The Toronto Star with Jennifer Lynes 30 September 2018
What kind of neighbour is most likely to water your plants while you’re away on vacation?
How do you build community bonds in a neighbourhood without being overly contrived or prescriptive?
How can behaviour-based incentives encourage people to use green bins and recycle more?
Sidewalk Labs, the firm behind the proposed “city of the future” on Toronto’s eastern waterfront, wants to know.
In mid-September, 10 grants of between $10,000 and $15,000 each were awarded to research teams at several universities in Toronto and the surrounding area, including OCAD, the University of Toronto, McMaster, Waterloo and Ryerson, to explore these questions and others.
The research, funded by Sidewalk Labs, Waterfront Toronto and the Toronto Foundation, is tied to Sidewalk’s proposal for a “smart city” that would be built on a 12-acre site known as Quayside.
If the Sidewalk project gets the go-ahead, the “smart city” would include data-rich technology aimed at improving urban life, such as sensors that could measure air quality, traffic and noise.
According to Sidewalk Labs, the 10 research projects relate directly to the “six pillars” of the overall Sidewalk Toronto vision: mobility, sustainability, innovative building designs, a digital platform, affordability and a great public realm.
One team will review measurements used to evaluate neighbourhood quality of life; another will explore how messaging has influenced waste diversion rates.
A team will look into community governance models in Canada, such as ratepayers and neighbourhood safety groups. Another team will delve into how bicycle-counting technology is operating in some cities around the world, technology that’s used to tabulate the numbers of cyclists who use bike paths or pass through intersections.
Other topics being studied include the evolving neighbourhood retail landscape in Toronto, urban parks as habitat networks, and in-home health monitoring using internet technology.
The research reports are due in late November and the findings will feed into a master plan for the Sidewalk development, slated to be completed by the end of the year or early in 2019.
“Data is a phenomenal resource that can help us to make good decisions that support healthy communities and integrate people,” said OCAD president Sara Diamond, who is also director of the school’s visual analytics laboratory and co-lead on a research project that will explore how culture bonds individuals and communities.
Diamond is working with her co-lead Alia Weston, an assistant professor at the school, along with a group of graduate research assistants to define which influences, scenarios and conditions lead to natural human bonds, caring and compassion in neighbourhoods.
The topic will be explored through the lens of arts and cultural events happening at the “hyper-local” level, Diamond said.
“We’re looking more at day-to-day stuff — people getting together to play music, for example,” she said, adding another example might be library events that use books, internet access and even musical instruments in outreach activities.
Her team will also examine arts and cultural activities conducted with aging patients at Baycrest Health Sciences.
“We’re looking at good examples in Toronto, but also international examples of where arts and culture are used to build a sense of community and develop bonds within communities,” she added.
Diamond said her group’s research will draw from data analysis, as well as an extensive review of existing literature, both historical and contemporary.
Her team will also delve into the role technology can play in functional relationships between individuals. As part of this, her team will look at a digital device designed in Ontario that tweets reminders to plant owners or their neighbours about when it’s time to water a plant.
The “smart city” project has garnered widespread controversy over concerns that the data collection might violate the privacy rights of people who would one day move into the district, or individuals who may just be passing through it.
Worries have also been raised that all of this data could be monetized, but Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff has promised that these concerns are unfounded.
In the meantime, Sidewalk Labs is moving full steam ahead in its bid to understand the types of people it could house in the future and what their needs will be.
Sidewalk is spending $50 million in due diligence work prior to the master plan. That includes the money for the research grants and roundtable discussions on accessibility issues where Torontonians with various disabilities have been invited to provide input. (The actual project, if approved — Toronto city council will have a major say in that — would likely be completed some time in the next four or five years).
One of Sidewalk’s goals is to house a diverse group of residents of different ages, and economic and cultural backgrounds.
“Among the things we know are true about quality of life is that there must be a strong sense of community. We must be thinking about how do you make people feel comfortable as quickly as possible in a setting,” said Rit Aggarwala, chief policy officer for Sidewalk Labs.
Shauna Brail, a senior associate in the innovation policy lab at U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs, said the research surrounding the Sidewalk plans shows the proposed development isn’t just about “physical infrastructure, but also social infrastructure.”
“We need to think about what kinds of social infrastructure we’re putting in place in all kinds of real estate and new developments in cities. I think developers are thinking more frequently about how their places connect with people and what people’s lives will be like in those spaces.”
Laura Anderson, assistant professor in McMaster’s department of health research methods, evidence and impact, will be working with three master’s of public health students at the school to research the best methods for measuring happiness and well-being at the neighbourhood level.
In a statement Anderson said she’s “excited” that this work will create the opportunity for the graduate students to gain experience answering “real-world public health problems using innovative technology.”
Meanwhile, the University of Waterloo team exploring messaging and garbage diversion will examine “barriers” that may prevent us from sorting waste properly.
Take textiles, for example.
Lead researcher Jennifer Lynes, associate professor at Waterloo’s school of environment, enterprise and development, said 5 to 7 per cent of household waste in landfills is textiles that could easily be recycled or reused.
“Right now, what do people do with them? They donate them to Value Village, etc. But you have to go there, and some people just say, ‘Oh I’m just going to throw it in the garbage.’”
She noted the city of Markham has textile diversion bins.
“It’s things like that. What kind of programs or strategies can we develop to reduce those barriers?” said Lynes, who will be working with a student researcher.
As the research teams work to complete their reports, and probably a long while after, the Sidewalk project will likely continue to face questions from detractors about data monetization and privacy protection.
Sidewalk will use the data and analysis the research teams obtain, but that information will remain “under the control” of those teams, Aggarwala said.