A Look Behind the Deal Between Google’s Sidewalk Labs and the City of Toronto


Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs is planning to spend $50 million to redevelop a piece of Toronto’s waterfront called Quayside.

The development is aimed at during this area into the world’s first “smart city,” which will be filled with “modular, dynamic” building that can be reconfigured as the use cases for the area change. The city will also be equipped with sensors that will help Sidewalk Labs iterate on its own products.

The “smart city” will contain a new Google headquarters and a bunch of startups, with affordable micro-apartments starting at 162 square feet.

The Atlantic’s Molly Sauter has published an excellent piece on the deal between Sidewalk Labs and the city of Toronto. Sauter shows how Sidewalk Labs masterfully played the process, presenting an incredibly detailed plan for the development that impressed everyone.

Later, Sidewalk Labs quietly announced that these plans were just guidelines that may not even be followed in the final build-out. The company also managed to get their agreement with the City of Toronto to be a secret, meaning that even some key city councillors have been unable to see it.

“Sidewalk is careful to say that the wealth of detail in its vision document is speculative, an example of how things could go on the Eastern Waterfront. It seems that the only thing they know for sure is that Sidewalk Toronto can’t be built to its fullest innovative potential under current methods of city management. By asking preemptively for regulatory dispensation, Sidewalk is making clear that the Toronto city government may not know enough to regulate its own fate, at least not right now. Sidewalk’s “city of the future” might best be compared to a special economic zone, an area of regulatory exemption that allows it to innovate to its heart’s content, beyond the normal laws of its host municipality.”

Sauter raises questions that the city should have answered before greenlighting any parts of the project, such as whether or not those startups with benefit Canada or whether they will just relocate to Silicon Valley as soon as they have enough money. Another crucial question is how families are supposed to live in 162 square foot apartments.

“If successful, Canadian companies and their founders are also likely to get relocated to the United States, where the dreams are brighter and the paychecks are bigger. The influx of Canadian entrepreneurs, designers, and developers may not seem significant from an American perspective, but their departure can have substantial impacts on local Canadian economies in terms of jobs lost and companies shuttered or never started. One example is the 2015 closure of the premiere Canadian interaction-design firm Teehan and Lax. After its principles were acqui-hired by Facebook, about 40 designers, developers and other creative staff were laid off.”

A lot of the questions and concerns presented by Sauter will probably continue to go unanswered for the foreseeable future. If you live in Toronto, we would love to hear what you think about the deal between Sidewalk Labs and the City of Toronto. Let us know in the comments below!


  • goosemcgoose

    It’s a measly 12 acres everyone. People are acting like it’s the whole damn city. There are many developments in the city that area much larger than this. The only difference is the city has given Google the go ahead to bend the development rules and collect information. Worried about your privacy? Don’t live there! Do you think the banks aren’t already collecting reams of financial information on everyone’s purchases? That the city isn’t already collecting information on traffic patterns? That shopping malls aren’t already using cameras to determine where people shop and when?

    A major company with deep pockets is considering investing lots of money in a part of the city that is an abandoned brown field. Instead we’re squabbling over this like everything else in Toronto, and probably nothing will happen for 10-20-30 years while other cities leap frog ahead of us.

  • Brenda

    The article in the Atlantic is worth reading, but is flawed, using scare tactics like the closure of Target as examples of what happens when you let U.S. companies into Canada and flexible housing’s threat to home ownership (the idea that families and home ownership make a community more stable is ridiculous). I think there should be more concern about building housing on a floodplain. But something will get built there nevertheless so why not let Sidewalk Labs use this as an experiment?