)

Energy and the environment: Bio…

Sidewalk would be pleased to work with Waterfront Toronto toward a formal biophilia plan, if it is determined to be a priority by Waterfront Toronto toward a formal biophilia plan, if it is determined to be a priority by Waterfront Toronto in the context of the overall project. (Technical Appendix, p. 171)

Sidewalk has a track record of working with advanced, healthy, bio-based materials, and is eager to work A2-A Innovation Category) with Waterfront Toronto towards a strategy for their use. (Technical Appendix, p. 171)

Heated sidewalks

retractable canopies in public spaces and heated bike and pedestrian paths to melt snow. (p. 19)


In Quayside, Sidewalk plans to deliver modular buildings using advanced manufacturing to save time and money during construction. (p. 18)

Sidewalk will also demonstrate a flexible building typology, Loft, with a strong shell and minimalistic interior that makes it quick and easy to convert building uses. (p. 18)

In its Quayside iteration, a Loft pilot could contain parking space that transitions to other uses once shared mobility reduces private car use. (p. 27)

Sidewalk has also been experimenting with more sustainable building materials, including mycelium insulation and tall timber skeletons, and intends to pilot such structures in Quayside as a first step to adoption in the Eastern Waterfront. (p. 22)

Sidewalk proposes to make Quayside a living laboratory for housing policy innovation that delivers a mixed-occupancy community that mirrors Toronto’s socioeconomic diversity. (p. 27)

From a business perspective, flexible building design and modular construction methodologies reduced barriers to entering a market, with 12.5 percent savings on commercial fit-out costs. (p. 33)

Sidewalk will also pursue models of partial [housing] ownership that have proven to be successful in Toronto and abroad. (Appendix, p. 126)

Sidewalk is exploring potential materials innovations in Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs), a standard construction material. (Appendix, p. 112)


Connectivity will be ubiquitous in Quayside, consisting of high-speed wired communications over fibre and copper; high bandwidth wireless communications over Wi-Fi and cellular technologies; and long- range, low-bandwidth connectivity using low-power wide-area network technologies. (p. 24)

Sidewalk will deploy a shared wired and wireless backbone that creates seamless coverage and service competition. Each access point will offer wireless connectivity via current and emerging standards, including (1) Wi-Fi (2) LTE and (3) LoRa (long-range, low-power radio), leveraging software-defined radios to optimize coverage and throughput. (Appendix, p. 68)

Quayside will have multiple overlapping communications networks—an opportunity to evaluate relative value. (Appendix, p. 70)

Sidewalk will combine cloud software, sensors, and controls into a new ‘active stormwater management’ system that will reduce the size and cost of future stormwater infrastructure needed in the Eastern Waterfront. (Technical Appendix, p. 170)

At district scale:

a system of utility channels to accommodate all networked utilities. These will provide space for electric wires, telecom conduits, and water and district heating pipes, as well as space for small-scale robots to travel between building basements and under walkable streets. The channels will enable the fast provision of new types of utilities as they emerge, and will make it easy to maintain systems without disruptive utility work. Finally, the robot lanes provide the network that will allow a new type of urban freight system to emerge, beginning with solid waste handling. (p. 23)

Public spaces

a public realm management system, enabled by sensor arrays, that monitors air quality, asset conditions, and usage, helping managers respond quickly to emerging needs, from broken benches to overflowing waste bins. (to “enable tests of reservable outdoor spaces for short-term uses, such as pop-up shops”) (p. 19)

a next-gen bazaar, a tech-enabled makerspace with activity stalls that can be refreshed quickly. (p. 19)

a series of blue “water rooms”—from floating theatres to homes—will create new life on the lake. (p. 21)

Sidewalk’s analysis suggests that managing wind, sun, and precipitation can double the number of daylight hours when it is comfortable to be outside (see inset graphic). (p. 28)

Sidewalk will pilot flexible space allocations using embedded LED lights, enabling a temporary bike lane to become a pedestrian laneway on demand, for instance. (p. 28)

a dynamic range of local, independent, and diverse amenities to activate the public realm, support residents and workers, attract visitors, and contribute to high-quality placemaking. … provid[ing] radical flexibility at much lower cost, attracting the most innovative amenity concepts from across Toronto and North America. Critically, it will lower the barrier for new entrants and enable the community gathering places that have become increasingly important in the digital age. (p. 29)

Sidewalk believes the Eastern Waterfront can aspire toward the 51 percent green space coverage found in one feasibility study site—though even half that would represent a significant improvement over the 13 percent of land currently dedicated to green space in greater Toronto. (p. 33)

Sidewalk will endeavour to offer residents garden space within the site to invigorate the community. (Technical Appendix, p. 164)

Sidewalk will work with Waterfront Toronto to create a proposed set of standards for local food procurement and employment within the site. (Technical Appendix, p. 163)

Sidewalk would be enthusiastic about including food start-ups as part of the start-up ecosystem Sidewalk – hopes to foster at Quayside and on the Eastern Waterfront. (Technical Appendix, p. 164)

Sidewalk will explore ways to encourage the sale of “uglies” in the site, and will seek to gather and redistribute useful waste in all forms as part of a holistic waste management program. (Technical Appendix, p. 164)

Social cohesion

a neighbourhood assistant tool to facilitate social cooperation and public feedback. (pp. 19-20)

Quayside residents will be able to use the neighbourhood assistant for maintenance or sanitation requests, for instance, or to report an issue with their local playground. (p. 30)

Sidewalk expects to meaningfully increase volunteer rates over the Toronto average. (p. 33)

Social services and quality of life

Sidewalk’s Care Lab is actively developing digital tools to integrate primary care and social services for city residents. (p. 20)

integrate primary care and social services data to deliver more proactive healthcare to city residents. (p. 30)

Sidewalk will work with local providers to build a digital social service tool that can enable more personalized care. (p. 30)

In Sidewalk’s feasibility studies, … Sidewalk achieved a projected 100 Walkability score, … Walking, cycling, and shared electric vehicles cut harmful transportation emissions by a projected 67 percent compared with the surrounding metro area. Advances in telehealth and the expansion of hyper-local pop-up clinics made access to healthcare more convenient. …  Sidewalk expects similar targets to be achievable on the Eastern Waterfront. (p. 33)

Based on its feasibility studies, Sidewalk expects Torontonians to reduce cost of living by 10 percent or more in a revitalized Eastern Waterfront, with a large share of savings coming from the 1,400 CAD per month families spend on transportation. (p. 32)


Sidewalk seeks to explore the effectiveness of different types of building controls, which are among the most potent ways to reduce energy consumption, but which still lack standardization and scale. (p. 22)

New predictive modelling techniques and real-time monitoring can enable a shift to an outcome-based building code. (p. 27)


A mobility system as convenient as private cars at much lower cost. (p. 19)

a self-driving transit shuttle, a strategy identified in the Quayside Draft Vision Document. (p. 19)

An adaptive traffic light pilot (being incubated by Sidewalk’s Semaphore Lab) will use sensing technology to detect pedestrians and cyclists and prioritize their safe movement through congested intersections. (p. 19)

A managed parking pilot (being developed by Sidewalk’s portfolio company Flow) will direct cars to available parking, reducing the emissions and congestion caused by circling. (p. 19)

A mobility-as-a- service platform will help users take advantage of all mobility options, and will facilitate an on-demand shared ride system. (p. 19)

When a mobility-as-a-service pilot in Quayside scales across the Eastern Waterfront, it not only enables families to abandon auto-ownership without sacrificing convenience,

it also combines with self-driving shuttles to turn every corner into a transit stop. (p. 21)

“an urban freight transit system, using robots to make deliveries via utility channels.” (p. 19) “an internal delivery system to all businesses and residents in Quayside, and will seek to expand a successful system to the entire Eastern Waterfront.” (p. 29)

“Across the waterfront, the streets will restrict conventional vehicles, with a mobility network primarily serving pedestrians, cyclists, and taxibot transit.” (p. 21) “with a target operational date of summer 2018.” (Appendix, p. 154; emphasis added, target missed)

For visitors who have no good driving alternative, Sidewalk is developing parking technology to make fast curbside drop-offs and pick-ups easy. (p. 28)

Through these efforts, Sidewalk expects Quayside to achieve a world- class level of car-free urban mobility, with ownership rates of less than 20 percent among Quayside residents— lower than most of downtown Toronto. That rate will save families thousands of dollars a year, reduce the neighbourhood’s carbon footprint, and cut the number of necessary parking spaces in half, opening more space for the critical elements of a complete community: affordable housing, the public realm, and local amenities. (pp. 28-29)

reinvent urban mobility using the most revolutionary technology development in transportation since the jet engine: the self-driving vehicle. (p. 29)

Some single-person self- driving vehicles might eventually be integrated into an elevated transport system, such as a gondola.” (p. 29; emphasis added, because who wouldn’t want a gondola?)

On the Eastern Waterfront, Sidewalk will pilot a personal rapid transit skyway system. It will combine overhead transport with lightweight vehicles and structures, and technology to make services personalizable. This could take the form of individually dispatchable gondolas, self-driving pods … that might be able to travel on land and connect at tower-launching stations to aerial skyway cables or guideways. Advances in battery and material technology might also make it possible for lightweight overhead ramps to carry small-scale, self-driving vehicles as well as bicycles. (Appendix, p. 152)

a new urban traffic system for the Eastern Waterfront called the Ground Traffic Control System. Building on the adaptive traffic signals and parking technology tested in Quayside, as well as onboard navigation in self-driving vehicles, GTCS will optimize routes to balance individual and system efficiency, dramatically enhancing the performance of urban streets. (p. 29)

On the Eastern Waterfront, Sidewalk estimates a substantial increase from the 10 percent of trips taken by foot or bike in Toronto today, and a sizeable reduction in the city’s 66-minute average daily commute. (p. 32)

The street grid will be designed specifically for pedestrians, cyclists, and shared, self-driving vehicles. And the neighbourhood will immediately be open for controlled pilots of self-driving cars, including a shuttle between Quayside and Cherry Beach. (Appendix, p. 144)

While the majority of Quayside’s mobility needs will be met by Sidewalk’s suite of land-based solutions, ferries will offer valuable service to the larger Eastern Waterfront site. … New high-speed ferry vessels would be smaller and meet current damage stability criteria set by Transport Canada. (Appendix, p. 153)

Sidewalk’s app will ensure that users are not locked into one interface for all of their trips to and from Quayside. (Appendix, p. 142)

Incremental changes can make the Parliament and Cherry Street underpasses more attractive, but Sidewalk also envisions a significant investment to create a visible, attractive, and iconic link to the waterfront. (p. 28)

… and one can’t/won’t

Waterfront Toronto request: “Invest 2% of annual profit in sustainable food R&D fund”

Sidewalk Labs response: “At this time, Sidewalk is unable to make specific commitments to a sustainable food R&D fund, which will depend on the nature of the financial partnership between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk, however Sidewalk is interested in working with WT to support sustainable food practices. (Technical Appendix, p. 164)

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