Sidewalk Labs ramps up patenting of technologies conceived for now-defunct Toronto smart city

Hanna Lee for The Logic

In the year since Sidewalk Labs abandoned plans to build a high-tech neighbourhood in Toronto, the Alphabet subsidiary has been busy pursuing patents for innovations conceived for the Canadian smart city.

The New York-based company has published nine patent applications since it pulled out of Toronto in May 2020. While the patents describe technologies it pitched for the flagship project, none are registered in Canada, affirming some concerns that Toronto would simply be a test bed for Sidewalk’s innovations.

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Talking Point

In the months since Sidewalk Labs backed out of plans to build a smart city in Toronto, the Alphabet subsidiary has made public the patents it conceived for the controversial neighbourhood. Despite developing the technologies for the flagship Toronto project, just three out of 27 inventors have ties to Canada and all patents are registered to the firm’s New York office.

The company has been granted two patents to date—one related to “pay-as-you-throw” garbage-disposal systems and another for a “dynamic paver” device equipped with sensors that can reconfigure sidewalks and roads. 

Sidewalk has applications pending for several other technologies, including security systems that could use facial recognition and other biometric factors to authenticate someone’s identity. The firm is also seeking patents for outdoor sensor technologies for “ubiquitous connectivity” of things like traffic lights, cameras and street lights, as well as patents for energy-conservation systems for buildings. 

During its time in Canada, Sidewalk Labs forged a number of partnerships with Toronto-based universities and researchers. It launched a small grant program in 2018 through which it awarded 10 Ontario-based researchers between $10,000 and $15,000 to “support and enrich” the company’s plans for the Toronto waterfront. Sidewalk Labs spokesperson Dan Levitan told The Logic the firm did not receive public funding or tax breaks to develop the technologies described in the patent filings, “nor are they related to the small grants research program.” Levitan added that the firm developed its proposals for Quayside at its own expense. 

Many of the applications for its recently published patents were first filed in 2019. They describe technologies related to ideas Sidewalk Labs floated in its proposal to Waterfront Toronto, the public agency and would-be development partner evaluating the firm’s smart-city ambitions. The plan detailed a city built “from the internet up,” where a “digital layer” would run unseen through the neighbourhood, collecting data and optimizing everything about how people use public space, from energy consumption to waste management, parking and commuting. 

The company’s recent filings also include patents for a technology that functions like a digital passport by allowing a user to combine their identification documents and only disclose the information they need to at a particular time. It’s also designing a system for tracking packages and communicating with the receiver in last-mile delivery. 

When Sidewalk Labs released its Master Innovation and Development Plan in June 2019, critics raised concerns that the tech firm would reap rewards from resources from local organizations and governments and provide little back to the community. IP experts derided Sidewalk Lab’s plan to offer Waterfront Toronto just 10 per cent of profits from technology first deployed in the smart city. “It was clear that Sidewalk was looking to build technologies and intellectual property that they could redeploy globally,” said Andrew Clement, a University of Toronto professor who sat on Waterfront’s digital strategy panel that was set up to advise the agency on the Sidewalk proposal. “There was a lot of pushback from our committee and others that Sidewalk Labs was treating this as an IP grab.”

While Levitan said Sidewalk Labs had intended to integrate the technologies described in the patents in its Toronto development, all of the patents are registered to the company’s New York City office. Just three out of the 27 inventors listed on Sidewalk’s patent applications either lived in Canada at the time the patents were filed or are currently living in Canada, according to LinkedIn.

Jim Hinton, a patent lawyer and co-founder of the Innovation Asset Collective, said the dearth of Canada-based inventors on the patent filings affirms early concerns that the company had intended for Toronto to be a market for Sidewalk to sell technology into rather than a home for innovation. “What people thought has come to pass in that they were capturing IP all along, and at a pace that most Canadian companies can’t compete with,” said Hinton. 

Had the project moved forward, Sidewalk Labs intended to support local startups building smart-city technologies through a venture capital fund with Toronto-based Plaza Ventures. At the time, the firm said it would not take ownership of any intellectual property from portfolio companies. “Our investment thesis rests on the assumption that retaining IP will be integral to the success of Canadian companies, and this is foundational to the fund’s practice,” reads an investor presentation deck obtained by The Logic. 

Sidewalk Labs ultimately ended its partnership with Waterfront Toronto last May, following issues that included disagreement over the amount of land it could develop. “It has become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan we had developed together with Waterfront Toronto to build a truly inclusive, sustainable community,” Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said at the time.

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Since leaving the Canadian city, Sidewalk has kept a relatively low profile while slowly building out its product portfolio. Last September, it launched Mesa, an AI system that helps reduce energy use in buildings, and Delve, an urban design software, in October. The company’s website lists two products “coming soon”: a vehicle sensor that “enables better parking and curbside management,” and an affordable electrification solution for new buildings. Meanwhile, the firm’s only other smart-city partnership has wound down. In February, Portland ended a project Sidewalk started to track mobility patterns in the city. Replica, a firm spun out of Sidewalk, took over the project, but the partnership crumbled after the startup declined to share data at the level of detail the city wanted. 

The focus on products and technology licences—rather than itself leading urban developments—puts Sidewalk up against a growing number of smart-city startups as well as enterprise tech firms wading into the space. The Alphabet subsidiary is also eyeing possible stakes in those competitors through Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners (SIP), an investment fund launched to back ventures in the smart-city sector. SIP announced a US$400-million raise from parent firm Alphabet and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan last May, the same day it backed out of the Quayside plans. According to PitchBook, the fund has so far made three investments in two companies: smart-grid firm OhmConnect and recycling startup AMP Robotics.