Quayside is a nondescript, 12-acre chunk of land on the southern edge of Toronto’s downtown. It’s just three miles from my apartment, but getting there takes almost an hour by subway, bus, and foot. When I finally arrive at 333 Lake Shore Boulevard East on a windy day in early January, I find a vacant parking lot full of snow. The abandoned Victory Soya Mills silos loom at its edge—a remnant of the city’s industrial heyday. The plot is half of the future site of Sidewalk Toronto, a “neighborhood built from the internet up” by Google’s sister company, Sidewalk Labs. Lake Ontario is frozen and it’s colder than the surface of Mars the day I go to look at the site.
According to Dan Doctoroff, Sidewalk Labs’ CEO, these “incredible challenges of growth” can be surmounted with the right application of innovative technology. But Sidewalk Labs’ offer doesn’t come with guarantees or without strings. For locals, an obvious question arises: What’s in it for Toronto?
Sidewalk Labs is the realization of Google’s long-standing dream to “give us a city and put us in charge,” as the former Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt once put it. As Alphabet’s smart-cities division, the company works to “accelerate urban innovation” through technology deployments undertaken in collaboration with cities. Before establishing Sidewalk with Google CEO Larry Page, Doctoroff had served as the deputy mayor for economic development under New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He led New York’s two unsuccessful Olympic bids, then catalyzed those efforts into PlaNYC, a large environmental and economic redevelopment plan.
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