Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 31: The MIDP Volume 2, The Innovations, Chapter 4: Sustainability

  • Phase 1: Design an advanced power grid
  • Phase 2: ???
  • Phase 3: Profit!

Previous Master Innovation and Development Plan liveblog entries and relevant documents available here 

Chapter 4: Sustainability (pp. 297-373)

Introduction (pp. 298-303)

I really don’t know anything about these areas in and of themselves, so here are a few questions about governance and financing.

  • The big question in this section is, how close to deployable are these technologies? What factors are shaping their deployment (e.g., return on investment, existing technological limitations)?
  • On finance, given the huge positive externalities from public utilities, does it make sense to turn their provision over to a private entity?
  • Related, what options are being taken off the table due to the need for Sidewalk Labs to receive a return on its investment?
  • In terms of public financing, the Eastern Waterfront is only a small part of Toronto. What is the business case for deploying scarce public resources here and not elsewhere?
  • Sidewalk Labs practices technological solutionism (i.e., they see every problem through the lens of technological solutions, usually provided by for-profit companies). What solutions are they missing? What alternatives are not on the table?

Also, a reminder that results reported in this chapter assume not only full deployment everywhere in their “IDEA District,” but that all the technologies, from mass timber skyscraper production to self-driving cars, will work perfectly and on time. Would Sidewalk Labs have the power to compel private entities to go along with their plans?

Part 1: Creating Low-Energy Buildings (pp. 304-313)

Goal 1: Deliver Passive House–inspired buildings (pp. 307-309)

Goal 2: Improve modelling through real-time metering (pp. 310-312)

Goal 3:  Use digital tools to tie energy outcomes to energy codes (p. 313)

Cometh the energy bureaucracy

Sidewalk Labs sells its energy-monitoring idea as a way to improve efficiency, and to tailor it to allow for differences in energy needs:

At the full scale of the IDEA District, with a large number of buildings, this tool could form the basis for a real-time energy code that adjusts dynamically for occupancy, tenant type, and weather to ensure fair and appropriate energy use regulation. (p. 313)

Like so much in this report, Sidewalk Labs is downplaying the huge amount of regulation and bureaucracy their supposedly “smart” solution would require. Allowing different energy targets for different uses would require regulations setting out different categories of housing, occupancy, individuals and occupations. It would then require decisions about what level of energy use constitutes “fair and appropriate.” Best of all, this is the type of thing that can make people/voters very, very angry.

If the goal of this project were to increase the regulatory burden, one would be hard-pressed to create a more-perfect system.

Part 2: Optimizing Building Energy Systems (pp. 314-323)

Goal 1: Create automated “Schedulers” for offices, homes, and building operators (pp. 316-323)

Part 3: Making Full Electrification Affordable (pp. 324-333)

Goal 1: Design an advanced power grid (pp. 326-329)

You have to admire the cojones a planning document where “Design an advanced power grid” gets two-and-a-half pages of text (four overall, one of which is a full-page pull quote), while the plan to design a programmable thermostat gets almost five pages of text and eight pages total.

The take-away: Creating a series of smart thermostats is exactly twice as difficult as designing an advanced power grid.

Goal 2: Implement an innovative “monthly budget” bill target (pp. 330-333)

I’m not sure how well “dynamic hourly rates” (read: Uber-style surge pricing) for electricity will go over with Quayside residence.

This type of “innovation” raises another point I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere, namely that it assumes that it can get away with treating Quayside/Waterfront/whatever residents differently from other Torontonians.

And I don’t mean this in terms of the extra conveniences and cool factor touted by Sidewalk Labs. Let’s not forget that for all the talk of Quayside having timber buildings and “raincoats,” for most of the next decade, should this all come to pass, the whole area will be a construction zone. Moreover, you can bet that the first several iterations of these new technologies are going to be as glitchy as hell, particularly since Sidewalk Labs will do their best to rush these products to market. That’s just how Silicon Valley rolls.

Also, living in this new neighbourhood is going to be expensive. Sidewalk Labs’ biggest idea for how to fund all these new bureaucracies and infrastructure is user fees and new taxes.

The big question is, how will this extra tax burden (and it doesn’t matter whether you call them user fees or taxes, residents will be paying them) and living in a construction site amid beta-tested technologies affect demand for Quayside/whatever units?

Basic economic reasoning would suggest that these factors would all depress demand for these units, as well as the prices they can command. This effect will be proportionate to the extent to which other Toronto housing units are seen as a substitute for Quayside/whatever units: The more that Torontonians treat Quayside like any other neighbourhood, the more pronounced this depressed demand/prices would be.

And while Sidewalk Labs is obviously counting on Quayside/etc. shininess and novelty to drive demand, there’s also the possibility/likelihood that these extra costs and inconveniences (especially in the short run), combined with its coveted light-rail link will lead Torontoinans to want to visit Quayside occasionally rather than live there. Rail links work both ways.

My point here is that these type of less-than-rosy scenarios, which arewell within the realm of the possible, are nowhere even hinted at in Sidewalk Labs’ Panglossian proposal. Neither is it in the urbanMetrics report, which merely ran the numbers that Sidewalk Labs gave it. I saw no discussion of substitution effects in urbanMetrics’ report. As far as I can tell, Sidewalk Labs provided the company with “Development figures (i.e. total floor area estimates, detailed allocations by land use) and subsequent supporting assumptions (i.e. population, employment, construction costs, development timing and phasing etc.),” which they assume are accurate (Economic Impact Analysis, p. 43). Sidewalk Labs has not, as far as I can find or recall, in its nearly 1,500-page report, provided any reasoning regarding how it arrived at these figures.

Maybe the information is buried in an appendix?

Tinier-than-Toronto-average apartments (if the law is changed to allow them), a decade-long construction zone and a uniquely high tax burden could all depress demand for this project.

Quick note on urban innovation

Sidewalk Labs’ entire pitch is built around the idea that there isn’t enough “innovation” in urban infrastructure, but there’s a very good reason for that. Glitchy websites are an inconvenience; glitchy buildings or traffic signals can get people killed.

Plus, residents are stuck in their cities; it’s hard to just up and move somewhere else when the entire system goes offline and you can’t even get into your house. I’m old enough to remember Vancouver’s “leaky condo” crisis. I recall the barely controlled fury of Vancouver residents appearing before the House Finance Committee to ask for some kind of relief. It was a fury born of the reality that, having sunk a significant portion of their life’s savings into a lemon of a primary residence, they were stuck in a kind of living nightmare.

Now imagine Quayside residents’ reactions the first time the trash pipes break. You can bet that even if Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto are directly responsible for the district, elected municipal, provincial and federal politicians will catch holy hell for whatever goes wrong.

Sidewalk Labs is pushing the best-case scenario, but it’s vital to remember that not all innovations work out. Being a guinea pig is great when you’re getting treats; it’s not so great when you’re the rodent being force fed the drug with the unexpected side effect. And when urban innovations don’t work out, they can turn one’s life into a living hell overnight. Sometimes conservatism and caution – the principles baked into our zoning bylaws – are good things.

Part 4: Using Clean Energy to Heat and Cool Buildings (p. 334-343)

Goal 1: Design a thermal grid to distribute clean energy (pp. 336-339)

Sure, why not?  #notmyfield

I would, however, like an independent assessment of their proposal as outlined in Appendix document “Thermal Energy Grid: Phase 2 report,” please.

The big question is, who can provide this assessment? Waterfront Toronto can’t; the Plan Development Agreement places them in a clear conflict of interest. (Yet another reason why this entire project is fundamentally flawed.) City of Toronto, it’s up to you.

Goal 2: Capture building “waste” heat, geothermal energy, wastewater heat, and other clean energy source (pp. 340-343)

Same demand as above. Also, these proposals assume that it can be expanded over the entire “IDEA District.” But what happens if not everyone (e.g., the privately owned Keating land) wants to play ball? After all, even Sidewalk Labs isn’t proposing that it should be able to expropriate other people’s land.

Part 5: Reducing Waste and Improving Recycling (pp. 344-357)

I’ve dealt with this issue in a previous post, and it’s #notmyfield, so I’ll leave it to others, except for a few comments (see below).

Goal 1: Improve waste sorting through responsive digital signage (pp. 346-349)

Goal 2: Implement “pay-as-you-throw” smart waste chutes (pp. 350-351)

New tax alert: Again, another tax on a small subsection of Toronto residents that won’t be paid by apartment dwellers elsewhere in the city. Key issue: how will this tax affect demand for these properties.

Goal 3: Reduce contamination during removal with vacuum tubes (pp. 352-353)

Goal 4: Convert organic waste into clean energy (pp. 354-357)

Part 6: Managing Stormwater Naturally and Actively (pp. 358-365)

Another Waterfront district-level-only plan.

New bureaucracy alert: It would be up to the Open Space Alliance, which as Dr. Natasha Tusikov points out, has a ridiculously expansive mandate, to “operate and maintain the stormwater system.” (p. 359)

Goal 1: Design green infrastructure into a neighbourhood (p. 360-361)

Goal 2: Monitor stormwater levels and quality with digital tools (p. 362-365)

Public Engagement (pp. 366-371)

In which public engagement as it relates to sustainability is discussed, and I am reminded again that Sidewalk Labs provides no list of the events it has held or the public members of its various panels.

And that’s our show for today.

This entry was posted in Quayside, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.