Ambitious projects of grand scope that create profound change are inherently challenging. But that is not a reason to shy away from innovative joint partnerships between public institutions and global companies.
So it’s heartening that the tripartite government agency Waterfront Toronto could come to an agreement with Google sister company Sidewalk Labs to continue efforts to turn 12 acres of under-used real estate on the downtown lakefront into a sustainable smart city called Quayside, envisioned with driverless cars, heated pavement to melt snow and sensors that would gather unprecedented data on how residents go about their lives.
Such disruptive ideas are bound to be controversial. But they also come with many benefits. And to compete globally, the city, province and country need to take part.
Collaborating with global partners helps ensure that we build our experience and influence as a world leader. Companies such as Google parent Alphabet Inc., Uber Technologies Inc., Microsoft Corp., Amazon.com Inc., Thomson Reuters Corp., LG Electronics Inc., Johnson & Johnson Inc., Bayer and GE Healthcare have all grown their presence in the GTA in recent years. Toronto is attractive, no doubt, because of its talent, research depth, investment climate and burgeoning tech sector – which includes homegrown startups Deep Genomics, WealthSimple Inc., Blue J Legal, Ritual and others. Their presence also helps attract capital and talent in engineering, transport, green tech and construction technology that benefit the city.
The Quayside project brings new approaches and ideas that challenge existing conventions. As with many innovations, the most challenging aspects are sometimes among the most beneficial to the public.
And among the most challenging was how to deal with the data. Sidewalk and Waterfront have now agreed to treat the data generated in the Quayside project as a public asset and in accordance with all current and future data standards set by all levels of government. This result is praiseworthy.
Having access to new streams of data will be an enormous benefit to researchers and academics, who can look for patterns and trends to make improvements in areas such as energy delivery, infrastructure, transportation, waste management, water and other services.
Think, for example, of the amazing value of the Ontario health data available at ICES (formerly the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences).
Created in 1992, ICES is a repository of patient-level Ontario government-health records going back to 1986. (I was a founding scientist in the initiative.) Although it is not a public-private partnership, the organization enables public and private researchers across the province to study the data to solve questions about the effectiveness of the health-care system and the social determinants of health.
Several important changes in the health-care system have resulted from this research, including the improvement of services for people with mental-health difficulties, access to primary-care practitioners and treatment for patients addicted to opioids. For those working at ICES, the privacy of citizens’ data is guaranteed and guided by Ontario’s Personal Health Information Protection Act and its regulations.
The grand scope and ambition of ICES also drew concerns when first envisioned. But these were resolved, and today, ICES data continue to deliver health-care improvements for Ontario and beyond. Likewise, efforts should be made to overcome the challenges of other global partnerships that can deliver innovations to allow us to have healthier, happier and more environmentally friendly communities. This seems to be a challenge worth embracing for the city, province and country.
Vivek Goel is vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives at the University Toronto and a professor in the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. He was a founding scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) and founding president and CEO of Public Health Ontario.