A Discussion on Tech in Toronto // Intro

A Discussion on Tech in Toronto
//Sidewalk Labs' project to build the Quayside community "from the internet up"

By Aisling O’Carroll

NOTE: This is a multi-part series to be released online over the next few months. See the table of content below for the full series.

IMAGE ABOVE: Formerly docklands and part of Toronto’s industrial port, the Quayside site sits along the city’s Eastern Waterfront, between the elevated Gardiner Expressway and the lake. Photograph by Mark Wickens, courtesy of Sidewalk Toronto.


A defining characteristic of the tech and information industry is its utilization of rapid testing, prototyping, and experimentation in its development process. This learning-by-doing approach has enabled technologists to rapidly advance systems and products and accelerate the scaling-up and proliferation of applications that we see today—but not without the significant risk of failure. What happens when this entrepreneurial approach to experimentation is applied to an urban neighbourhood?

In October 2017, Waterfront Toronto announced its selection of Sidewalk Labs as its partner to develop Quayside, a roughly 4.9 ha site located along Toronto’s eastern waterfront. With this announcement, the partnership between Waterfront Toronto (the organisation formed through a tripartite governmental agreement to oversee the revitalization of much of Toronto’s waterfront), and Sidewalk Labs (the urban design subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company), promised to develop “the world’s first neighbourhood built from the internet up” (1)—a visionary proposition at once both seductive and uncomfortably vague in its aspiration for integrating networked connectivity (and all the data-generation it entails) with the public life and physical infrastructure of the city.

In the year since this announcement, Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto have continued to develop and refine their strategy for the project and partnership—much of which remains unknown, as neither specific project plans, nor details regarding how and by whom the digital layer of the Quayside will be managed, have been determined or made public. The process to date has been criticized for a lack of transparency; however, a recent release of documents has offered some new light: On July 31, 2018, both parties published on their respective websites the freshly signed Plan Development Agreement (PDA), and Waterfront Toronto simultaneously released the original Framework Agreement (FA) signed by both parties on October 16, 2017.2 While the PDA had already superseded the FA by the time both were made public, a comparison of the two offers useful insights into the ongoing development of the project. For example, the original FA includes both Quayside and the Eastern Waterfront—a 356 ha area of the Toronto Port Lands adjacent to Quayside—in the “Project Site” description, stating that “solutions, processes, and partnerships” may be carried forward into subsequent developments of the Eastern Waterfront as those lands become available. In contrast, the PDA makes it clear that no additional land outside the Quayside is part of the agreement and furthermore, that the completion of the Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) itself does not guarantee any realization of the project. The changes in language seem to reflect a more rigorous consideration of Toronto’s urban planning policy. Yet the PDA still avoids directly addressing the looming questions surrounding data collection and management that are central to the notion of a networked and sensored neighbourhood as well as the source of much of the public concern surrounding this project. (3)

Quayside is slated to become an “innovation hub,” with Google’s Canadian headquarters moving in along with the creation of an Urban Innovation Institute on site. (4) The neighbourhood promises to be a hooked-up, online, live community. Both sides of the partnership have expressed their ambition for the continuous collection of data to assist with creating a more inclusive, sustainable, climate-positive, flexible, and affordable neighbourhood (to name only a few of the pillars of the MIDP).

At the moment, we can only speculate on what will be contained in the plan and design for this new neighbourhood, but we feel it is imperative that citizens engage with this process as it unfolds.

To contribute to the ongoing independent discussion on the Quayside project, (5) and to foster continued public engagement with this dialogue, we have invited a group of experts and leaders from various fields to offer their thoughts to a survey of the project, discussing both its potential opportunities and risks. The responses that follow were provided through individual correspondence (not a group discussion) between June and July 2018, prior to release of the PDA and FA, and have been presented collectively to highlight the range of views.

We are grateful for the generous and thoughtful responses that each contributor has brought to this discussion.


James Chan (JC) | Urbanist and community steward, co-founder of Ottawa Civic Tech, member of the Board of Directors for Code for Canada, and former programming lead at Impact Hub Ottawa

Chris Green (CG) | Senior designer with Arup’s Design Strategy team in New York, and former project lead with MIT Senseable City Lab

Pina Mallozzi (PM) | Director, Design at Waterfront Toronto and co-lead on mobility work for the Sidewalk Toronto project

AnnaLisa Meyboom (AM) | Associate professor at University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture and director of the Transportation Infrastructure and Public Space Lab (TIPSlab)

H.C. Robinson (HR) | Associate professor of law and sociology at Northeastern University, Boston, MA

Adam Vaughan (AV) | Parliamentary secretary for Housing and Urban Affairs and the member of parliament for Spadina-Fort York (the area being developed by Sidewalk Labs)

Mariana Valverde (MV) | Writer, researcher, and professor at the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies at the University of Toronto


Part i | Smart City
Part ii | Design
Part iii | Tech(nologists) and Design
Part iv | Trust in the City (coming soon)
Part v | Privacy and Data (coming soon)
Part vi | Control and P3s (Public-Private Partnerships) (coming soon)
Part vii | Future Impacts (coming soon)


(1) Sidewalk Labs, Vision Sections of RFP Submission, (October 27, 2017) 15, https://sidewalktoronto.ca/documents/.

(2) Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, Plan Development Agreement, (July 31, 2018), https://waterfrontoronto.ca/nbe/portal/waterfront/Home/waterfronthome/newsroom/newsarchive/news/2018/july/waterfront+toronto+and+sidewalk+labs+sign+plan+development+agreement, and https://sidewalktoronto.ca/documents/; Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, Framework Agreement, (October 16, 2017), https://waterfrontoronto.ca/nbe/portal/waterfront/Home/waterfronthome/newsroom/newsarchive/news/2018/july/waterfront+toronto+and+sidewalk+labs+sign+plan+development+agreement.

(3) “Schedule I: Digital Governance Framework Principles” of the PDA outlines “guiding digital design principles” for the project, including assurances that concerns about digital material will be addressed. The principles pertaining to data governance and stewardship describe “novel ownership structures for non-personal data [...] including access by and potential ownership of data by Waterfront Toronto, the City of Toronto, Province of Ontario, or Government of Canada, or other such third parties as deemed appropriate by the Parties,” raising the possibility that data collected in the Quayside will be maintained under local, public ownership, but avoiding any firm commitment to this. A subsequent guideline states that protection provisions “consistent with Canadian data protection laws will be incorporated.” These guidelines acknowledge concerns that the public have voiced, yet stop short of committing to terms to address them. Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, “Schedule I: Digital Governance Framework Principles,” Plan Development Agreement (July 31, 2018), 46–49.

(4) Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, “Schedule B: MIDP Scope,” Plan Development Agreement (July 31, 2018), 30–31.

(5) See the serial articles published by Bianca Wylie (member page), Medium, accessed August 21, 2018, https://medium.com/@biancawylie; and John Lorinc (author page), Spacing Toronto, accessed August 21, 2018, http://spacing.ca/toronto/author/john/; in addition to the many journalistic and opinion pieces published in Canadian and international news media, available online.