Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day (Neither was Toronto)

Google's building a new city and using the power of the crowd to do it. Begs the question – is open innovation the future of city planning?

We’ve all known Google for its role in the Internet search industry. But recently, the tech giant has taken to the streets (literally). Google’s parent company Alphabet has launched its subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, with an aim to design and build “urban innovations to help cities meet their biggest challenges.”1

Initially, Sidewalk Labs’ core product was smart city technology. Recently though, it has shifted its product development focus to building a city itself. In early 2017, in partnership with the city of Toronto, Sidewalk Labs began drafting and building from scratch, Quayside. Located on the Toronto Waterfront, Quayside is being designed as a neighborhood that will achieve “precedent-setting levels of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity.”2

To make this goal a reality, Sidewalk Labs is relying on the method of open innovation. The company believes that sourcing ideas from local citizens about the design of the city and best use of the land is the key to the project’s success.

This line of thinking makes considerable sense. For Sidewalk Labs, open innovation is important because their product simply may not be its best without it. One study found that generating city planning ideas from citizens with certain characteristics (ranging from city planning expertise, to experience with innovation, to high dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs) can lead to the creation of more socially-beneficial ideas than would be created without those citizens’ inputs.3

Open innovation can also help with idea selection. That same study found that after the idea generation phase, all citizens – regardless of personal characteristics – do prove highly capable of selecting the most socially-beneficial idea when presented with various top options.

Sidewalk Labs seems to have recognized these potential benefits and chosen to fully embrace the open innovation megatrend. As they develop the city’s plans in the short-term, the company is creating a variety of forums to allow for open innovation. They are hosting regular Neighborhood Meetings, town hall-like sessions where business associations and local organizations can share suggestions and concerns about the city. They are holding “Design Jams” that allow small groups of citizens to brainstorm ideas for specific parts of the city’s plans. In addition, they are holding “Public Roundtables” that allow citizens to work alongside Sidewalk Lab employees in refining final aspects of city designs.4

But the company’s use of open innovation does not appear to be stopping there. They are currently in the process of issuing research grants to university students and faculty to identify trusted ways to make cities even more sustainable and equitable. For Sidewalk Labs, this tactic is a long-term investment that will inform their future product development, as they expand to build more cities down the road.

City planning through open innovation though is a method with its share of challenges. Some problems that can arise are: motivating everyday citizens to participate in idea selection, and making decisions when ideas from diverse stakeholders conflict.

Here are some steps I recommend to ensure the company is gaining the benefits of open innovation while managing those downsides, in the short and medium terms.

Firstly, Sidewalk Labs should make barriers to participation as small as possible for everyday citizens. Specifically, they should make it easy for citizens to know exactly what their role is and when they should participate. Their currently website lists many ways for citizens to “Get Involved.” However, this list may be overwhelming to those first learning about the project. To improve, the company could also list on the site tips on where to get involved for different types of citizens. For example, citizens just wanting to “vote on which project to implement” should be able to see specifically which events to attend and when.

Secondly, Sidewalk Labs needs to have a decision-making system in place for times when open innovation fails. If gridlocks arise in the idea selection process, likely due to competing citizens’ interests, Sidewalk Labs product development will not be able to move forward without a system to resolve those conflicts. My recommendation is not on which type of system to install, whether a final vote by Sidewalk Labs, the city of Toronto, a run-off vote among citizens, or another process – but rather, I encourage the company to simply create one as a backup, and make that system explicit to all stakeholders upfront.

One final question I would pose to others: With so many choices to be made in city development (transportation modes, parks, housing mixes, energy use, types of businesses, etc.), can open innovation be used efficiently to generate ideas for all of them?

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  1. Sidewalk Labs. (2018). Sidewalk Labs. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].
  2. Reints, R. (2018). A Google Company Just Got Approved to Build a ‘Neighborhood of the Future’. [online] Fortune. Available at: [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].
  3. Sidewalk Toronto. (2018). Get Involved. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].
  4. Schuurman, D., Baccarne, B. and De Marez, L. (2012). Smart Ideas for Smart Cities: Investigating Crowdsourcing for Generating and Selecting Ideas for ICT Innovation in a City Context. Journal of theoretical and applied electronic commerce research, 7(3), pp.11-12.



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Student comments on Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day (Neither was Toronto)

  1. I didn’t know about this – thank you for highlighting this topic! I do think that open innovation is the key to success for future urban development. By enlisting the ideas of the many, Google (but more importantly local and state governments) will be able to test multiple different ideas at a low cost to the taxpayer. They will be able to bring in diverse perspectives and get buy in from the community earlier in the process, before all the red tape can cut back ideas. I think getting the people’s buy in early can also help limit the impact of special interest groups in changing the design, because the average person would already have seen and contributed to the design. I like your recommendations on how to streamline this process for Google and bring the average person into the discussion. I also just worry about how this can actually get rolled out on a broad enough scale to have a splash in the community. Does there need to be a designated media component which makes this more broad? How does that tie into the strategy?

  2. This is a great synthesis of the innovative work Sidewalk Labs is doing in Toronto. I also appreciate your recommendations, and agree that with the broad list of challenges any city needs to tackle–transportation, energy, housing mix, etc–it can be confusing and overwhelming for citizens to get involved, even though their involvement is paramount to the project’s success. This begs the point that “open innovation” needs to be coupled with some sort of top-down direction to help aggregate input in a helpful and specific way; for instance, Sidewalk Labs should perhaps crowdsource the top issues for a given city, put together different options to solve each challenge, and then go to citizens for more detailed input. I also wonder how Sidewalk’s current model of crowdsourcing can scale across cities. It seems to be quite personal (e.g. through town halls), but can this be shifted to a digital mode to help them gather more information more quickly? Will this degrade the inputs that they receive?

  3. Wow, this seems like an interesting – and tough – application of crowd-sourcing. It sounds like they are doing a great job of getting much more input than these types of projects typically get. You raise the great point that there are so many different ways to ‘get involved’, but that only makes it more difficult. I think a major challenge is that they need to decide on the type of input that they want from citizens. It seems like they want more than just typical consumer feedback and ideas. I think in order to add real value, they need the considered views of citizens who take into account the advantages and disadvantages of different options. This raises two further challenges. First, for citizens to provide this input, they would likely need to spend a significant amount of time understanding the issues around each decision – it is unlikely that many citizens would dedicate this time and the ones that do could represent a biased sample. Second, citizens may have in mind the solutions they think they want and these solutions may not necessarily align with the ones that they would find most effective once constructed. In a sense, this crowd-sourcing approach is opposed to a human-centered design approach because they may not be carefully designing to solve problems.

  4. This is a really great article. I think the concept of open innovation in urban planning makes a lot of sense in terms of identifying problems. It seems as though it may be a tricky tool for decision-making. As you identified it doesn’t seem as though a simple majority is the best mechanism for making calls with respect to very complex, interlinked systems. As I read this, I wondered also whether the system might be used to identify extant problems in urban design. It may be that there are small issues that planners are unaware of.

  5. This is a great and well-written article, thanks for sharing! As urban populations continue to grow, the population becomes better off, and the design of cities becomes more and more complex, I absolutely see the move to source ideas from a city’s citizenry as instrumental to building the cities of the future. I remember that New York incorporated a similar outreach program in its effort to rebuild the Brooklyn Bridge Park. By relying on the input of local artists and experts, the park is a much more exciting location than it could have been. I don’t know, but I would imagine that the park was significantly more expensive than conventional city-planning would suggest. Do you think that this model of open innovation can be translated for use in less economically advantaged areas of the world than New York and Toronto?

  6. Wow, the idea of open innovation really came to life for me through your description of collecting ideas for city planning from actual citizens. On the one hand, I think this is a great idea, as eliciting feedback from the bottom up can do two things:

    1) generate new solutions to problems that may not have otherwise been identified
    2) create a sense of city ownership and loyalty from individuals who have a say in its design

    However, I think there are potential problems in the efficiency of managing ideas and opinions from many people. From a resources perspective, it may not be practical to follow through on every idea submitted. And there is the risk that when differences of opinion form, those who end up on the losing side of a decision become disinterested and upset. If Sidewalk Labs is able to manage these risks while pursuing its open innovation concept, its strategy could result in better city design and more loyal and happy citizens.

  7. Very interesting article! I’m very much interested in urban planning, and certainly “smart city” has become a hot buzzword in recent years. To have a transparent bottom up approach to city planning is a great idea. However, beyond the idea generation, I still see a lot of issues when it comes to decision making, measurement, and accountability. Who is going to be responsible for the outcome of the implemented ideas when those are sourced from the public? Who is making the actual decisions when it comes to what to implement (is it a voting process or just seeking feedback from the mass)? How much effort is needed to educate the public on certain topics in order for them to have educated/informed suggestions? How are we going to measure the success of innovations sourced through an open mode vs closed mode (if we poll public opinion, the public may have a bias because the ideas come from them)?

  8. This is a great article! I would imagine that open innovation is most beneficial for types of city planning that are applicable to broad populations (e.g., transportation, parks, energy) and that other topics like businesses and housing mixes might lead to more divergent views given they provide more individual-specific benefits. I would imagine that these types of issues that are more community-wide are also more likely to get participation from the community. On topics that require more technical knowledge (like energy) there might be more biased decision making as well.

  9. Open innovation at Sidewalk Labs is a fascinating idea. However, to your question, the applications are limited. Certain aesthetic choices about a city are easy for crowds to determine. For example, decisions on whether a certain area needs a parking garage or bathrooms could be made by the crowd. However, evaluating more complicated city planning concerns like sewers, utilities, and civil engineering is likely better served without crowdsourced input given the level of complexity and sophistication of the problems.

  10. This is a great read! I see many parallels between Sidewalk Labs’s use of open innovation to design thinking, and see opportunity for Google to combine human centered design with open innovation in this context. Like we learned in the IDEO case, oftentimes (despite the research cited above), consumers do not know what they want when asked and instead the best insights come from observing pain points in their daily life. I would love to see Sidewalk Labs use some of the design thinking principles to iterate on ideas generated by their open innovation initiative and create a city even more efficient than currently imaginable.

  11. Very interesting piece. This is the first time I’ve heard about this concept. I think Sidewalk Labs’ intention here is fantastic — the company recognizes the benefits of digital innovation and is acting accordingly. Crowdsourcing can be extremely beneficial; however there are also limitations on its applications. The sustainability and future success of Sidewalk Labs relies receiving a wide-variety of high-quality input from the community. As such, in my mind, Sidewalk Labs must demonstrate the power of open innovation through its work in Toronto to gain over public opinion. Without an effective proof of concept, I’m skeptical that the company will be able to scale and get other cities on-board. That being said, citizens have increasingly been assuming a more active role within their communities. Given the democratization of data and rise of social media, consumers want their voice to be heard. As such, if implemented correctly, this idea might be able to continue to gain traction over the next 5-10 years.

  12. I think this is an amazing article! Having citizens provide some of the most crucial input as to how to progress their own city growth is a no brainer. Who better to decide how to improve their city than the people that live, transit, and live their lives in that location. My question is regarding the common benefit of the nation, if they would have come up with this technology 100 years before, would the West of the United States be developed today? What I want to drive with this question is that in many circumstances the government has a long term project that will yield incredible benefits in the future, but that at a short term might not seem appealing to the citizens of a city or country.

  13. Such an insightful read, thanks! Especially great to hear that there is research to support the idea that a democratic idea generation process can work. I’m tempted to agree with ABP about the limits of that democratic process though, it seems like a voting process to decide what ideas to implement could be diluted by the rent-seeking interests of a minority (i.e. wealthy people can campaign for their unique benefits that don’t harm the others enough for them to vote against it) or by the oppressive nature of the majority (i.e. removing ramps from places because they are costly and only benefit a minority – in this case, the physically disabled).

  14. Fantastic article – and thanks for highlighting this type of open-innovation in the context of Toronto (I love Canada!).
    Like you, I believe that Sidewalk Lab’s approach to creating smart cities is a great idea. It follows a similar model to “The Lean Startup”, which highlights how most successful startups adopt this mindset of speaking to customers constantly and iterating on the product immediately to solve problems for customers. However, at some point, there needs to be a visionary leader who uses judgement to pick out which of the “crowd-sourced” ideas is truly worthwhile in terms of impact – that decision cannot (and should not) be crowd-sourced.

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