Urban-technology company Sidewalk Labs, which abandoned a high-profile city-building project in Toronto a year and a half ago, is disbanding after its chief executive announced a probable diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Dan Doctoroff revealed Thursday morning in a blog post that he is likely to have the disease, which often has a genetic cause and is medically known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. His father died of the disease in 2002, and his uncle was diagnosed in 2008. “Ever since then, my family has been living with a spectre that was always vaguely present,” Mr. Doctoroff wrote.
A former New York deputy mayor, Olympic-bid planner and private-equity manager, he said he was stepping down from his role with Sidewalk to dedicate the remainder of his life to raising funds for ALS research.
Sidewalk said Thursday it is moving the majority of its products to its sister company Google. A source with direct knowledge of the situation confirmed Sidewalk was being disbanded. The Globe and Mail is not naming the source because they were not authorized to describe the situation.
Sidewalk went through several transformations during its six-plus years of existence. It initially hoped to hold a contest among cities to decide which could host a massive neighbourhood that would have been partially covered by a dome and beholden to less regulation than cities traditionally are. The company intended to use the neighbourhood to experiment with new kinds of urban planning and city living.
It then spent two and a half years under contract with Waterfront Toronto to plan a smaller, 12-acre community near the city’s downtown. Sidewalk generated many controversies as it consistently sought more land and power than that contract allowed. The project stirred debate across Canada about the future of privacy and data collection, influenced how those matters were written into government policy, and saw numerous high-profile Canadian urban-planning, technology, public-service and investment experts resign their jobs or be fired.
The Toronto project was cancelled in May, 2020, after the pandemic’s economic uncertainty, combined with a dictum from Waterfront Toronto to focus only on the allotted 12 acres, made the project financially unattractive to Sidewalk.
Developer Stephen Diamond became Waterfront Toronto’s chair in the midst of the Sidewalk partnership, and spent more than a year in close negotiations with Mr. Doctoroff – some of which were very tense, though they remained collegial.
In an e-mail, Mr. Diamond said he was saddened by Mr. Doctoroff’s health situation. “I know from my experience with Dan that he brings a singular energy to everything he does – not only his city visionary building work, but also now to his drive to conquer ALS. I have no doubt he will use his strong personality and courage to accelerate a cure and I wish him the very best in this next chapter.”
The company later turned its focus to developing individual products for cities. Many were honed during its time in Toronto. They included systems to manage parking-spot availability and to design neighbourhoods depending on preferred factors, such as building density or the amount of sunlight each building would get. Sidewalk had done this kind of incubation work in the past. Its most successful spin-out, a health care platform called CityBlock Health, is now worth more than US$1-billion.
Sidewalk laid off most of its Toronto staff soon after cancelling its project there. As the company became lower-profile, many of Mr. Doctoroff’s top deputies also either exited the organization or moved to less-committed advisory roles. Those included president Joshua Sirefman, policy head Micah Lasher, privacy and data-governance head Alyssa Harvey Dawson and urban-systems head Rohit Aggarwala.
Like Google, Sidewalk is a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc. In his blog post, Mr. Doctoroff said most of Sidewalk’s active product development would move under Google’s umbrella, with two of his top remaining deputies moving to Google to oversee them. A Sidewalk division that focused on the construction of tall buildings made of wood, a major focus of the Toronto project, will be spun out as a separate company.
The company is also in the midst of advising American cities, including Las Vegas and Miami, on urban development products. Sidewalk did not immediately disclose what would happen to that work.
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