No longer liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Bonus entry 10: Waterfront Toronto gets ready to make a choice

A couple of things stand out in Catherine McIntyre’s profile in The Logic of Waterfront Toronto Board chair Stephen Diamond. First, the headline, “The man who stood up to Sidewalk” is a bit premature. It’s certainly true and commendable that he has required Sidewalk Labs to address some of Waterfront Toronto’s concerns by October 31. However, beyond these public statements, the substantive negotiations are all happening behind the scenes. Given that the Plan Development Agreement make it difficult, if not impossible, to separate the two organizations, we’ll have to wait until October 31 to see what standing up to Sidewalk actually looks like.

So, mark the date.

However, for my money, the most important revelation in the article isn’t really about Diamond, but about Sidewalk Labs supporters. It’s best captured in the sentiments expressed by Ken Tanenbaum, Diamond’s partner at Diamond Kilmer Developments:

Tanenbaum, meanwhile, calls Sidewalk’s interest in the site “a moment.” He worries that if Waterfront, at Diamond’s direction, walks away from the deal now, the opportunity to develop Quayside and its neighbouring land—whether into a smart city or something else—will be missed. “Absent a moment, things could linger for a long time,” he says. “We could be looking out at those lands in a decade and it not being halfway close to where we might have been with Sidewalk.”

On the one hand, you have Diamond’s business partner in his land-development company expressing a strong opinion that Diamond push forward this development deal, highlighting the potential for developing neighbouring land. On the other, though, consider the substance of Tanenbaum’s argument, which is basically that if Waterfront Toronto doesn’t do this deal, then development of this area will be set back a long time.

Conspicuously absent from Tanenbaum’s rationale is whether or not Sidewalk Labs’ plan itself it actually a good, doable plan for Torontonians. (Disclosure: I have my doubts.) From this perspective, action is a justification in itself: Development for the sake of development.

This line of reasoning is depressingly prevalent among Sidewalk Labs supporters, whose main concern seems to be driven by world-class-city-envy: the fear that Sidewalk Labs might take its shiny monorail and decamp for Shelbyville, forever branding Toronto as a second-class city.

Here’s Richard Florida from last month’s Toronto Life series of Quayside opeds, in an article that otherwise consists of a character reference for Daniel L. Doctoroff and a credulous, nonsensical defence of Google/Sidewalk Labs’ privacy policies:

Think about how we’ll feel 10 years from now if Sidewalk is pushed out of Toronto and the world’s leading urban-tech innovation cluster has taken root in a city like Denver, Detroit or Pittsburgh. Is that a risk we really want to take?

For the record, the correct answer is, it depends: If Sidewalk Labs’ actual plans are terrible then turning them down isn’t even a risk; it’s simple self-defence. Florida’s argument here isn’t even an argument from authority; it’s an argument from insecurity.

Cutting your losses

The natural tendency in these situations, faced with sunk costs of time, money and institutional credibility, is to figure out a way to get the project over the finish line by any means necessary, including transformative changes that allow you to declare victory and move on. So, drastically scale back the MIDP, keep the partnership with Sidewalk Labs, and get on with life, even though actually addressing Waterfront Toronto’s concerns would require gutting the entire MIDP.

Trouble is, the fundamental flaw isn’t with the MIDP, as irresponsible and poorly thought out as it is. The problems with everything that’s happened over the past two years can be traced back to Waterfront Toronto’s original Request for Proposals. Waterfront Toronto asked a company to deliver something – a plan for a smart city – without understanding what a smart city actually is. This plan involved things that Waterfront Toronto wasn’t really set up to do, like data governance. It also managed to completely muck up the lines of accountability between government agency and vendor, making it all but impossible for Waterfront Toronto to act like an independent adjudicator of this project.

This is not a salvageable project. Arguing for it from the perspective of “we don’t want to miss a unique opportunity” is irresponsible given that this unique opportunity is a poisoned chalice.

The original RFP is and always was fatally flawed. Sidewalk Labs has not shown itself to be a trustworthy partner. Remember, for the longest time Sidewalk Labs, a Google company whose links to the world’s per-eminent data company were almost certainly the reason it booked this gig, refused to even discuss data governance, the centrepiece of any smart-city project.

Even worse for a bureaucratic perspective, these deep, irreconcilable issues mean that approving this project in any form will only continue the pain for Waterfront Toronto, in the form of civic protests (perhaps manageable) and blowback from other levels and agencies of government, upon whose turf Waterfront Toronto has found itself intruding (much more important). Friendly governments don’t last forever. Data governance is going to become increasingly important and political. Waterfront Toronto is not set up to deal with all of these problems, especially since Quayside is only one part of its actual responsibilities.

This is a terrible position for a government agency to be in, especially one that really shouldn’t be attracting this much political attention. And it will almost certainly continue so long as the Sidewalk Labs project is kept alive.

Moving forward

I have no idea which way Waterfront Toronto will jump on October 31. What I do know is that it would be wrong to see a Waterfront Toronto rejection of Sidewalk Labs as a failure, even in terms of developing the waterfront.

Here’s the thing: Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront will end up being developed, one way or the other. I also know that how it gets developed matters, and that this entire debacle actually leaves Waterfront Toronto in a much better position to fulfill its mandate.

While the last two years have been an education in how not to engage in smart-city development, they’ve also given us an incredibly important education about how to do it right. It’s taught us all about the importance of data governance in municipal infrastructure projects, and about the need to design these projects from the ground up, not from the internet up (i.e., to make tech responsive to people’s needs, not the other way around).

It’s highlighted the importance of getting actual community buy-in through actual consultations, rather than merely going through the motions. It’s even given the three levels of government a blueprint for revamping Waterfront Toronto to incorporate the capacity to address data and intellectual property governance.

These are not trivial lessons. The entire world is racing to come to terms with what it means to live in a data-driven economy and society. Everyone is trying to figure out what to do, and we’ve just had a crash course in the politics and economics of the 21st-century digital society. We need to take these lessons and run with them.

That, in the end, is the choice before the Waterfront Toronto board. It can learn from its mistakes and do better, for all Torontonians. Or it can let inertia and insecurity – development for the sake of development – carry the day.

The irony is that what looks like the easier path – just develop the damn land – would end up costing Waterfront Toronto and Toronto itself so much more in the long run.

Previous Master Innovation and Development Plan liveblog entries and relevant documents available here

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No Longer Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP, Entry 46: Waterfront Toronto’s Consultation Feedback Report

A consultation summary is meaningless without recommendations. Especially if it’s the product of poorly designed consultations.

Previous Master Innovation and Development Plan liveblog entries and relevant documents available here

A former Library of Parliament colleague once related to me the story of a university professor who, when discussing a federal parliamentary committee report, pointed to the fact that she had been quoted in the report (in the context of her appearing as a witness) as evidence that the government (or at least the committee) was endorsing her views.

As researchers tasked with writing such reports, however, my colleague and I realized she had misunderstood how these reports worked. To wit: A good report should provide an accurate record of what the committee heard. I would further argue that it’s good form to try to ensure that every person and group that takes the time to appear in front of a committee is quoted or mentioned at least once in the report.

However, if you’re interested in actual substance, in what the committee wants to happen, it’s the recommendations that matter. Ideally, these should be contextualized by the evidence heard by the committee, and including testimony both for an against a position allows the committee to legitimize its position. And of course, it’s important both that parliamentarians both listen and hear their constituents, and are seen to do so.

But in terms of policy, in terms of what a committee is actually endorsing, you’ve gotta focus on the recommendations.

All this is my way of explaining why I haven’t written up Waterfront Toronto’s report on the feedback that it received on its rushed and flawed three-week July consultations. Namely, absent anything of substance regarding what Waterfront Toronto is actually going to do, they don’t really tell us much.

In terms of substance, Waterfront Toronto made its move back in June when it published its Note to Reader, laying out its fundamental problems with the MIDP. It then followed it up with its renegotiated deadlines.

Nothing in this latest report does anything to change our understanding of the Sidewalk Labs-Waterfront Toronto dynamics. We’re still watching two organizations working behind the scenes to figure out what they’re going to do.

Flawed process, flawed data

And of course there’s the basic issue that this consultation summary, despite its use of precise percentages and quotes, is the result of a fatally flawed consultation process. As I’ve noted previously, people were given three weeks, in the depths of summer, to comment on a 1,500-page report that was designed not to be read. A report that Waterfront Toronto itself admitted it did not at the time yet fully understand. A report for which the expert Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, which issued its own report a couple of weeks after public consultations closed, could only provide a preliminary analysis due to the MIDP’s complexity and layout.

(For the record, I submitted a brief to this process, in the spirit of civic engagement. I got it in just under the deadline, even though I wouldn’t finish reading the whole document for a few more days. In fairness, at that point I was pretty sure of my opinions about it.)

A flawed, rushed process can’t help but yield flawed data. Given that Waterfront Toronto is keen to get into the data-collection game, one would’ve hoped that it would’ve grasped this kinda important point.

Not that it matters much in this case. Once we have something substantive in front of us, then we can talk.

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No Longer Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP, Entry 45: Federal leaders should face tough questions about Toronto’s smart-city project

My attempt, hosted at The Conversation, to summarize why the Quayside project is fundamentally flawed in terms of content and governance.

It also seems obvious to me that Quayside should be an election issue, especially since the federal government has the ability to end this nonsense, should it come under enough pressure from, say, voters. If I were an activist trying to stop this project, I would be doing my best to extract a promise from local Toronto candidates and the party leaders to:

  • veto the project via its Board appointees;
  • indicate that it will not approve the final result, given the project’s fundamental problems; and/or
  • commit to a detailed review of whatever Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto come up with after October 31.

Previous Master Innovation and Development Plan liveblog entries and relevant documents available here

Federal leaders should face tough questions about Toronto’s smart-city project

With the federal election campaign under way, it’s helpful to have a quick and easy way to evaluate our prospective leaders’ commitment to good governance and sound economic policy.

I suggest a simple question: “If elected, how would you handle the Toronto Quayside development?”

For those of you who haven’t been following the bizarre controversies surrounding what a Swedish colleague of mine has dubbed “an urban development thriller,” the Quayside drama started in October 2017.

That’s when Waterfront Toronto, the tri-governmental agency responsible for developing a portion of Toronto’s portlands, awarded a contract to a Google sister company, Sidewalk Labs, to create a smart-city development plan in a 12-acre plot of land called Quayside.

As one of those three governments, the federal government has a say in the future of this project. It appoints a third of the directors to Waterfront Toronto’s board of directors (numbering 12 in total). Waterfront Toronto has also committed to seeking approval for the project from the three levels of government. Whoever forms the next government will therefore have an important role to play in the future of this project.

While this issue affects Toronto residents directly, the parties’ approach to Quayside will prove instructive to all Canadians.

It will reveal their approach to managing a 21st century digital economy in which data governance, intellectual property and Internet of Things infrastructure are becoming increasingly important. It will also demonstrate whether they have a fundamental respect for good governance.

By both measures, the Quayside project has been a disaster from the very beginning.

Bad governance

For a young company (created in 2015) whose most impressive feature is its connection to the world’s leading data company, Sidewalk Labs has proved remarkably reluctant to discuss how they would govern data, the lifeblood of any smart city.

Waterfront Toronto, meanwhile, proved unprepared for this type of project, a conclusion backed up by a scathing Auditor General of Ontario report. In response to public pressure, Waterfront Toronto convened a part-time Digital Strategy Advisory Panel to advise it on these issues, a clear admission that it lacked the ability to handle them on its own. Early on, the panel was hit by two resignations. The auditor general reported that panel members criticized the panel for having “limited” effectiveness.

Then there’s the puzzling nature of the relationship between agency and vendor. The agreement governing their relationship gives Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto equal responsibility for developing the plan, even as Waterfront Toronto is acting as if it’s an independent evaluator of the project.

Will Fleissig, the Waterfront Toronto CEO who brought Sidewalk Labs to town, was pushed out by the Waterfront Toronto board in July 2018, according to The Logic, in part for “his oversight of a decision to allow Sidewalk Labs personnel to temporarily occupy office space in the Waterfront Toronto headquarters.”

Julie DiLorenzo, a Toronto developer and board member, resigned in July 2018 in protest of the many questionable actions by the two organizations, several of which are laid out in the aforementioned Auditor General report.

As disturbing as the governance practices surrounding Quayside have been, the substance of the actual proposal is even more problematic.

Problematic economic policy

In late June, Sidewalk Labs issued its four-volume, 1,500-page Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP), a Potemkin Village of a report with a physical heft that gives the illusion of thoroughness and competence while delivering neither.

The MIDP was not written to be read. It lacks an executive summary, a complete table of contents, an index and in-text hyperlinks. I’ve read travel guides that are more technologically sophisticated than what this Google company has produced.

Despite these challenges, I actually have read all 1,500 pages of this plan — I even liveblogged it.. What I found was very disappointing.

Those expecting a carefully presented, detailed development plan will instead find a document that reads for the most part as a sales pitch — that is, when it’s not playing fast and loose with its terms of reference.

Rather than focusing on the Quayside district, as required by Waterfront Toronto, Sidewalk Labs makes clear that it has designs on a much broader section of the waterfront: A 190-acre parcel that it terms the “IDEA District.”

To run what is a very tiny part of Toronto, it proposes five new public agencies without bothering to cost them out in terms of the specialized skills that would be needed to run them or their budgets. All we’re told is that user fees will pay for everything.

The promised economic benefits — which would emerge only in the very long term (20-plus years) — depend on a few key bets.

Getting Google to set up its Canadian branch headquarters to catalyze an already-existing Toronto tech sector is one of these bets. Meanwhile, a substantial amount of the plan’s promised economic and environmental benefits hinges on two unproven technologies, self-driving cars (by 2035) and mass-produced timber skyscrapers involving a Sidewalk Labs-created timber mill/factory.

All three proposals raise important policy questions requiring substantive debate; they should not be treated as pure technical matters. And the success of the latter two depend on regulatory, societal and technological changes, especially for self-driving cars, that are beyond the control of Sidewalk Labs.

On data policy, Sidewalk Labs invents a term, “urban data,” that, as York University academic Natasha Tusikov argues, provides cover for the widespread collection of personal data, including for commercial and advertising purposes.


Read more: Sidewalk Toronto’s master plan raises urgent concerns about data and privacy


Waterfront Toronto has raised several similar concerns with the Sidewalk Labs plan. In response to Waterfront Toronto’s stated concerns, the two organizations in July 2019 amended their agreement to allow Waterfront Toronto to sever its relationship with Sidewalk Labs if its concerns are not addressed by Oct. 31.

This type of public bargaining is odd given their existing close relationship.

The Oct. 31 deadline is mere days after the federal election. Candidates will certainly be tempted to decline to comment on Quayside because of the deadline. But even before the election, the Liberals suggested they’re taking a hands-off approach, and not independently reviewing Waterfront Toronto’s decision.

Planning our digital future

Given all the problems with Quayside, to say nothing of the interdependent relationship between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, it would be a mistake not to press candidates on the project.

It touches on crucial questions of data governance and who will write the rules of the 21st century economy that Canada is starting to grapple with. If approved, it will have an impact on economic policy-making throughout the country, and possibly the world.

Some have argued we should go along with Sidewalk Labs’ plans just because it’s a change from the status quo.

But Canada needs sound digital economic policy. Innovative urban policy is similarly urgently needed. Change for the sake of change is hardly a recipe for sound policy.

We need to get these rules right rather than sign onto a plan without fully considering its many flaws. If the federal government can’t get something like Quayside right, it doesn’t bode well for Canada’s digital future. Luckily, this election gives us a chance to see where the parties stand on these vital issues.

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No Longer Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP, Entry 44: The Digital Strategy Advisory Panel’s Preliminary Commentary and Questions on the MIDP

It really is that bad a plan. Also, it’s not a plan.

Previous Master Innovation and Development Plan liveblog entries and relevant documents available here

The Digital Strategy Advisory Panel’s Preliminary Commentary and Questions on Sidewalk Labs’ Draft Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP)  is a significant document. Given that Waterfront Toronto itself is directly tied to Sidewalk Labs and the MIDP through the Plan Development Agreement, protestations of Waterfront Toronto Chair Stephen Diamond notwithstanding, it is likely to be the only official and independent analysis of the MIDP that we’ll see before the new October 31 deadline for Sidewalk Labs to address some key Waterfront Toronto concerns.

And, well, judge for yourself what they thought of Sidewalk Labs’ efforts. The summary:

Panelists have raised questions or concerns about the MIDP in general (including the inaccessibility of the document and the lack of detail around many digital elements) and made specific comments around various digital innovation and digital governance-related proposals. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Overall: In many areas, the MIDP is not sufficiently specific about critical areas of its digital innovation proposals, and it does not provide a clear path for individuals, civic society, or small/startup businesses to participate from design, implementation, operations, and sustainability perspectives.

  • Digital Innovations: Further information is required to show how digital innovations – including infrastructure and launch services – will support Waterfront Toronto’s goals for Quayside. This should include a shift from “what” is proposed to “how” the proposal will accomplish the objective, and why the proposal is superior to alternatives.

  • Data Governance / Privacy: The development of overarching data governance mechanisms should be shifted to Waterfront Toronto and its government partners, while Sidewalk Labs should focus on elaborating on how it will make its own proposals for data collection, processing and use more transparent, accountable and amenable to a robust privacy protection regime.

  • Intellectual Property / Economic Development: While welcome, the current value sharing proposals are insufficient. As well, additional specific commitments should be made about enabling the growth of the local urban innovation industry. (pp. 2-3)

To which I can only add, precisely so.

In the 99-page document (two-page summary, 20-page main document, and a well-organized 73-page compendium of panelists’ comments on specific parts of the MIDP; it’s all worth reading), several themes arise continually, echoing my own reading of the report: a lack of detail in key areas, with basic issues left unconsidered; a lack of justification of several proposed technologies; a lack of consideration of the Canadian legal and policy landscape; and plenty of concern with the concept of “urban data” and the related and nebulous “Urban Data Trust.”

The DSAP’s analysis backs up my own reading of the report, that this is a seriously underbaked, poorly thought-out document. It is basically a poorly constructed reiteration of Sidewalk Labs’ original project vision. To call it a plan is to grant it a degree of thoroughness it does not possess. As I remind my students, quantity does not equal quality.

What’s more, the sense of frustration that one experiences when reading this report really comes across in the appendix’s unfiltered comments (164 in total, helpfully numbered – and with a hyperlinked table of contents! Be still my heart. It’s almost as if this report were meant to be read and understood).

Comment 8:

The MIDP gives the strong impression that it was developed with little direct involvement with the range of relevant Toronto community actors or with attention to inter-operability with existing (digital) infrastructures. …

Comment 13:

Frustrated by how over-sold this proposal on digital innovation is at times. …

Comment 14:

Volume 3 states that without the proposed Digital Network ‘standard broadband services available in Toronto’ would be the Business as Usual result. This is both incorrect and seriously misleading. …

Comment 15:

The lack of discussion of the evolution of mobile network technologies to support IOT is surprising. …

I could go on, but I have to prepare to teach in a few hours and you get the point. There are, however, two other things worth saying.

Preliminary commentary

First, the DSAP’s ability to review the MIDP was limited by both the pointless 1,500-page size of the report and the short timeline available to them. Beyond reviewing and commenting on a draft version of the Digital Innovation chapter (which doesn’t mean much given how relevant information is spread throughout the report’s 1,500 pages), they got their copy on June 24, same as the rest of us, and filed their analysis on August 18, less than two months later. While the DSAP report itself is commendable, the DSAP itself notes that the short timeline means that “the feedback in this Commentary is by necessity preliminary” (p. 6). This type of time pressure – driven by artificial deadlines – is not conducive to sound policymaking.

Whither Sidewalk Labs’ reputation?

Second, I’m not sure that Sidewalk Labs has fully grasped how badly it is screwing up, not just this job, but its future business prospects. It has been working on the Quayside project in one way or another for over two years. It obviously sees Quayside not only as a place to develop specific technologies and policies, but as its calling card for future projects. It has spent, or budgeted, $US 50 million to produce a plan for Quayside.

Two years and $US 50 million later, and this was the best it could do? A “plan” that independent analyses (mine and the DSAP’s) confirm doesn’t even include basic and obvious needed details? That suggests an almost wilful ignorance of local politics and laws? A community engagement process that has relied on paid consultants and a thinly disguised influencer campaign to build support? An inability to maintain a healthy relationship with its government partner?

Forget about Toronto and Quayside for the moment. If I’m the mayor of any city in the world, I’m looking at Sidewalk Labs – which, remember, isn’t the only company selling these types of products – and thinking, what is there in their Quayside proposal and actions that suggest that they can either deliver the goods or play well with others?

Sidewalk Labs’ fundamental problem is that, as I’ve said previously, the MIDP isn’t just a mess; it’s an obvious mess, as the DSAP report confirms. It’s right there in the writing. It is not a quality product. Its problems are fundamental, of the type that never should have seen the light of day. No matter what happens going forward, these facts are set in stone.

Knowing this, and seeing everything that’s happened, under what conditions would it make sense for any city to go into business with Sidewalk Labs?

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No longer liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Bonus entry 9: Can Sidewalk Labs find any independent experts to support it?

A couple of thoughts about Toronto Life’s big feature on Sidewalk Labs. First, it’s nice to see that the magazine doesn’t even bother with the fiction that Sidewalk Labs is anything more than the urban-policy arm of Google. Sidewalk Labs and Google are sister companies under the Alphabet label in the same way that the NBC and General Electric of 30 Rock were subsidiaries of the Sheinhardt Wig Company: in every policy way that matters, Sidewalk Labs is a Google concern, and Quayside a Google project.

But what was even more interesting was the distribution of opinions. If this package of bite-sized opeds is anything to go by, Sidewalk Labs is having a great deal of difficulty attracting independent expert supporters who don’t have either direct or personal connections to the company.

Of the 17 opeds (the first piece is a scene-setter), nine raise the pro-Sidewalk Labs flag:

  • Three paid consultants (Joe Berridge, Ken Greenberg and Alexander Josephson);
  • Three members of an odd entity called the Sidewalk Labs Advisory Council (Mohamed Lachemi, Robert Prichard and Kwame McKenzie – and no, the fact that you don’t get paid for this gig doesn’t eliminate the conflict of interest); and
  • Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel L. Doctoroff.

Only one article, by Toronto Region Board of Trade CEO and president Jan De Silva, is written by someone who is in any sense truly independent from Sidewalk Labs.

Another pro-Sidewalk Labs oped, by University of Toronto professor Richard Florida, whom previous reports have linked to the Council but whose Toronto Life byline does not include this affiliation, is more character reference for Daniel L. Doctoroff, who he’s “known … for the better part of two decades,” and the past records of “key members of the Sidewalk team,” than an actual assessment of the merits of Doctoroff’s actual plan. More on that below.

What’s more, the pro-Sidewalk Labs side is remarkably uncritical. Some of the critical opeds (those by Yung Wu and Bruce Kuwabara, who reminds us that the fact that wood rots may complicate Sidewalk Labs’ timber skyscraper plans – wish I’d caught that one) point out some things they like in the Master Innovation and Development Plan. However, none of the Sidewalk Seven plus Florida breathe a critical word about this multifaceted, multi-billion-dollar development. (Joe Berridge comes closest when he notes that “We don’t know yet what the real construction cost reductions are going to be, or what operational problems may arise,” but he concludes that this is a standard issue that every city faces.)

The illusion of consultation: The Sidewalk Labs Advisory Council

Regarding those connections to Sidewalk Labs, the paid-consultant conflict of interest is obvious. But what, some of you may be asking, is the Sidewalk Labs Advisory Council?

Great question, and one that is actually incredibly difficult to answer. Basically, as Amanda Roth of The Logic reports, it’s a Sidewalk Labs-only initiative, started in October 2018, of “leading thinkers’ from the business, non-profit and academic sectors” to advise “Sidewalk Labs directly on the Quayside development.”

Beyond that, it seems to have been designed to give the illusion of consultation, as opposed to actually serving as some type of independent body. Sidewalk Labs has not published a list of who is on this “Advisory Council” – The Logic says that Sidewalk Labs “declined to provide a full list of who attended” the first meeting. (See also this Globe and Mail report by Josh O’Kane.) It promised to hold three meetings, in October 2018, and January and April 2019, but only released notes (which themselves read like press releases) that I could find on the first two. I could find only three documents about this Advisory Council on Sidewalk Toronto’s website.

Also very odd: “Sidewalk Labs Advisory Council” yields only 30 hits on Google, only 19 of which were working, and none of which link to actual Sidewalk Labs documents (SL does show up once, in a link that takes you to an empty page). Most of the links are to opeds by self-declared Council members or to articles and tweets by Bianca Wylie trying to make sense of it all.

Those Sidewalk Labs’ Council documents? I found them by scrolling through Sidewalk Toronto’s pointlessly difficult-to-use documents page. Don’t believe me that its document depository is not designed to help people get into the details of this project? Check it out for yourself, but beware of the leopard.

To state the obvious, publicizing who’s giving you advice from a formal “Council” (to say nothing of reported minutes) is the absolutely bare minimum standard required for the most basic kind of transparency and accountability. That is, if you’re a company that’s interested in those type of things.

In contrast, Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, which is an actual independent advisory panel, publishes its members’ name, has a published mandate, runs meetings and publishes its meetings results. Waterfront Toronto does not deploy these panel members to defend Waterfront Toronto or comment on Sidewalk Labs.

Comparing Sidewalk Labs’ Council with Waterfront Toronto’s Panel, it’s hard to disagree with Bianca Wylie’s contention that Sidewalk Labs Advisory Council is little more than “‘an influencer strategy’ … a marketing strategy to borrow [one’s] name/reputation/credentials and lend them to this process and project.” A Potemkin Council, if you will.

Bringing a character reference to a policy debate

While there’s little that’s surprising in either the Sidewalk proponents or opponents’ comments (give or take a rotting timber skyscraper), Richard Florida’s stood out, and not just for the extent to which it was built around a character reference for Doctoroff and “key members of the Sidewalk team.” At this point, with the 1,500-page Master Innovation and Development Plan in hand, we don’t need a character reference. We need to know if these smart people have developed a good plan. So talk about the plan. Please.

On this point, it doesn’t help that Florida’s only engagement with the actual content of the report – beyond noting that urban tech is a potent future economic engine – consists of one of the weirdest defences of Sidewalk Labs I’ve yet come across:

Sidewalk has been plagued by privacy concerns, but these are issues that apply to any company that has access to our data—like mobile phone providers or Uber or the Gmail accounts we use every day. Unlike those companies, Sidewalk has pledged to help solve these problems by setting up mechanisms like a public data trust, an independent agency tasked with safeguarding the public good while fostering innovation (emphasis added).

I’m not sure what mental gymnastics one has to perform in order to claim that Sidewalk Lab, a Google company whose economic plan is largely built around bringing Google to Toronto, should be trusted because, unlike Google, a Google company that is attempting to get into the urban-governance business via Sidewalk Labs, it has a plan for dealing with data privacy. If anything, Sidewalk Labs’ intimate links to Google, a company whose profits depend on ubiquitous data-gathering, should make us wonder how credible Sidewalk Labs’ data-related promises actually are.

While that defence is … strange … it’s Florida’s claim that Sidewalk Labs should be trusted because it “has pledged to help solve these problems” that’s the real head-scratcher. Entering into an election season, we’re about to get a whole slew of reminders of how trivially easy it is to promise to do something. The devil, as always, is in the details. Florida seems to be content that at least Sidewalk Labs is proposing something that sounds good.

The details, which are right in front of us, are much less reassuring. Let’s start with the fact that Sidewalk Labs is proposing an “urban data trust,” not a “public data trust,” as Florida calls it. Subbing “public” for “urban” is a small but important detail, beyond the fact that “urban” is the correct term here. As Shoshana Zuboff notes in her contribution to this series, the Sidewalk Labs-invented term “urban data” does a lot of heavy lifting for the company, allowing for the collection of a lot of personal data in public spaces.

Dr. Natasha Tusikov and I (among others) have raised several concerns about the, um, problematic aspects of Sidewalk Labs’ data-collection/digital plans. If you don’t want to take our word that Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP digital/data plans are phenomenally underbaked, Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel is also not satisfied with the way that Sidewalk Labs has handled these issues (p. 16):

  • Overall, the  MIDP  is  not  sufficiently  specific  about  critical  areas  of  its digital innovation proposals in many areas.

  • Further information  is  required  to  show  how  digital innovations will support Waterfront Toronto’s goals for Quayside.

  • The development of overarching data governance mechanisms should be shifted to Waterfront Toronto and its government partners.

A reminder: Sidewalk Labs had two years and 1,500 pages to get these fundamental details right, or even to include them. They didn’t, or couldn’t. That reality, I’d think, is even more relevant to judging Sidewalk Labs than the pedigree of Doctoroff’s résumé.

Wanted: Independent analysis

It’s definitely fair game to note, as the Globe and Mail’s Oliver Moore has, that Toronto Life pretty much stacked the deck with people already linked and beholden to Sidewalk Labs, but, man. If the only people I could find to say good things about a project are people who have a financial interest in it, are already working with Sidewalk Labs, or are providing a character reference when there’s a report right in front of them, I’d wonder about the quality of the project.

And rightly so. As I’ve concluded from my 50-plus-post slog through the MIDP, this proposal is fatally flawed. It does not stand up to independent scrutiny. It’s not only a mess; it’s an obvious mess.

My bet is, if you surveyed independent subject experts who are not connected to either Sidewalk Labs or Google about this project, the vast majority would raise serious concerns with it.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for an independent view on Sidewalk Labs’ plan, or if you just want to read something that goes deeper into it than the necessarily superficial Toronto Life takes, you can always check out my numerous posts dissecting it, page by page. You don’t have to read all of them: any one of these posts will give you an idea of the quality and intention of this project.

Previous Master Innovation and Development Plan liveblog entries and relevant documents available here

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