Sidewalk Labs

Sidewalk Labs Wants to Reimagine the Urban Experience

Sidewalk Labs has come a long way since first announcing a project in Toronto. Just over two years, in fact. That timeframe has seen a wild range of ups and downs for the Google subsidiary. I remember my first reaction upon hearing that a Google company was considering orchestrating the development of not a new app or system architecture but rather a physical space, a neighborhood no less. I was both impressed and excited. I’ve always been interested in visions of the future, ever since the first time I watched Star Wars when I was just five or six years old (let’s face it, the films are set “a long time ago” in name only). The opportunity to see the future created before my eyes was a tantalizing one.

Since then, the project has come to be important on a global scale for several reasons. First of all, it represents perhaps the biggest, but certainly the most obvious example of a tech giant manifesting a physical influence. Sure, Apple Park looks straight out of science fiction, and Facebook is working on a huge project in Menlo Park, but Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto project was always supposed to be a whole new thing. This wasn’t just a corporate headquarters or a traditional development. Google’s Quayside project is a genuinely public space that many thousands of people will live in; work in; eat in; shop in; travel through, with new types of building construction and tech baked right in.

Not only is the project a symbol of victory for the technocracy of the 21st century, it’s also a showcase of what PropTech and smart cities can be. Some of the previous purpose-built smart cities, like Songdo in Korea, have found themselves struggling to attract and retain occupants. Sidewalk Labs has an opportunity to redefine that narrative while also remaking the very experience of living in a city. Think about how your life changed from before you adopted a smartphone to after. In many ways, the Toronto project represents the same thing, for cities. 

Of course, there has been a dark side to the development as well. The project has come to be a flashpoint in the ongoing struggle over data and privacy. This is important for the world, and doubly so for the PropTech community. Just like court battles can determine legal precedent, the way the Sidewalk Labs project plays out will likely set the context for how other smart city projects and data-intensive PropTech efforts will address privacy in the future. 

Sidewalk Labs itself is in a good place. The company was recently cleared to proceed with the plan on the condition that it accepts several concessions. The most notable of these are that Sidewalk will need to work with a development partner for the physical build of the district, and that the broader geographic scope that Sidewalk Labs had recently been aiming for would be off the table. In other words, Sidewalk Labs is back to its initial geographical position. 

While it might be a little too cynical to think that Sidewalk Labs deliberately pushed their geographical ask in order to move the goalposts of the conversation, thus making it easier to achieve their initial, true goal of 12 acres, there could be some validity there. In any event, what’s clear is that, as of now, the company will be moving forward with their efforts. 

The back and forth has also provided Sidewalk Labs a chance to reflect on the process. Toronto, of course, is just one city. For a company like Google, the sky is probably the limit when it comes to growth goals. Pino Di Mascio, Director of Planning at Sidewalk Labs, told us that “Our key takeaway is that we are now confident that significant outcomes to address major urban challenges can be achieved through innovative development strategies applied at a variety of scales. We believe we have a solid foundation through which to build locally relevant Innovation Plans with appropriate stakeholders in different locations. The key is to look for opportunities in the appropriate places with organizations that share our mission and belief in how to improve the quality of life in cities.”

I wrote this after flying into New York City for the first time in my life. While I am not a stranger to big cities, NYC was still a sight to behold. As I flew past Hudson Yards, I saw the sleek, impressive, modern representation of what a major planned development can be. But that project was a physical one. Sidewalk Labs operates on a much different level. It’s a digital level; one that we have yet to fully experience in the built environment. It is still anyone’s guess how transformational the end result in Quayside will be, but what is clear is that the process itself has raised, and not quite answered, a lot of questions. We are entering a new world of real estate megaprojects. The ripple effects will impact real estate technology companies, builders, and all of us that call cities home.

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Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.

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