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Sidewalk Labs launches research grants to study human behaviour

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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.

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.

Donovan Vincent is a housing reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @donovanvincent

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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