Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 31: The MIDP Volume 2, The Innovations, Chapter 4: Sustainability

  • Phase 1: Design an advanced power grid
  • Phase 2: ???
  • Phase 3: Profit!

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

Chapter 4: Sustainability (pp. 297-373)

Introduction (pp. 298-303)

I really don’t know anything about these areas in and of themselves, so here are a few questions about governance and financing.

  • The big question in this section is, how close to deployable are these technologies? What factors are shaping their deployment (e.g., return on investment, existing technological limitations)?
  • On finance, given the huge positive externalities from public utilities, does it make sense to turn their provision over to a private entity?
  • Related, what options are being taken off the table due to the need for Sidewalk Labs to receive a return on its investment?
  • In terms of public financing, the Eastern Waterfront is only a small part of Toronto. What is the business case for deploying scarce public resources here and not elsewhere?
  • Sidewalk Labs practices technological solutionism (i.e., they see every problem through the lens of technological solutions, usually provided by for-profit companies. What solutions are they missing? What alternatives are not on the table?

Also, a reminder that results reported in this chapter assume not only full deployment everywhere in their “IDEA District,” but that al the technologies, from mass timber skyscraper production to self-driving cars, works perfectly and on time. Would Sidewalk Labs have the power to compel private entities to go along with their plans?

Part 1: Creating Low-Energy Buildings (pp. 304-313)

Goal 1: Deliver Passive House–inspired buildings (pp. 307-309)

Goal 2: Improve modelling through real-time metering (pp. 310-312)

Goal 3:  Use digital tools to tie energy outcomes to energy codes (p. 313)

Cometh the energy bureaucracy

Sidewalk Labs sells its energy-monitoring idea as a way to improve efficiency, and to tailor it to allow for differences in energy needs:

At the full scale of the IDEA District, with a large number of buildings, this tool could form the basis for a real-time energy code that adjusts dynamically for occupancy, tenant type, and weather to ensure fair and appropriate energy use regulation. (p. 313)

Like so much in this report, Sidewalk Labs is downplaying the huge amount of regulation and bureaucracy their supposedly “smart” solution would require. Allowing different energy targets for different uses would require regulations setting out different categories of housing, occupancy, individuals and occupations. It would then require decisions about what level of energy use constitutes “fair and appropriate.” Best of all, this is the type of thing that can make people/voters very, very angry.

If the goal of this project were to increase the regulatory burden, one would be hard-pressed to create a more-perfect system.

Part 2: Optimizing Building Energy Systems (pp. 314-323)

Goal 1: Create automated “Schedulers” for offices, homes, and building operators (pp. 316-323)

Part 3: Making Full Electrification Affordable (pp. 324-333)

Goal 1: Design an advanced power grid (pp. 326-329)

You have to admire the cojones a planning document where “Design an advanced power grid” gets two-and-a-half pages of text (four overall, one of which is a full-page pull quote), while the plan to design a programmable thermostat gets almost five pages of text and eight pages total.

The take-away: Creating a series of smart thermostats is exactly twice as difficult as designing an advanced power grid.

Goal 2: Implement an innovative “monthly budget” bill target (pp. 330-333)

I’m not sure how well “dynamic hourly rates” (read: Uber-style surge pricing) for electricity will go over with Quayside residence.

This type of “innovation” raises another point I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere, namely that it assumes that it can get away treating Quayside/Waterfront/whatever residents differently from other Torontonians.

And I don’t mean this in terms of the extra conveniences and cool factor touted by Sidewalk Labs. Let’s not forget that for all the talk of Quayside having timber buildings and “raincoats,” for most of the next decade, should this all come to pass, the whole area will be a construction zone. Moreover, you can bet that the first several iterations of these new technologies are going to be as glitchy as hell, particularly since Sidewalk Labs will do their best to rush these products to market. That’s just how Silicon Valley rolls.

Also, living in this new neighbourhood is going to be expensive. Sidewalk Labs’ biggest idea for how to fund all these new bureaucracies and infrastructure are user fees and new taxes.

The big question is, how will this extra tax burden (and it doesn’t matter whether you call them user fees or taxes, residents will be paying them) and living in a construction site, and beta-tested technologies affect demand for Quayside/whatever units?

Basic economic thinking would suggest that these factors would all depress demand for these units, as well as the prices they can command. This effect will be proportionate to the extent to which other Toronto housing units are seen as a substitute for Quayside/whatever units: The more that Torontonians treat Quayside like any other neighbourhood, the more pronounced this depressed demand/prices would be.

And while Sidewalk Labs is obviously counting on Quayside/etc. shininess and novelty to drive demand, there’s also the possibility/likelihood that these extra costs and inconveniences (especially in the short run), combined with its coveted light-rail link will lead Torontoinans to want to visit Quayside occasionally rather than live there. Rail links work both ways.

My point here is that these type of less-than-rosy scenarios that are still well within the realm of the possible are nowhere even hinted at in Sidewalk Labs’ Panglossian proposal. Neither is it in the urbanMetrics report, which merely ran the numbers that Sidewalk Labs gave it. I saw no discussion of substitution effects in urbanMetrics’ report. As far as I can tell, Sidewalk Labs provided it with “Development figures (i.e. total floor area estimates, detailed allocations by land use) and subsequent supporting assumptions (i.e. population, employment, construction costs, development timing and phasing etc.),” which they assume are accurate (Economic Impact Analysis, p. 43). Sidewalk Labs has not, as far as I can find or recall, in its nearly 1,500-page report, provided any reasoning regarding how it arrived at these figures.

Maybe the information is buried in an appendix?

Tinier-than-Toronto-average apartments (if the law is changed to allow them), a decade-long construction zone and a uniquely high tax burden could all depress demand for this project.

Quick note on urban innovation

Sidewalk Labs’ entire pitch is built around the idea that there isn’t enough “innovation” in urban infrastructure, but there’s a very good reason for that. Glitchy websites are an inconvenience; glitchy buildings or traffic signals can get people killed.

Plus, residents are stuck in their cities; it’s not hard to move when the entire system goes offline and you can’t even get into your house. I’m old enough to remember Vancouver’s “leaky condo” crisis. I recall the barely controlled fury of Vancouver residents appearing before the House Finance Committee to ask for some kind of relief. It was a fury born of the reality that, having sunk a significant portion of their life’s savings into a lemon of a primary residence, they were stuck in a kind of living nightmare.

Now imagine what Quayside residents’ reactions will be the first time the trash pipes break. And you can bet that even if Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto are directly responsible for the district, elected municipal, provincial and federal politicians will catch holy hell for whatever goes wrong.

Sidewalk Labs is pushing the best-case scenario, but it’s vital to remember that not all innovations work out. Being a guinea pig is great when you’re getting treats; it’s not so great when you’re the one being force fed the drug with the unexpected side effect. And when urban innovations don’t work out, they can turn one’s life into a living hell overnight. Sometimes conservatism and caution – the principles baked into our zoning bylaws – are good things.

Part 4: Using Clean Energy to Heat and Cool Buildings (p. 334-343)

Goal 1: Design a thermal grid to distribute clean energy (pp. 336-339)

Sure, why not?  #notmyfield

I would, however, like an independent assessment of their proposal as outlined in Appendix document “Thermal Energy Grid: Phase 2 report,” please.

The big question is, who can provide this assessment? Waterfront Toronto can’t; the Plan Development Agreement places them in a clear conflict of interest. (Yet another reason why this entire project is fundamentally flawed.) City of Toronto, it’s up to you.

Goal 2: Capture building “waste” heat, geothermal energy, wastewater heat, and other clean energy source (pp. 340-343)

Same demand as above. Also, these proposals assume that it can be expanded over the entire “IDEA District.” But what happens if not everyone (e.g., the privately owned Keating land) wants to play ball? After all, even Sidewalk Labs is proposing that it should be able to expropriate other people’s land.

Part 5: Reducing Waste and Improving Recycling (pp. 344-357)

I’ve dealt with this issue in a previous post, and it’s #notmyfield, so I’ll leave it to others, except for a few comments (see below).

Goal 1: Improve waste sorting through responsive digital signage (pp. 346-349)

Goal 2: Implement “pay-as-you-throw” smart waste chutes (pp. 350-351)

New tax alert: Again, another tax on a small subsection of Toronto residents that won’t be paid by apartment dwellers elsewhere in the city. Key issue: how will this tax affect demand for these properties.

Goal 3: Reduce contamination during removal with vacuum tubes (pp. 352-353)

Goal 4: Convert organic waste into clean energy (pp. 354-357)

Part 6: Managing Stormwater Naturally and Actively (pp. 358-365)

Another Waterfront district-level-only plan.

New bureaucracy alert: It would be up to the Open Space Alliance, which as Dr. Natasha Tusikov points out, has a ridiculously expansive mandate, to “operate and maintain the stormwater system.” (p. 359)

Goal 1: Design green infrastructure into a neighbourhood (p. 360-361)

Goal 2: Monitor stormwater levels and quality with digital tools (p. 362-365)

Public Engagement (pp. 366-371)

In which public engagement as it relates to sustainability is discussed, and I am reminded again that Sidewalk Labs provides no list of the events it has held or the public members of its various panels.

And that’s our show for today.

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Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 30: The MIDP Volume 2, The Innovations, Chapter 3: Buildings and Housing

In which I start off thinking I won’t have anything to say and end up writing a lot. Also, on the desirability, or lack thereof, of super-tiny, totally “livable” studio apartments. And! The economist in me has something to say about rent caps.

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

Chapter 3: Buildings and Housing (pp. 202-293)

Introduction (p. 204-207)

Part 1: Accelerating Construction Timelines (pp. 208-235)

…through the use of an unproven technology (“mass timber” for 30-storey buildings) and precut buildings. (p. 205). Which would make property more valuable, leading to higher taxes, which could be funnelled into affordable housing. (p. 205)

Sidewalk Labs identifies customized buildings and costly steel and concrete as the enemy (high costs for design). The solution: cookie-cutter buildings made out of wood. (p. 208)

Question: How would Sidewalk Labs be involved in the supply chain? (e.g., p. 209 comment)

Goal 1: Catalyze a new sustainable industry around mass timber (pp. 210-219)

Another reminder that this proposals projections are based on best-case scenarios: “Using wood for all 2.6 million square feet of building development in Quayside would be equivalent to removing over 20,000 cars from the road annually.” (p. 210, emphasis added)

Two pages on “Ensuring fire resistance with ‘Shikkui plaster’” (pp. 214-215).

I’m a bit unclear about the status of this technology. Is it ready to go? What still needs to be done to prepare it for mass distribution and use?


This may be a bit out of the blue, but this section reminded me of a friend from undergrad whose family was in construction. New homes, he said, were designed to last just over two “generations”: they’ll start to fall apart after they’ve been sold twice (e.g., about 40 or so years I think). How long are these buildings supposed to last? I didn’t see anything in here about that.

Goal 2: Launch a factory to produce a complete library of building parts (pp. 220-232)

Regulation change: Sidewalk Labs wants to speed up regulatory approvals by getting the various cookie-cutter building pieces pre-approved, rather than, I’m guessing, the regulator/city approving the final project. (p. 22)

Sidewalk Labs promises “unique designs” based on a selection of pre-set “parts.” (p. 220)

A driver of affordable housing (we pass the savings on to you!): “By injecting more certainty into the building process, Sidewalk Labs hopes to enable projects that meet both the city’s objectives for affordability and the waterfront’s standards for aesthetic excellence.” (p. 221).

Descriptions of the parts are on pages 222-223. Architects’ vision exercises on pages 224-225. This is beyond my expertise. Engineers and architects: Do these plans make sense?

Do these numbers make sense?

I’d feel a lot more comfortable about the solidity of Sidewalk Labs’ plans if this sentence were a lot less conditional:

Sidewalk Labs believes the structural assembly of a building could ultimately reach speeds of one floor a day, compared with a typical on-site construction timeline of one floor per week. (p. 227, emphasis added)

As far as I can tell, their big, oft-repeated claim that they can complete projects 35% faster than today’s standard is based on this guess – no citations provided in the report:

To complete a 12-storey building — which involves basic structural assembly as well as the installation of all finishes, the connection of all electromechanical equipment, and the execution of all tests — Sidewalk Labs estimates that its facto-ry-based process can reduce construction time from 20 months to 13 months, delivering projects 35 percent faster than today’s methods. (p. 227)

Goal 3: Coordinate the supply chain with a digital delivery system (pp. 233-235)

Proposed: A “Sidewalk Digital Fabrication system” to track the entire production process, from timber to building creation. (p. 234).

Sidewalk Labs would control the supply and value chain

Ah, here we go. In answer to my above question, Sidewalk Labs would “build the underlying infrastructure to support this advance system,” outsourcing some parts to other companies. (p. 234)

So: Ontario labour, Sidewalk Labs-run mill (?), Sidewalk Labs-controlled value chain?

And would the building parts be patented? Who would control the IP in them?

Part 2: Helping Neighbourhoods and Households Evolve (pp. 236-261)

The dream

Within a single neighbourhood people could find affordable space to pursue their professional dreams, whether a single co-working desk to plot out a startup or a short-term stall to sell a hand-crafted confection. Homes could meet the needs of growing families and single-person households alike. (p. 236)

I’m really trying not to be churlish when I ask this, but doesn’t this describe a lot of downtown Toronto already?

Smaller – sorry, cozy – apartments equals more (affordable) units

an efficient approach to unit design would enable developers to create more overall units while retaining liveability, unlocking new value that could help meet the ambitious goals of affordable and below-market housing programs. (p. 237)

Goal 1: Create an adaptable “Loft” space built for all uses (pp. 238-245)

New regulation alert: “Sidewalk Labs plans to implement minimum targets on its Loft spaces for commercial usage, so they always reflect some level of mixture across commercial and residential uses.”

In other words, Sidewalk Labs wants to set bylaws for commercial and non-commercial building usage.

Huge savings mentioned on page 242. Again, would these designs work? Are they allowed under current bylaws? If not, why not? #notmyfield [Spoilers: I don’t think their proposals are currently street legal.]

Goal 2: Accelerate renovations with a flexible interior wall system (pp. 246-250)

Again, #notmyfield, so I have no idea how well this type of system would work, although I keep coming back to the thought that Sidewalk Labs got this job because they’re a Google company, and they don’t have any expertise in these types of issues. Expertise welcome…

Goal 3: Enable a safe, vibrant mix of uses with real- time building codes (pp. 251-252)

Ah, the real-time building code, which is zoned for specific, measurable variables and not land uses (building uses, not prescribed land uses? (p. 251)). Urban governance experts: can zoning bylaws be reconstructed in this way? What would be lost in doing so (Sidewalk Labs has already told us what would be gained)?

Question: What would the surveillance impacts of this surveillance network be?

I’d also like to see the worst-case scenarios of mixing industry/commercial with residential. A mom-and-pop craft jeweller (p. 252) seems pretty innocuous, but I’m betting that creative readers can imagine worse-case scenarios.

Still, it’s weird that Sidewalk Labs’ innovative vision involves something that reminds me of the tenement housing in New York from over a century ago. Those buildings were also mixed-use. But, again, this is an area I don’t know much about. Enlightenment welcome!

And just in common-sense mode, I’m not sure I’d put “restaurants” and “single-dwelling units” in a “use-neutral” category. Not sure I’d want to live above, say, a 24-hour diner.

Goal 4: Design affordable and flexible housing units (pp. 253-261)

Let’s get small

“micro-units” (smaller units that rent for less while remaining livable through efficient design) and co-living programs (which feature shared building amenities, such as communal kitchens, to enhance community while keeping rents lower). (p. 253)

This proposal would irk me a lot less if they weren’t trying to sell us on housing built around always having roommates and shared kitchen as an opportunity “to enhance community.” This was obviously written by someone who has never lived with other people. More likely, they’re suppressing a traumatic memory of the skanky refrigerators that everyone who has ever had a roommate has had to deal with.

Also, my first solo apartment – Bathurst and Harbord, as it happens – was smaller than many hotel bathrooms. It was designed for efficiency. It also couldn’t accommodate more than three people at any time. It was “liveable,” and my landlord was fantastic (shoutout to Carlos! Best landlord in Toronto), but I wouldn’t go overboard selling it as a fantastic solution for modern living.

Tone that pitch down, Don Draper.

Also, (and please note that I’m writing this in real time) I’m assuming that the reason these types of apartments are innovative is because they’re currently not allowed under existing bylaws? Would any existing rules have to change (and why are these rules there in the first place)? Or am I just being cynical? Again, #notmyfield.

Finally, “free in-building storage”? (p. 255) I’ll be my remaining shred of sanity that this would be included in the condo fees or rental price.

More oversell

Sidewalk Labs’ approach to public realm design is also meant to improve comfort for residents in efficient units. An expanded set of parks, plazas, and public spaces — comfortable year-round thanks to weather-mitigation systems— means people could spend more time outdoors, in spaces they can decide how to use themselves. (p. 259)

Speaking from experience, these outdoor won’t make up for apartments described as “liveable.”

Burying the lede

Answers! It turns out that the reason Sidewalk Labs’ proposals for building apartments that qualify as “liveable” is they’re currently not allowed:

Sidewalk Labs proposes to seek relief from existing relevant guidelines and standards related to unit size to enable developers in the project area to create these new occupancy types within the IDEA District. (p. 259)

I’m pretty sure that my bathroom-sized apartment was legal in 1996 (my landlord was very conscientious). There’s a very good reason that smaller apartments aren’t currently legal: it would be like living in a pod.

Sorry, I meant “affordability by design” (p. 260). Or, as it’s also known, “currently illegal.”

So, there you go. Sidewalk Labs can only deliver the goods if it implements building designs that are not allowed under the law as it stands. Couldn’t it have tried to stay within existing building codes, just a teensy bit? I guess that’s what makes them #innovators.

Part 3: Expanding Tools for Housing Affordability (pp. 262-287)

Or, as they’re also known, “‘liveable’ pods based on not-currently-allowable designs”

Sidewalk Labs proposes to create new types of units designed with affordability in mind from the start. (p. 263)

Goal 1: Create an ambitious program to meet the housing affordability challenge (pp. 269-277)

I’m not sure this sounds as impressive as you think it sounds

Sidewalk Labs commits to achieving this program mix in Quayside using a combination of existing government funding sources and new innovations. (p. 269)

Read as: Spending public money already earmarked for affordable housing and proposing a housing project that’s not allowed under current rules.

Rental caps: An evidence-free proposal

New regulation:

In Quayside, to ensure these units remain affordable for middle-income families, Sidewalk Labs plans to implement a rent cap. For example, rents for a two-bedroom unit would range from $1,492 to $2,238, according to existing rental bands established by the city. (p. 272)

Hm. If I were feeling more energetic, over 1,000 pages into this report, I’d link to the research showing something that every MA economics student is taught, which is that rent-controlled apartments (which is what this is) tend to paradoxically reduce the availability of affordable housing. At the very least, Sidewalk Labs needed to engage with this analysis. But that would’ve required the preparation of an actual report, and not a sales brochure.

Oh, fine. Here’s a Brookings report (centrist US think tank) that raises several issues with rent control. And here’s one from the Urban Institute (US) synthesizing research on rent control. tl;dr: Both suggest positive benefits for those in the rent-controlled apartments, and mixed results (often negative) for the community as a whole.

Here’s how I found them: I Googled them. Took me three seconds: Two to sigh and roll my eyes in frustration for having to put in more work to evaluating something that reads like it was assembled by a public-relations committee than the person who wrote it, and one to do the typing (I’m a fast typer).

Try it yourself: “effect of rent controls on affordable housing.” Skip the Google-featured result, which seems to be from a front for the US apartment building industry. There’s loads of stuff here.

To be clear, it’s fine to include this idea in a development plan, but you have to give it some context to show why it’s a good idea, especially since any economist would immediately be skeptical of it. As it stands, there’s nothing here to suggest why this idea would work, which makes it look like a promise that is easily made and poorly researched.

Goal 2: Achieve this program with innovation that yields greater affordability (pp. 278-287)

Where would the savings come from?

  1. Affordability by design (i.e., currently illegal designs for “liveable” apartments)
  2. “factory-based” timber construction
  3. New tax alert: condo resale fees. (p. 278)

And most of the funding comes from “factory-driven land value” (p. 279) – i.e., this bet on mass-produced timber buildings better work out.

Quayside would pony up $77 million to catalyze funding sources.

New bureaucracy alert: “a proposed housing trust,” one of whose jobs would be to “package some of these new funding sources to meet affordability objectives” (p. 280). So it would need some finance experience, in addition to (presumably) being a landlord.

You can’t keep a good number down

That 35% claim shows up again (p. 282). It would be interesting to search the report to see how many times each such claim is repeated.

Condo resale fee

Question: Quayside/Waterfront cannot be viewed in isolation from the rest of the Toronto condo market. How would an extra resale fee affect the entire market, including demand for Quayside condos? If I had to bet, I’d guess that it would depress the overall price of Quayside condos by about 1%. But of course there’s no such analysis mentioned here that I could see. Such an analysis would attempt an estimate at the total extra fees a Quayside resident would have to pay compared with other Torontonians.

Waterfront Housing Trust (p. 285)

Ah, here we go. The Waterfront Housing Trust would administer a “housing trust fund: a new financial vehicle to assemble and disburse funding for below-market housing across the Sidewalk Toronto project area.”

It “could assemble funding from a variety of public and private sources and “lock-box” this funding for below-market housing within the IDEA District … .” As well as “alternative funding sources.”

It would “provide capital grants and other financial support for developers, both private and not-for-profit, seeking to meet significant affordability commitments.”

Again, as I’ve said so many times by now, the word “could” is a hint that this is an idea, not a plan. It should be analyzed as such. This is not a substantive proposal.

Public Engagement (pp. 288-293)

In which public engagement is summarized on building and housing issues. And in which I’m reminded again that we don’t know the names of the people on Sidewalk Labs’ various panels, or have a complete list of all the meetings (public and private) they’ve held.

Bonus: I read the endnotes

Another reminder that this project assumes total success. And then some:

Unless otherwise noted, all calculations that refer to the full proposed IDEA District scale are inclusive of the entirety of its proposed geography, including all currently privately held parcels (such as Keating West). (p. 294)

That would be the Keating West that is otherwise excluded from Sidewalk Labs’ plans (it’s in private hands).

Phrased differently: While the report notes in other places that outside of Villiers West and Quayside, private owners would be invited to participate in these plans, the figures in this Chapter assume that everyone gets on board.

My recommendation: Pick a number and discount all of Sidewalk Labs’ predictions by that amount. There’s no way that it will hit these targets. Nothing every goes exactly according to plan. Readers would do well not to take this plan’s claims at face value.

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Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 29: The MIDP Volume 2, The Innovations, Chapter 2: Public Realm

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

The next few posts are going to be a bit threadbare, because what more needs to be said? At least for now.

Chapter 2: Public Realm (pp. 118-149)

Introduction (pp. 120-125)

Part 1: Creating More Open Space (pp. 126-149)

Goal 1: Reclaim space for the people (pp. 128-139)

Street design favouring pedestrians. Modular pavement.

Goal 2: Make the most of new parks, plazas, and open spaces (pp. 140-149

Part 2: Making Open Space More Usable More of the Time (p. 150-177)

Goal 1: Reinvent the role of the ground floor (pp. 151-166)

Flexible leasing tools (read: apps and financing), adaptable building structures (p. 150)

Goal 2: Design an outdoor comfort system for all seasons (pp. 167-177)

Based on “real-time climate data and a set of deployable weather-mitgatin fixtures – such as retractable awnings and inflatable shelters.” (p. 150)

Talk about “developing a system that proactively predicts and plans for outdoor comfort” (p. 169). At the full-scale prototype phase. (p. 170)

Part 3: Ensuring Open Space Is More Responsive (pp. 178—191)

New bureaucracy alert:

The proposed OSA would administer shared physical infrastructure. … The proposed entity could also help urban innovators, ranging from civic technologists to startups, run pilots in open space. (p. 178)

Goal 1: Establish an entity to coordinate programming, operations, and maintenance (pp. 179-181)

The Open Space Alliance: Coordinate programming, operations, and maintenance. (p. 179)

Issue: Toronto faces chronic funding shortages.

The OSA would be responsible for a lot of space that was previously vehicular rights-of-way, which would be operated more like parks but “still owned by the city and managed by its transportation department, but it would now be operated more like parks.”

These spaces would need to be effectively integrated with the local park network and would benefit from comparable levels of management and funding.

Question: how much funding would it need?

It would be a public-private partnership “jointly governed and financed by both sectors.”

All city-owned open spaces would remain owned by the government, which would participate in programming, operations, and maintenance with the OSA.


  • What would be the anticipated government/taxpayer contribution?
  • How much more would Torontonians have to pay for this bureaucracy?
  • How much would private sector be expected to pay?
  • How do you guarantee sufficient resources?

This is an odd principle

The public realm needs to reflect a truly public space — with the city retaining ownership of city-owned open spaces — while also protecting the needs and rights of private property owners on their land. (p. 181)

Why is this statement, emphasizing the sanctity of private property owners here? It seems to be responding to an unstated specific concern.

And who decides what counts as an improvement of an open space?

This would seem to be much more controversial than it’s portrayed as being:

Generally, the OSA should be set up to facilitate the ideas of others who want to activate and improve open space, rather than act as a top-down planning body. (p. 181)

Goal 2: Provide physical infrastructure that enables community programming

What billions of dollars and giving up governance control over a significant part of the waterfront gets you

There are a lot of coulds in this pitch for something that kind of underwhelms:

A teenager could join a virtual queue to play a life-size chess game projected onto the side of a building. The next day, the projected game could be Chinese checkers, and an elderly resident might sign up. Crowds could gather to watch the game in action. (p. 182)

Crowds could, but how likely would this be?

Everyday surveillance: What could go wrong?

With [the app] CommonSpace, park operators or community organizers can enter information they observe about public life into a user-friendly app, such as what assets or areas people prefer or what spaces they avoid. (p. 185)

Fun fact: The word “surveillance” appears twice in the entire main text of the MIDP (p. 1196 and p. 1220 of the consolidated MIDP). It also shows up once in the footnotes, in the title of a report. The cynic inside of me thinks that this was two times more than was intended.

Goal 3: Provide digital infrastructure that enables proactive maintenance (pp. 186-189)

Of utilities and infrastructure.

Goal 4: Connect urban innovators and public spaces (pp. 190-191)

Why is Sidewalk Labs talking about its proposed Open Space Alliance as if it already exists?

The OSA’s new policy and funding framework, which encourages experimentation, coupled with the shared physical and digital infrastructure described on Page 184, enables urban innovators, from civic technologists to businesses, to prototype their ideas in a real-world environment. (p. 190)

For the record, the OSA proposal suffers from almost all of the problems of the proposed WTMA, absent the trigovernmental steering group. No costing, no sense of number of employees. It’s a notion, not a plan. If this is the best Sidewalk Labs can do after 18 months, they can’t be trusted to manage a project like this.

Public Engagement (pp. 192-199)

Feedback on public-realm aspects of Sidewalk Labs’ proposals.

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Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 28: The MIDP Volume 2, The Innovations, Chapter 1: Mobility, Parts 5-6

In which the MIDP finally pushes me over the edge and I unexpectedly reach the point where I’d read enough to render a verdict on the entire report.

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

I really didn’t think it would be the mobility section that finally sent me over the edge.

Part 5: Improving Mobility Management (pp. 84-91)

Goal 1: Establish a new entity to coordinate the entire mobility system (pp. 86-88)

New bureaucracy alert: The Waterfront Transportation Management Association (WTMA) would be responsible for coordinating “the transportation system in the IDEA district by deploying a mobility management system.” (pp. 84-85) It would not have much of an effect at the Quayside level. (p. 85)

Its roles:

  • Creating a mobility subscription package
  • Deploying a holistic mobility management system
  • Managing and setting prices for the curbside and parking systems
  • Procuring and operating new technologies, such as adaptive traffic signals, dynamic pavement, freight and deliveries, or other third-party systems and apps
  • Integrating systems with third-party navigation apps
  • Allocating space across the needs of mobility, access, safety, and the public realm
  • Reporting on performance targets related to congestion, mode share, and customer service (p. 86)


  • Financing: should be self-sustaining.
  • Suggested financing sources: many, many types of fees for using mobility services in the District, and “charges for mobility services to residents and employees.”

This listing of responsibilities and some vague thoughts on financing, again, is not a plan; it’s an idea, a notion. These proposed funding suggestions are just kind of thrown out there, the report version of spitballing. Whether they would end up being sufficient is left unexamined, in what seems to be a particularly half-baked proposal (How many people would be required to run this entity? Are they unionized? How much would this all cost? How much money would be required for it to be “self-sustaining”?).

Also, why is the Eastern Waterfront a sufficient scale for this administrative agency, which is being asked to do a whole lot of specialized work? That the Eastern Waterfront just happens to be the right scale for a WTMA seems awfully convenient, especially since Sidewalk Labs would effectively be creating a new agency for what is – let’s not forget – a pretty small piece of land in the context of Toronto itself.

Moving on (ha), what would this vague notion of an agency do?

Develop specific guidelines (p. 87);

  • “Oversee planning, operations and maintenance” of all roads, hardware and software for parking, curb and traffic management
  • Set and enforce parking, curbside and road usage fees
  • Set speed limits
  • Manage street closures for construction or events
  • Handle data properly
  • Create that trip-planning interface/app Sidewalk Labs is all keen for
  • Snow and debris clearing “beyond heated pavement”
  • Constructing and financing roads or parking facilities.
  • Run the “advanced mobility management system”

Those are a hell of a lot of responsibilities. It will involve workers that had to do both physical labour and maintain complex IT systems, systems that are much, much more complex than anything Toronto has today, in part because everything is interconnected.

And yet Sidewalk Labs throws all this out there without any attempt to cost it out, or to explain exactly who (in terms of actual people) is going to do this work.

If you look closely, you can actually pinpoint the exact moment where my brain breaks

I’ve been trying to keep my writing breezy and loose, in part to keep my interest up in what has become a very long slog, but I’ve also been trying to keep my objectivity about what Sidewalk Labs is proposing. When I began reading the MIDP, I had a lot of reasons to doubt the quality of this project, many of which I’ve detailed over several posts, but I really did try to keep in mind that I could be wrong. Change isn’t necessarily bad.

But this section finally broke me. To cavalierly propose what would almost certainly end up being a multi-million-dollar agency to govern a couple hundred acres, without even trying to cost out the proposal, or to think through how it would be staffed… it’s a joke.

Sidewalk Labs was supposed to present a plan. A plan implies an idea about what you will do, and how you will do it. It implies details. And we get … this?

The WTMA is not a serious proposal. It is a repository for all the things that need to happen for their Rube Goldberg-esque plan to work.

The MIDP is not a serious document. It’s a sales job put out by company that will say anything to get this project across the finish line. It scatters information about its various components throughout the document. Sidewalk Labs sees the WTMA as a subsidiary part of an overarching administrative body, which may or may not be Waterfront Toronto, but whose capacities in any case do not currently exist.

And we get this information stated clearly only in Volume 3 (page 70), 1,320 pages into the MIDP and 456 pages beyond this section, which should have been the comprehensive discussion of this organization.

And that list above, of what the WTMA would do? Notice how it includes “Manage street closures for construction or events”? Well, here’s what Sidewalk Labs writes on page 11 of “Mobility Technical Appendix F: Mobility Management” – that’s right, Sidewalk Labs, someone is reading your appendices, even though they’re not included with the main report:

The WTMA is not envisioned to do the following things … Manage street closures —to be done by Transportation Services… . (emphasis added because, just, wow)

So, like, whatever. Part of me – the professional part that’s offended by the half-assedness of a report that could win the company that produced it company billions of dollars and some of the most valuable undeveloped real estate in North America – cannot believe how incompetent Sidewalk Labs is at what should be its specialties: keeping their story straight and putting their best foot forward.

The researcher part of me, however, is not surprised. This type of clumsiness and lack of attention to detail has characterized Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto adventure from the very beginning, from the early insistence that a YMCA day camp counts as consultation to the fast-and-loose way they’ve played with data governance.

Welcome to gridlock, population Sidewalk Labs

Oh! And just to show that Sidewalk Labs is truly not serious about this proposal, the WTMA – not the overarching authority, but the agency responsible for plowing the roads, maintaining the software, closing off roads for block parties and collecting fees “would include a steering committee with representatives from all three orders of government” (Volume 3, p. 70).

WHY???? Why saddle such an entity with this type of governance? As the Auditor General’s report makes clear, it’s this tripartite decision-making capability that has hampered Waterfront Toronto’s mission to develop the waterfront. And Sidewalk Labs wants to duplicate this dysfunction AT THE OPERATIONAL LEVEL?

It makes no sense whatsoever. If you’re going to continue to have tripartite responsibility for this area, you keep it at the policy level, with line agencies disposing of the policy-level’s proposals. Stupid dumb.

What makes this proposal even worse, is this silly nod toward a tripartite steering committee represents the extent of Sidewalk Labs’ discussion of this multi-million-dollar entity. That’s it.

It’s irresponsible. It’s ridiculous.

This idiotic WTMA proposal has all the hallmarks of a proposal made by an organization that is making this stuff up as they go along, that is willing to say anything to get their project across the finish line, hoping that nobody reads their convoluted, overlong and repetitive, index-free proposal too closely.

Rendering a verdict

This WTMA proposal exposes the MIDP for what it is: a cynical scheme that disrespects the many Torontonians who take the development of their waterfront seriously and only want the best for their city.

Very Serious Torontonians can pretend that this proposal is anything other than a poorly conceived land and power grab by Sidewalk Labs and Google, but the rest of us are under no obligation to take this charade seriously.

This project may very well come to pass, via a process that has been marred by irregularities from the very beginning. But that won’t change the fact that this is a poorly thought out proposal not worthy of serious consideration. If implemented, Toronto will rue the day Will Fleissig and Waterfront Toronto invited Google to town.

I’m out. At this point, 871 pages into this repetitive monstrosity, there’s very little left to learn. I’m going to continue to analyze the MIDP, and I may do another post on Waterfront Toronto’s Note to Reader, and a final summary post, but I’ve read more than enough to come to a conclusion about whether the MIDP is a sound proposal.

It’s not.

I began writing this series in order to understand Sidewalk Labs Master Innovation and Development Plan, and now I do: There is no plan; there is only a sales pitch.

The Emperor has no clothes. There is no need to pretend otherwise.

Goal 2: Deploy a real- time mobility management system (pp. 89-91)

Part 6: Designing People-First Streets (pp. 92-107)

Goal 1: Create four new types of streets to move people and make places (pp. 96-107)

Public Engagement (pp. 108-115)

Discusses feedback from the public. As with the other mentions of public engagement in this Volume, we can’t see whether the selected views are representative. At least one Reference Panel member suggests that this feedback is not representative and the product of a tightly managed process.

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Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 27: The MIDP Volume 2, The Innovations: Introduction; Chapter 1: Mobility, Parts 1-4

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

At first glance, two volumes and 795 pages into a very repetitive four-volume, 1,496-page report, it doesn’t look like Volume 3 contains much that I haven’t already read. This volume discusses how Sidewalk Labs innovations will be deployed in its desired parts of the Eastern Waterfront. It is therefore different from the previous volume, which discussed how its desired parts of the Eastern Waterfront would deploy Sidewalk Labs’ innovations.

If anything, though, this Volume is a concentrated dose of what Sidewalk Labs is selling, which is a dream, not a plan. This is a Volume in which the word “could” appears no less than 687 times in 470 pages (recalling that not all of these pages have words on them). That works out to more than one “could” (and more than one implied “could not”) per page. (Fun fact: the phrase “could not” appears once, on page 450.)

Could: it’s what you say when saying “will” represents too much of a commitment.

Even more than the previous two documents, Volume 2 is an aspirational document, a Project Vision, if you will, selling things that don’t yet exist, but might! Or might not! But also might.

Moving on, much of what’s in here lies outside my competencies. I’d bet pretty good money that they’re placing too much emphasis on self-driving cars becoming a thing in their 22-year time horizon, but as to the quality of their ideas about bike lanes? I like cycling, but that’s as much of an expert as I am.

What this means is I’m probably going to speed through this Volume. [Future Blayne: That… did not happen.] I’ll note which sections are located where and highlight anything that stands out to me, but I’m going to try not to re-litigate points I’ve already made or to repeat myself. No need to pull a Sidewalk Labs.

(I’m also going to dispense with the notation of “Not listed in Table of Contents” for subsections that should have been flagged by Sidewalk Labs in this way (so readers could easily see what’s in a 1,496-page report). From here on in, you can assume that everything not labelled “Chapter” or “Part” wasn’t listed in the Table of Contents.)

Introduction (pp. 16-21)

Pages 16 and 17 repeat pages 57 and 58 from the Overview. Page 18 before the volume overview is lifted from passages from pages 59-64.

Chapter 1: Mobility (pp. 22-117)

Introduction (pp. 24-31)

New bureaucracy alert (see Dr. Natasha Tusikov’s guest post for a discussion of the proposed Waterfront Transportation Management Association, and much else besides)

to coordinate the entire mobility system, Sidewalk Labs proposes a new public entity that uses real-time traffic management tools, pricing policies, and an integrated mobility package to encourage transit, walking, cycling, and shared trips. (p. 26)

Rule 1: the longer the timeline of your predictions, the more worthless they are.

Rule 2: Independent analyses are a good idea. The analyses in this section are paid for by Sidewalk Labs. I’d like to see the City of Toronto run its own numbers on this project.

22 years into the future:

The 2041 figure assumes a fully deployed mobility system, including self-driving fleets, traffic management, and the light rail extension. As a result, Sidewalk Labs would expect very few households in the IDEA District to feel the need to own a car. (p. 30)

Questions to keep in mind

  • How confident are you that self-driving car fleets will end up working, or will end up working in the way we anticipate them today?
  • What does each of these elements (transit, self-driving cars, escooters) contribute to these projections?
  • From Table 9 (p. 29) of Mobility Appendix G, “Modelling and Traffic Analysis” (inaccurately referred to on page 31 of Volume 3 as “Modelling and Transportation Analysis,” making it difficult to locate on the Sidewalk Labs’ site, where appendices are not labelled as such in their main feed and which are not included with the main report), it looks like most people would be taking public transit.

How sensitive is the model to changes in variables (e.g., transit or parking costs, roadway speeds)?

Part 1: Expanding Public Transit (pp. 32-41)

Goal 1: Design a neighbourhood with transit first (pp. 35-39)

Goal 2: Encourage expansion through “self-financing” (pp. 40-41)

More on the proposed Waterfront Transportation Management Association

A non- profit or new government entity could be created to oversee the implementation of this self-financing proposal; its role would be to manage the funds raised, which would be required by law to be used exclusively for the light rail expansion. (p. 41)

Part 2: Enabling Walking and Cycling Year-Round (pp. 42-53)

Goal 1: Plan for a “15-minute neighbourhood” (pp. 44-45)

i.e., a “mixed-development” neighbourhood (p. 44), served by good transportation options and social infrastructure (p. 45)

Goal 2: Expand safe, comfortable walking and cycling networks (pp. 46-48)

Goal 3: Provide signal priority for walking and cycling (p. 49)

They want to adapt tech pioneered in Copenhagen to do this.

Question: Europe has a much more developed cycling culture. To what extent would Toronto’s particular cycling culture affect the effectiveness of this technology?

Goal 4: Encourage bike- share, e-bike, and other low-speed vehicle options (pp. 50-51)

Via lots of bike parking, bike-share docks, and e-scooter and e-bikes.

New regulation: Sidewalk Labs would “require all buildings to create a minimum of one bike space per every two building residents and one bike space for every four employees.”

Goal 5: Facilitate all- weather walking and cycling with heated pavement (pp. 52-53)

heated pavement in some sidewalks and bike lanes to make walking and cycling more attractive all year. (p. 52)

To conserve energy, heated pavement would connect to real-time weather forecasts programmed to automatically “power on” three or four hours in advance of a storm. (p. 52)

In Quayside, Sidewalk Labs plans to deploy 1,200 square metres of heated sidewalk and pedestrian zones and 1,590 square metres of heated bike paths. (p. 52)

Part 3: Harnessing New Mobility and Self-Driving Technology (pp. 54-

The first six pages are all about self-driving technology. It’s pretty obvious that Google wants to use Toronto and Sidewalk Labs to make it a reality.

And it’s not just about the technology. Sidewalk Labs/Google is looking to change laws and policies to enable this technology. As this report correctly notes:

Much of this outcome depends not on the technology itself, but on policy for how it is used. (p. 55)

Sidewalk Labs frames their proposal in terms of “people-first street designs” (p. 55), but these are “people-first” in the sense of designing roads and rules to accommodate self-driving cars so they won’t kill people. This project could equally be labelled “self-driving cars first.”

Sidewalk Labs supports research and stakeholder engagement initiatives that aim to improve the collective understanding of the effects of self-driving vehicles on urban transportation systems and to catalyze the consensus-building process to explore potential regulatory models. (p. 55)

Probably not on the table: just banning cars from roads and switching to better public transit. And notice that there’s nothing in this report about researching innovative public transit.

How the self-driving car bet drives MIDP projected outcomes

With the arrival of self-driving technology, Sidewalk Labs’ new mobility plan would lead to roughly 7 percent of all trips occurring by ride-hail options if applied at the full scale of the IDEA District and coordinated with the city… . (p. 55)

And all this for a technology that won’t be mainstream until 2035, at the earliest. (p. 58)

See Rule 1 above.

Goal 1: Encourage shared use of ride-hail services (pp. 60-62)

Its effects seem to depend a lot on the mainstreaming of self-driving technology. We’ll see… in 2035, I guess.

New fees (1): Dynamic curb pricing

dynamic curb pricing would apply to all vehicle services and vary based on congestion in pick-up or drop-off spaces. These charges would include a low one-time charge to access the curb space and higher time-based charges for vehicles that wait longer than five minutes at the curb.

The goal is to encourage people to consider alternative trip options or to share a ride and split the cost, as well as for vehicles to use the curb quickly and move on. Passengers who prefer not to pay a curb charge could be picked up or dropped off for free at a designated underground drop-off and pick-up area with access to numerous transport options. (p. 62)

New fees (2): Per-kilometre pricing

impose a per-kilometre charge on ride-hail vehicles using the Sidewalk Toronto project’s specially designed local streets, if necessary to encourage people to share rides and to discourage operators from allowing vehicles to cruise streets without passengers.

A new organization with taxation powers

The (here unnamed) Waterfront Transportation Management Association would be responsible for “proposing and administering” this tax on ride-hailing vehicles. Sidewalk Labs doesn’t want it to apply to people with disabilities, the elderly and low-income groups.

Far-future savings projections: The least reliable savings projections

At the full scale of the IDEA District, Sidewalk Labs estimates that the increased convenience and affordability of self-driving fleets [which, recall, that Sidewalk Labs itself doesn’t imagine will be here until 2035] would result in nearly 7 percent of trips occurring by hailed rides. (p. 62)

Goal 2: Provide car- share and parking options for the occasional private car trip (pp. 63-64)

Goal 3: Make all trip options available in discounted mobility packages (pp. 65-67)

This would include “a TTC monthly pass, an unlimited Bike Share Toronto membership, access to electric scooters and other low-speed vehicles, and credits for rides with ride- hail or car-share providers” for $270 per month. (p. 65)

The Graphic on page 67 says that a two-person household that owns car could save $4,000 per year ($333 per month) under their system. But what about the majority of downtown Torontonians who don’t own a car: how much would they save?

Part 4: Reimagining City Deliveries and Freight (pp. 68-83)

Goal 1: Establish a neighbourhood logistics hub for delivery, waste, storage, and borrowing services (pp. 74-76)

Waste from three streams (organics, recycling, D and landfill) would be transported via pneumatic tubes to the hub, making it the only neighbourhood stop for garbage trucks. (p. 70)

That would be the same hub that would be processing parcels. I am by no means an expert in this field, but I’m not sure how much sense it is to put your post office and garbage depot in the same underground cavern.  Which would also double (triple) as residents’ off-site storage lockers. And (quadruple) as a “borrowing library” for tools or “sound systems.”

What could go wrong? The cited Dutch example apparently only handles “clean waste collection.” (p. 74)

Way back when Sidewalk Labs mentioned this plan in the Overview, I noted that they didn’t present any numbers describing the cost of having trucks deliver goods. They highlight the inconvenience of trucks using roads, but that doesn’t help us decide whether their proposed solution is an efficient use of scarce public resources.

A fee-charging library?

I had also previously, in reading the overview, assumed that even though Sidewalk Labs refers to a “Library of Things” they were probably imaging people renting, not borrowing, these tools. Two volumes later:

The library could house these items and rent them out for a fee. (p. 76)

Goal 2: Design a smart container for last-mile shipping (pp. 77-79)

Another chance to get in on the ground floor of a new industry standard. Sidewalk Labs would develop this technology.

Question: How will the benefits be shared with Torontonians and Canadians if this becomes a standard? Would it be a proprietary design?

Goal 3: Deploy electric, self-driving delivery dollies (pp. 80-81)

Sidewalk Labs does not plan to create self-driving delivery dollies itself but rather plans to work with third-party vendors to identify or develop a design that meets the container’s specifications. (p. 80)

Goal 4: Connect underground delivery tunnels into buildings (pp. 82-83)

Sidewalk Labs proposes to require that each building be designed to connect with the tunnel system so self-driving delivery dollies carrying smart containers can enter. These dollies would have the ability to take freight elevators to com- mon spaces, including first-floor lockers for package delivery. (p. 82)

Question: What if self-driving dolly technology doesn’t end up working as desired?

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Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 26: The MIDP Volume 1, The Plans; Chapter 3: Economic Development (III): Part 3: Measuring Impact; Part 4: Exploring Economic Impact Further into the Future

On substantive analysis, and some incredibly sloppy data reporting that raises questions about Sidewalk Labs’ quality control and makes this former StatsCan editor (The Daily and Infomat, publications, back in the day) very sad.

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

This is it! The final post for Volume 1! Only … sigh … two more volumes to go.

Part 3: Measuring Impact (pp. 494-503)

At this point, over 70 pages into Chapter 3, what stands out about a chapter that is supposed to be all about “Economic Development,” is the lack of actual or sophisticated economic analysis. Most of it is a restatement of the swell proposals Sidewalk Labs has made elsewhere, in the overview and in Volume 1. Sidewalk Labs has touted its urbanMetrics’ report, but there’s not much of urbanMetrics in here. Instead, the preceding economic analysis – such as it was – was based mostly on anecdotes.

All this to say that the chapter so far has been 70 pages of filler. What do the final ten pages hold?

Both more and less than what we’ve already seen.

In a just world, these ten pages would have stood on their own (also the preceding text would not have repeated every single point a dozen times). These ten pages detail the findings of the urbanMetrics report (almost all of which we’ve already seen), but they don’t break out the individual contributors to growth (e.g., the timber factory).

The analysis is at such a high level (and is dependent on Sidewalk Labs’ own data and projections) that they don’t help us answer the big questions, such as: what do the individual components of this project contribute to the overall picture, both statically and dynamically?

On a related point, urbanMetrics’s report is an analysis of Sidewalk Labs’ best-case scenario, in which nothing at all goes wrong. So, these numbers should be treated as the absolute upper bound of what is possible. Actual results will almost certainly be lower than what’s predicted here.

This section brings us to just over halfway through the entire report. As hard as it is to believe, we’re closer to the end than the beginning. Right now, the thought that there might be life beyond the MIDP is the only think that keeps me going.

Impact 1: Spurring the creation of 44,000 direct jobs and 93,000 total jobs (pp. 496-499; not listed in Table of Contents)

I’m just going to be reporting the numbers here. I’m not going to be putting them in a larger context regarding whether they’re realistic (i.e., the proportion of jobs predicted versus actual job growth). That would be very useful to do, but I’d like this project to end before the sun explodes.

For those of you who want to do that, use your best judgment. If Sidewalk Labs claims that the area will contribute a disproportionate amount to either job creation or GDP, that’ll tell you that their numbers aren’t trustworthy.

So, here’s what urbanMetrics’ model, using Sidewalk Labs-provided inputs:

  • 44,100 direct jobs in the entire Eastern Waterfront by 2040, a large proportion of which would be in professional and scientific and technical services
    • 2,500 industrial jobs (light manufacturing, transportation)
    • “Population-based services,” an odd term encompassing everything from doctors to retail and which doesn’t seem to be used in the urbanMetrics report: 12,000 jobs
    • Knowledge-based industries, which they define as “technology, finance, professional services, and creative fields, including the film industry”: 29,000
  • 49,000 more jobs by 2040 throughout the country.
  • an average wage increase to $70,000 (IDEA District), compared to projected $60,000 (Eastern Waterfront? – I wasn’t able to find these specific figures in the urbanMetrics report, but I might’ve missed it. It sure would’ve been nice if Sidewalk Labs had provided some page references. This number seems to come from a simple averaging of current average industry incomes (p. 497), so it might not even be mentioned in the report.)

A couple of things (leaving the heavy lifting to others):

I tried breaking out exactly what types of employment Sidewalk Labs believes they will be generating, because it’s a bit weird to lump doctors and sales clerks into the same category. What follows is from the urbanMetrics report (p. 51). It includes 2,500 “work at home” jobs that are excluded from the 44,100 number reported by Sidewalk Labs (44,200 in the actual report):

Assumed Employment Composition by Industry, by 2040, Sidewalk Labs Version

Sector Employment
Goods-producing sector           1,200
Professional, Scientific and Technical Services         14,000
Information and Cultural Industries           7,000
Management of Companies and Enterprises           4,700
Finance, Insurance and Real Estate           5,800
Health Care and Social Assistance           2,300
Accommodation and Food Services           2,300
Retail, Wholesale, Transportation and Warehousing           2,300
Administrative, Support, Waste Management and Remediation           2,300
All Other Services           4,700
Total         46,600

Source: urbanMetrics Inc., Sidewalk Toronto Economic Impact Analysis, p. 51.

For some, this might be a bit too inside-baseball, but it’s best practice to ensure that others can figure out how you calculated your numbers (#transparency). Using a composite category, “population-based services,” once in the report, on a single page, without making clear what the underlying components of this category actually are, and reporting two different employment numbers (a total at-home-work-excluding and a disaggregation that includes at-home work) isn’t cool. It’s sloppy. If you’re a company asking people to give you a multi-billion-dollar contract like this one, raising questions about basic competence is not a good look.

Impact 2: Nearly seven times the potential annual GDP impact (pp. 500-501; not listed in Table of Contents)

The Toronto firm urbanMetrics estimates that the growing global profile of the IDEA District could generate an estimated $14.2 billion in economic output for Canada each year (GDP), including $11.8 billion in Toronto, which represents a more than six-fold increase in value added to the Canadian economy compared to status quo development by 2040. (p. 500)

So, I used to work copyediting tables at Statistics Canada.

Sidewalk Labs: you have a typo in the second column of row 1 on page 501: $11,769,431,015 should be $11,769,431,016.

Moving on, this $11.8 billion of annual GDP for Toronto would be equivalent to about 3.5% of its 2014 GDP.

Impact 3: The largest city building project in North America (pp. 502-503; not listed in Table of Contents)

This section highlights the project’s effects on construction. All I’ll note that it’s depending on an unproven technology – factory-made timber skyscrapers.

Part 4: Exploring Economic Impact Further into the Future (pp. 504-515)

This section continues the imagineering, wondering what could be done if these developments led to the development of even more waterfront land, with a brief detour into the Bloor Viaduct.

One final note: the further out one’s predictions go, the less reliable they become. Fittingly, the world “could” does a lot of work in Part 4.

And with that, we’re finished Volume 1: The Plans. Next up: Volume 2: The Innovations. I’m hoping for less repetition because it would be nice to read something substantive. But also more repetition, because this project is soul-destroying.

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Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 25: The MIDP Volume 1, The Plans; Chapter 3: Economic Development (II): Part 2: Sparking a Cluster in Urban Innovation

Sidewalk Labs provides some reasons why they need all this special treatment. And more. Always more.

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

We’re still on Chapter 3 of Volume 1, so let’s get right to it.

Part 2: Sparking a Cluster in Urban Innovation (pp. 460-493)

Introduction (pp. 462-465; not listed in Table of Contents)

In which Sidewalk Labs makes a pitch for urban innovation as a growing economic sector (p. 464).

Strategy 1: Invest in a cluster-based approach (pp. 466-469; not listed in Table of Contents)

Here at least we get Sidewalk Labs’ response to my earlier question about why they want to build in an area in which Sidewalk Labs controls everything, from the land to the laws. I’m not convinced, but at least it’s a response.

Easier to prototype:

urban innovation often requires integration with the built environment, increasing the cost of prototyping, requiring greater coordination among more stakeholders, and making it difficult to test and commercialize early-stage concepts. It can be far more difficult to prototype a new system for flexible, rearrangeable walls in ground-floor retail space, than it is to test a new app on iOS. (p. 468)

But do you need to rearrange an entire neighbourhood to do it?

The tech-law connection:

urban innovation often requires close coordination with government and existing policy.

Sort of. Certainly they both affect each other, but testing doesn’t necessarily require that a city change its laws.

Take an innovation that is focused on creating more sustainable and cost-efficient street lights that provide brighter and safer night-time environments while using less power. Innovators often must coordinate with formal or informal authorities, even for early testing, to secure necessary input, buy-in, authorization, or permits. Coordination becomes more complicated and time-intensive as innovators move from testing to scale and as new stakeholders introduce additional constraints or complexities.

There are two problems with this example. First, it treats innovations as if they are completely neutral rather than something that can yield either positive or negative results.

Second, it assumes that laws that slow down innovations are an inefficiency to be overcome, when they often also protect existing public goods or interests (which may themselves be positive or negative).  For example, we would all be better off if we had had laws on the book to restrict or outlaw Google’s and Facebook’s innovations regarding targeted advertising. This innovation has made Facebook’s business (social media) sustainable, but at the cost of destabilizing democratic society and has contributed to an actual genocide.

Real-world consequences:

unlike other disciplines where innovators are encouraged to fail fast, urban innovation can have higher stakes. Changes to construction technologies that inadvertently compromise structural integrity are not acceptable — unsafe buildings have significant real-world consequences. The same holds true for self-driving vehicle testing and other innovations that operate in public space. (pp. 468-469)

This is the weirdest justification for ditching existing laws. These laws are in place to ensure that urban innovations (say, as they relate to building codes) are as safe as possible, and that unproven, only-beta-tested technologies don’t come on the market.

It’s doubly weird in this case, since Sidewalk Labs isn’t asking to create a Potemkin Safety Village (Ottawa Safety Village RIP) where it will be simulating a city; it wants to build an actual city in which real people will live. This is exactly the situation in which you want strict laws that restrict innovations, especially from companies based in a Silicon Valley culture, in which you can always fix the shittily made app after it’s gone to market.

To put it another way, Sidewalk Labs should be seeking to work within Toronto’s existing regulatory framework, not seeking to change it as it sees fit.

Strategy 2: Build on Toronto’s existing innovation ecosystem to grow the field (pp. 470-473; not listed in Table of Contents)

They would draw on university researchers (p. 470) in particular, although this section is more of a statement of where things stand in terms of tech employment and government support than a description of how they would build on the “existing innovation economy.”

Strategy 3: Create the physical, digital, and policy conditions for urban innovation (pp. 474-476; not listed in Table of Contents)

A restatement of its commitment to flexible physical spaces (in terms of buildings, roads and outdoor spaces) (p. 474) Also a restatement about data governance and connectivity (p. 475).

And a restatement about how it wants to redo “existing urban regulations and policies — such as zoning, building code, and automobile regulations” (p. 475):

These policies — designed around important objectives, such as protecting the public from industrial hazards or over-developing attractive residential areas — now sometimes limit the ability to find creative solutions to the very same problems they attempted to mitigate. Today’s digital capabilities enable these policies to achieve their intended outcomes in more flexible ways. (p. 475)

Although see my previous comments just about on why innovation is never a good in and of itself. Especially when you’re talking about an actual community filled with actual people. Rule changes are fine, but we have processes for changing them: go through democratically elected representatives. It’s bad form to try an end-run around these processes via a vague development proposal in concert with an organization with limited democratic accountability.

Make your case, out in the open, to Toronto City Council. Or the Province of Ontario. Or the Government of Canada.

Turning these rules over to a self-interested developer would be like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. It’s bad governance.

Strategy 4: Launch an Urban Innovation Institute as a portal for learning and research (p. 477-487; not listed in Table of Contents)

In which Sidewalk Labs (again; some of this text is repeated from p. 307 of this very Volume) make the case for a Google-linked, inter/multidisciplinary institute that could draw upon the data produced by the people and infrastructure in the IDEA District. It sees the Urban Innovation Institute eventually supporting collaborative degree programs with other institutions (universities? colleges?), and it envisions a close collaboration with Toronto-based institutions. It includes several imaginings of how all this could work (four out of 11 pages are devoted to these short stories, complemented by drawings that dwarf the actual text on these pages) – argumentation via sales job.

Anyways, the Urban Innovation Institute would pursue technological advances as well as governance approaches. In other words, it’s about policy and tech. Keeping in mind that technology isn’t neutral, two guesses about the outcomes its policy analyses would favour. As former prime minister Brian Mulroney once said, “You dance with the one who brung ya.”

Strategy 5: Establish a new venture fund for local, early-stage enterprises (pp. 488-489; not listed in Table of Contents)

In which mention is again made of Sidewalk Labs’ $10 million proposed investment into said fund.

With more advanced options for early-stage venture funding, Sidewalk Labs aims to help contribute to the region’s ability to retain talent and IP locally. (p. 489)

As I think I’ve already noted, the issue here isn’t location of the actual workers; it’s who controls the intellectual property. Simply developing local talent does nothing to ensure that intellectual property will stay in the country, especially when you have a foreign company at the centre of your cluster – who do you think will be the joint senior partner with many of these companies that Sidewalk Labs will be identifying?

If someone could explain to me how Sidewalk Labs’ plan would help to keep intellectual property in Canada, I’d love to hear from them.

Strategy 6: Benefit Toronto companies and catalyze new ones (pp. 490-492; not listed in Table of Contents)

In which Sidewalk Labs makes the case that projects undertaken in the IDEA district would contribute to existing Canadian/Ontario programs (e.g., on self-driving cars, cleantech)

That’s enough for now. See you in the next post, for Part 3, Chapter 3, Volume 1.

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