A big city needs to take big risks

A big city needs to take big risks

Mohamed Lachemi is the president of Ryerson University and is an unpaid member of the Sidewalk Labs Advisory Council

Imagine if the Raptors had kept DeMar DeRozan in 2018. Imagine if fans, sponsors and pundits all saw trading for an injured Kawhi Leonard as too risky, as having too much downside, as jeopardizing the future of the team. We’d never have clinched the NBA championship.

Now imagine the year 2039: traffic sensors change lanes based on traffic flow. Heated pavers melt ice on sidewalks to keep them accessible year-round. An underground waste system uses pneumatic tubes to keep trash off the streetscape. Imagine these features being the norm in cities across the globe but not in Toronto because we didn’t take a risk on Sidewalk Labs.

Sidewalk Labs is an experiment of unprecedented scale that requires difficult conversations and hard decisions about our city’s future. As with any innovation, it brings with it elements of disruption, risk and uncertainty. This debate comes at a time when the global competition for talent is fierce. Our city is a well-respected centre for artificial intelligence and innovation, but we cannot afford to stand still.

A partnership with Sidewalk Labs will help catapult Toronto into this burgeoning field, making the GTA the undisputed destination for top talent. Worldwide, urban innovation is exploding, projected to be worth more than $2 trillion (U.S.) within six years. An experiment like Sidewalk Labs will anchor and attract investors and entrepreneurs. It will create economic opportunities that will make Toronto the envy of cities across the world.

The digital world is our future. The time for the most difficult questions around the complex issues raised by Sidewalk Labs is in front of us and the world is watching. Sidewalk Labs is an opportunity to attract the world to our city to learn, collaborate and think about what the future of smart, sustainable cities of the future might be. Ryerson University has already been part of that conversation with our Centre for Urban Innovation, which focuses on finding alternative energy and infrastructure solutions that can be applied in Toronto and around the world.

In July 2018, Masai Ujiri had the opportunity to take a bold step, and it led to the Raptors’ first title. Sidewalk Labs has given us another opportunity to lead. We should not retreat. We should challenge conventions, seek solutions, and find ways to make Sidewalk Labs happen. If it doesn’t happen here, it will definitely happen elsewhere. That will be our loss.

This story originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.

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