Sidewalk Labs, part of the Alphabet umbrella, wants to reinvent cities. In 2017, the Toronto government announced a partnership with Sidewalk: Sidewalk may develop 800 acres of Toronto’s waterfront. Sidewalk will start with a 12-acre proof-of-concept by creating a community called Quayside.
Effectively, Sidewalk is developing a “product”, with technical components and lofty goals (Figure A). Sidewalk calls Quayside a “platform” wherein technology forges community. Plans include embedding sensors to uptake information on traffic patterns, noise levels, air quality, energy usage, and waste output to be able to run analytics. For instance, Sidewalk could look at usage of a popup flu clinic to decide whether to place it in the same location next winter.
Figure A: The physical / digital layers of Quayside.
Open innovation that incorporates citizens’ ideas is key to success. Previous attempts to build ideal cities floundered without citizen input. Niemeyer’s Brasilia, for instance, designed in the 1950s, was beautiful, but as LSE Professor of Urban Studies Ricky Burdett remarked, “It’s not a city…it doesn’t have the ingredients of a city: messy streets, people living above shops, and offices near by.’” Because Burdett didn’t capture organic elements of culture, Brasilia does not function according to its intended mission. Sidewalk must avoid this path.
Moreover, skeptics see Sidewalk as part of a tech giant extending surveillance capabilities from the online to the offline world. “’The smart city is a Trojan horse for technology companies…They come in under the guise of environmentalism…but they’re here for money,’” one Toronto citizen noted. To gain popular support, Sidewalk must show that it is receptive to the feedback from the community.
In the short term, Sidewalk has incorporated open innovation in its development process, investing $50 million in 2018 alone for citizen input / testing.
In November 2017, Sidewalk held its first town hall, where it asked questions like “how can we make Toronto a better place?” and “what excites you about Sidewalk Toronto?” It ran a thematic analysis on comments, and heard five top takeaways: importance of inclusion, affordable housing, greenspace, sustainability, and working with local businesses. Data privacy, public transit, and public health were also noted concerns. Sidewalk therefore prioritized solutions like designing pop-up stations and programming to engage locals, and establishing an expert advisory panel on data privacy.
It then followed up with a year-long community outreach program,  which included 3 public roundtable sessions. Guests sat in facilitated groups and heard explanations of elements like the proposed heating, “building raincoats” that would retract based on the weather, and buildings that could “grow or shrink over time”. Citizens contributed to the discussion topics, which included public transit, diversity, data governance, etc. Participants again gave feedback on the concepts (Figure B).
Figure B: Input from roundtable sessions.
On June 16, 2018, Sidewalk also opened “307”, its Toronto workshop, where citizens experiment with elements of the vision and provide feedback. Demos and installations share ideas like navigational beacons, wooden towers, and digital electricity. Sidewalk also launched a transit explorer where developers could improve on the GitHub code, design jams for citizens to meet with architects to review design elements, etc.
In the medium term, Sidewalk will have to source citizen input from the initial 12-acre pilot to pitch the government on developing the rest of the waterfront. Presumably it will hold more of these forums to collect metrics on satisfaction, and based on feedback, will crowdsource further ideas.
I recommend that Sidewalk be more transparent about how citizens’ ideas lead to concrete changes to the plans. Sidewalk is incorporating ideas from roundtable sessions into a Master Innovation and Development Plan, to be released in 2019; it should clearly communicate specific adjustments so citizens they feel heard.
Longer term, Sidewalk should leverage feedback on its other products to inform the Toronto plan. For instance, Sidewalk recently launched a capability called Replica, which uses location data from consumers’ smartphones to inform urban planners about traffic patterns. Sidewalk should state the learning from this initiative, find more creative ways to protect anonymity in the process, and publicly share insights from the data. Doing so will enable it to iterate on the vision for the rest of the Toronto waterfront so the entire community supports it.
The main issue I am uncertain about is whether this process is open innovation at its strongest; I’m not sure how vehemently Sidewalk Labs is actually using citizens’ ideas once it hears them. Is this true uptake of feedback and ideas to power new inventions, or is this a mere PR stint that Sidewalk is calling “open innovation” to make citizens feel like they had a voice in the development? (770 words)
 Aarian Marshal, “Alphabet is trying to reinvent the city, starting with Toronto,” Wired, October 19,2017, https://www.wired.com/story/google-sidewalk-labs-toronto-quayside/, accessed November 2018.
 Ian Austen, ”City of the Future? Humans, Not Technology, are the Challenge in Toronto,” The New York Times, December 29, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/29/world/canada/google-toronto-city-future.html, Accessed November 2018.
 Laura Bliss, “When a Tech Giant Plays Waterfront Developer,” CityLab, January 9, 2018, https://www.citylab.com/design/2018/01/when-a-tech-giant-plays-waterfront-developer/549590, accessed November 2018.
 Robin Banerji, “Niemeyer’s Brasilia: Does it Work as a City”? BBC News, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20632277, December 7, 2012.
 Brian Barth, “The Fight against Google’s Smart City,” The WorldPost, August 8, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/theworldpost/wp/2018/08/08/sidewalk-labs/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.e1055a59571f, accessed November 2018.
 “Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs to Start Testing Smart-City Features in Toronto this Summer,” Reuters, April 9, 2018, https://venturebeat.com/2018/04/09/alphabets-sidewalk-labs-to-start-testing-smart-city-features-in-toronto-this-summer/, Accessed November 2018.
 Feedback Report, Sidewalk Toronto Community Town Hall, November 1, 2017. https://sidewalktoronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Sidewalk-Toronto-Feedback-Report-Town-Hall.pdf, accessed November 2018.
 Monica Nickelsburg, “Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs Reveals Plans for Toronto Innovation District Featuring Light-Up Streets and Timber Towers,” GeekWire, https://www.geekwire.com/2018/alphabets-sidewalk-labs-reveals-plans-toronto-innovation-district-featuring-light-streets-timber-towers/, Accessed November 2018.
 Sidewalk Labs, “Public Roundtable #4,” https://sidewalktoronto.ca/event/public-roundtable-4/, accessed November 2018.
 Shruti Shekar, “Sidewalk Labs Reveals Vision for ‘Smart City’ Project, Provides No Answers on Data Collection Policy,” https://www.itbusiness.ca/news/sidewalk-labs-reveals-vision-for-smart-city-project-provides-no-answers-on-data-collection-policy/104119, accessed November 2018.
 Sill Flessig and Dan Doctoroff, Sidewalk Toronto Public Engagement Plan, Online PDF, February 2, 2018, https://sidewalktoronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Sidewalk-Toronto-Public-Engagement-Plan.pdf, accessed November 2018.
 Sidewalk Labs, “Public Roundtable #1,” https://sidewalktoronto.ca/event/public-roundtable-1/, accessed November 2018.
 Will Flessig and Dan Doctoroff, Sidewalk Toronto Engagement Update, Online PDF, June 26, 2018, https://sidewalktoronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Sidewalk-Toronto-Engagement-Update-June2018.pdf, accessed November 2018.
 Sidewalk Labs, “Toronto By Public Transportation – From Point A to Anywhere,” https://www.sidewalklabs.com/blog/toronto-by-public-transportation%E2%80%8A-%E2%80%8Afrom-point-a-to-anywhere/, accessed November 2018.
 Will Flessig and Dan Doctoroff, Sidewalk Toronto Engagement Update, https://sidewalktoronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Sidewalk-Toronto-Engagement-Update-June2018.pdf.
 Nick Bowden, “Introducing Replica, a Next-Generation Urban Planning Tool,” Sidewalk Talks, April 6, 2018, https://medium.com/sidewalk-talk/introducing-replica-a-next-generation-urban-planning-tool-1b7425222e9e, Accessed November 2018.