Sidewalk Labs Shows off New Weather-Beating Tech
Emily Pollock posted on March 07, 2019 |
Sidewalk’s Jesse Shapins shows off the project’s new heated and lighted hexagonal pavement tiles, which are one of the innovations that the company hopes will make outdoor life in Toronto more pleasant during the winter. (Image courtesy of The Canadian Press/Tijana Martin.)
Sidewalk’s Jesse Shapins shows off the project’s new heated and lighted hexagonal pavement tiles, which are one of the innovations that the company hopes will make outdoor life in Toronto more pleasant during the winter. (Image courtesy of The Canadian Press/Tijana Martin.)

Urban innovation company Sidewalk Labs has been facing controversy over its Toronto Quayside project. So, on March 2, the company held an open house featuring tech that nobody could object to: a set of innovations designed to help mitigate the city's gloomy winters.

Sidewalk, a sister company to Google, has been planning a "smart neighborhood" east of Toronto's downtown core for two years. The company has been famously tight-lipped about its plans, but it recently showcased some of its plans for the neighborhood outside of its headquarters.

The company’s pitch is that, while Toronto has a thriving patio culture, it's only possible to comfortably sit outside for about a third of the year. Sidewalk Labs wants to extend that time with inventions that will help shield people from inclement weather.

One of its weather solutions is something it calls a “building raincoat”:

a plastic film awning that can be extended to cover the sidewalk from the elements if necessary. According to the Sidewalk team, it's made of an innovative material called Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene, which has never been used in Toronto before. The "raincoat" will be attached to the building at one side and anchored to the pavement on the opposite side.

“The raincoat provides an additional way to expand so a farmers market can happen inside but also outside as well,” Jesse Shapins, Sidewalk's director of public realm at Sidewalk Labs, told the Canadian Press. “There’s even the opportunity to use them as expanded patio spaces so the patio season doesn’t have to start at the beginning of summer. It could start earlier when you have something like this.”

But the main attraction at the open house was the company’s heated, light-up pavement. The hexagonal paving slabs are designed so that they're easily replaceable if one breaks, as well as porous enough that water can flow through them to reduce stormwater runoff. The intent is to melt the snow without salting or plowing, reducing the environmental impact of keeping the streets clear.

The project could certainly use some good press. Less than a month ago, leaked documents revealed that Sidewalk was looking at a bigger chunk of the city than the 12 acres it had revealed publicly, and that it was also hoping to claim part of the city's developer fees and property taxes in exchange. And since the project was announced, the company has been dogged by questions about how the neighborhood's data-collection system will protect people's privacy.

Sidewalk's open house may or may not quell some of the privacy concerns. In its announcement, the company says that it will be monitoring how people interact with its exhibits through a computer vision startup called Numina, which will track traffic flow. According to Sidewalk’s Responsible Data Use Assessment, the data will be completely de-identified, sorting objects into general categories like "cyclist" or "pedestrian."


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