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Sidewalk Labs CEO addresses criticism, claims development will create tens of thousands of jobs, in remarks prepared for VIP advisory council

Toronto's eastern waterfront.
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Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff addressed a group of some of Canada’s “leading thinkers” from the business, non-profit and academic sectors Wednesday, in the first meeting of the Sidewalk Labs Advisory Council.

Doctoroff sent an invitation out last month for the luncheon and presentation, asking those  influencers to help advise the company on its plans to build Toronto’s first smart city neighbourhood on the waterfront.

The council is the first of its kind—independent of Waterfront Toronto—advising Sidewalk Labs directly on the Quayside development.

A council member attending the meeting told The Logic that 88 people were invited, including 11 Sidewalk Toronto staff.

Sidewalk Labs declined to provide a full list of who attended. A spokesperson for Waterfront Toronto said it was not represented at the meeting.

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Some attendees who spoke to The Logic expressed concerns around how the project had been unfolding until now, and said they hope the council will give them the opportunity to provide input.

One council member, who asked not to be named, said they joined to “provide some advice and perspective to make sure [Sidewalk Toronto] addresses questions and concerns people legitimately have.”

When asked about Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto’s handling of the proposed development so far, they said, “Some of the tone-deaf early beginnings—just lack of clarity around what the overall purpose is and what their particular interests are—I think are being addressed. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be better.”

Cherise Burda, executive director of the Ryerson City Building Institute, said she joined the council for the opportunity to advise on what she called “a really important project for the city.”

“The more we can all advise and get out of it something positive, the better,” Burda said. “I think that the more information we get, the more we can ensure that it moves forward in a responsible way and in a way that benefits everyone. It’s like anything; community consultation is important, and we’re part of the community.”

In a copy of his prepared remarks, obtained by The Logic, Doctoroff pointed toward two “key anchors” of the development plans: the move of Google’s Canadian headquarters to the waterfront, as well as the establishment of a new Urban Innovation Institute, which he hopes will draw in innovators from around the world.

He also offered a sense of the potential economic impact of the project for the first time.

“We are still modeling the total economic impact of our plans, but, at scale, we expect that we will create tens of thousands of jobs and billions in new investment and economic development for Toronto, for Ontario and for Canada,” said Doctoroff.

He also addressed the criticism the project has faced in the 12 months since Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto announced their partnership in a press conference that saw representation from all three levels of government.

“I must tell you that there are times when the prejudgment of what we will propose—and assumptions of ill intent—have taken me by surprise,” said Doctoroff. “But I can tell you there is nothing more behind the curtain than what I have shared with you today. Our company was formed to bring an ambitious vision to life.

“We want to do it in Toronto.”

Last month, The Logic reported that the value of the land in question was estimated to be worth over half a billion dollars.

But in his remarks, Doctoroff said Sidewalk Labs is not seeking to be a master developer or to buy up all the land.

Talking Point

In a closed-door meeting with Canada’s “leading thinkers,” Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff discussed a number of new details about his company’s proposed smart city development. He said the company will have two “key anchors” for the development: moving Google’s Canadian headquarters to the waterfront and creating an Urban Innovation Institute.

“We know that cities grow best when they grow organically,” he said.

And, while he acknowledged the potential for profits coming out of the development, including in the “uptick in land value,” he said that in a partnership between the public sector and a private company, “both parties should benefit.”

Providing further colour on why the company chose Toronto, Doctoroff praised Waterfront Toronto for “taking a risk in pursuit of something bigger.”

“This was a perfect match—and Toronto, both because of what makes it great and because of the challenges it is grappling with, was the perfect city.

“And so, we did not seek to start a bake-off between urban centers around the world,” he said.

Doctoroff’s remarks come after weeks of public pressure. Almost two weeks ago, a second member of Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP) resigned over concerns surrounding the partnership, including a lack of clarity and what she called “blatant disregard for resident concerns about data and digital infrastructure.”

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On Tuesday, NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus presented a letter to the federal government asking for them to explain their conversations with Sidewalk Labs or “hit the pause button” on the project. Earlier this month, The Logic reported that Ontario’s auditor general was conducting a value-for-money audit on Waterfront Toronto, the tri-governmental organization partnered with Sidewalk Labs on this development.

Near the end of his remarks, Doctoroff said he was “excited” to present the idea of a data trust to the DSAP on Thursday.

Earlier in the day, Doctoroff appeared at the Fortune Global Forum, where he directly addressed some of the criticisms facing the project, including an op-ed by Jim Balsillie, former co-CEO of Research In Motion (now BlackBerry). According to Tara Deschamps, the Canadian Press reporter at the event, Doctoroff said revealing the privacy plan earlier this week “should answer the vast majority of questions” many have had. He said only the staunchest critics won’t feel most questions have been answered at this point, but that there are still more details to be worked out.

With files from Catherine McIntyre and Sean Craig.