Toronto is going back to school. In March, the University of Toronto (U of T) approved its newest discipline, the School of Cities—which is aimed at addressing complex urban challenges such as traffic congestion and affordable housing. The program is one of the first of its kind in the world, and it will serve as a hub for innovative interdisciplinary urban research, education, and engagement. More than 220 faculty members at U of T conduct urban-focused research, representing over 40 academic departments such as engineering, architecture, urban planning, and public health.
Headlined by speakers such as Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs (an Alphabet company), U of T’s School of Cities program hosted an inaugural session on May 15 called Toronto: Towards a Smart and Inclusive City-Region. The session brought together urban thought leaders, policymakers, planners, business leaders, and entrepreneurs to exchange ideas on ways to meet the challenges of city building while ensuring that smart cities are also inclusive cities.
Inclusivity a Major Focus
Several speakers at the session noted how strong city leadership and vision are crucial to ensuring that smart city development reflects the socioeconomic conditions of the city. Sidewalk Labs touted its deep commitment to inclusive cities, referencing its spinoff company Cityblock Health—which aims to help low income Americans access health services. The company also outlined how automated vehicles (AVs) tie into its broader vision for inclusivity. Sidewalk Labs is targeting a 40%-50% reduction in annual family income expenditure on vehicles by offering shared AV services—providing citizens with increased opportunity to access transportation. More public and open space would also be enabled through AVs, with a significant reduction of land needed for parking.
An Ambitious Project
Sidewalk Labs’ ambitious project in Toronto has brought considerable attention and excitement to the city, as well as skepticism. Citizen concerns around data, privacy, and business models have been well documented. Doctoroff shared more details on how data will likely be used, Sidewalk Labs’ support for open data, and its commitment to data security. Information was also provided on the company’s projected business model and areas where it expects to make a return on its investment:
- Property: Real estate value in Quayside is expected to increase over time.
- Technology: The technology it develops is expected to scale to the larger Toronto area and other cities in Canada and around the world.
- Next-generation infrastructure: Sidewalk Labs will potentially arrange and manage next-generation infrastructure services.
A Welcome Development, but Some Concerns
U of T’s new School of Cities is a welcome development that helps fills a void in contemporary academia. Cutting-edge research and collaboration will be needed to help solve the world’s most complex urban issues. Look for more universities to follow suit with similar programs in the coming years.
Sidewalk Labs utilized U of T’s inaugural session to continue its concerted effort to address data and privacy concerns. The company recently released its Responsible Data Use Policy Framework, which builds on Canadian privacy laws and recent recommendations by national and provincial Canadian privacy regulators. To win the support of Torontonians, Sidewalk Labs will need to continue to demonstrate and more effectively communicate to citizens that data from the project will be anonymized, open, secure, and not used for advertising.