Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 37: The MIDP Volume 3, Partnership Overview: Introduction

What the MIDP’s inability to match section headings with its Table of Contents tells us about Sidewalk Labs’ commitment to quality control, attention to detail and basic competence. Also, renewed confusion about what Sidewalk Labs actually is.

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

The first thing one notices upon scrolling through this final volume’s 246 pages is the relative lack of full-page pullquotes (six) and, even more remarkable, artists’ sketches of bucolic citylife (also six).

That’s because, just as the final part of the Overview dispensed with the sweet talk and razzle-dazzle building raincoats, and got down to business, this volume is all about who’s going to do what, what laws need to change, and certainly not least, how Sidewalk Labs is going to get paid.

As with the previous volume, much of this has been covered in the Overview and previous volumes, but I’m sure I’ll find some interesting details in here.

Last volume, and then it’s only Waterfront Toronto’s Note to Reader standing between me and freedom. Let’s go.

Introduction (pp. 18-21)

The Master Innovation and Development Plan represents a comprehensive proposal for how to realize that potential in a portion of the eastern waterfront. (p. 18)

This portion being more than just Quayside. As I’ve previously noted, one’s opinion of the scope of the MIDP will depend on whether you buy Sidewalk Labs’ argument that this report is a good-faith response to Waterfront Toronto’s RFP call to  “describe your team’s ability and readiness to take the concepts and solutions deployed on Quayside to scale in future phases of waterfront revitalization” (p. 20).

I’m not convinced. Everything we’ve seen suggests that this is not a project that starts in Quayside and then can scale up in the future as lands become available. This includes Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel L. Doctoroff’s insistence that denying a light rail extension (a key part of the overall IDEA District plan, not the Quayside development part) would likely cause Sidewalk Labs to abandon the whole project. It also includes the insistence that Sidewalk Labs/Google be allowed to develop Villiers Island.

This, once again, is an all-or-nothing proposal.

No experience, but research

Sidewalk Labs has no experience working on big projects. Rather, it claims that it can develop what has been described as the most valuable undeveloped waterfront real estate in North America because it has engaged in “intensive research and development” and undertaken “feasibility studies.” (p. 21)

Part 1: Harmonizing the Objectives of Waterfront Toronto, the Public, and Sidewalk Labs (pp. 22-25)

The most incompetently assembled and formatted report ever?

I have never read a report as incompetently assembled as this one. I’ve noted the incomplete Tables of Contents, the absent indexes and the lack of hyperlinks for endnotes – the use of endnotes instead of footnotes, for that matter. Now, in Volume 3, we can add inconsistent and mislabled section headings to this list.

See the “Part 1” above? That appears in the Table of Contents on page 12, not on the header on page 22. Instead “Harmonizing the Objectives…” appears in the same font and style as subheaders in the previous volumes. This makes it look like this Part is part of the Introduction, not its own part, and makes it that much harder to locate information in the report.

This pattern is repeated throughout the report, with a few more examples of fundamental incompetence thrown in for good measure: Chapter 6’s “Introduction” (p. 208) is listed in the Table of Contents (p. 14) as “Stage Gates and Risk Mitigation.”

Not to be outdone, the section “Participants in the development of the IDEA District” (p. 218) is listed in the Table of Contents as “Overview of the Participants in IDEA District Development” (p. 14).

Usually, you can count on even the most vacuous report to have its Tables of Contents match section titles, but not the MIDP. And this isn’t even with going into how the Table of Contents styles don’t match from Volume to Volume (e.g., “Part 1:” in Volume 2, versus “Part 1 [tab]” in Volume 3).

This report reflects an absolutely abysmal level of quality control and attention to detail. Just shoddy, with all the characteristics of a rush job. Given the extent to which this entire project has been driven by an attention to public relations, if Sidewalk Labs can’t even properly format its own reports, how can it be trusted to run a huge swath of the Eastern Waterfront?

Okay, back to the substance.

Overview redux

This section seems to repeat mostly what was in the Overview, although somehow with less detail (p. 22, Objectives for the people of Toronto).

And we’re reminded that “The company will seek to earn a reasonable return on its investment” (p. 23).

Adding to the résumé

On pages 23 and 24 Sidewalk Labs repeats the exercise, first conducted on pages 61-65 of the Overview (and in more detail; this is the rare report in which the overview sections are longer than the actual sections that it’s overviewing), telling us why Sidewalk Labs is uniquely suited to this job.

One interesting addition that isn’t present in the Overview is that it reframes Advantage One from “An interdisciplinary approach to urban innovation” that emphasizes its team (Overview pp. 61-63) to “Cutting-edge urban design and technology” that summarizes the talent at its disposal but also notes that “Sidewalk Labs has developed, and continues to refine, critical pieces of technology for improving cities,” an interesting point that isn’t in those original pages and would have been worth highlighting. Instead, that first section makes it sound like Sidewalk Labs is primarily a facilitator that’s best at locating tech, not developing it.

It’s yet another pointless piece of confusion that leaves me unsure about what Sidewalk Labs actually is, and what they bring to the table. Not a good position to be in when you’re some 1,200 pages into its master plan. Just shoddy and unprofessional.

What Sidewalk Labs is promising (pp. 30-31)

  • A “bold innovation agenda” (i.e., the bells and whistles from the previous volumes)
  • “Develop Quayside as a complete and inclusive community”
  • “Develop a major economic development project” (i.e., bring Google to town to anchor an urban tech cluster).
  • “Serve as the lead developer of advanced systems” (in Quayside and Villiers West). “Among other responsibilities, this role would include identifying and overseeing sophisticated third-party operators and partners.” (i.e., in charge of procurement)
  • “Serve as a technical partner and advisor.” “Sidewalk Labs would provide a suite of technical advisory and management services.” This standard-setting role would include standards and policy setting and running procurement.
    • As stated, Sidewalk Labs’ description undersells its contribution. This role would make Sidewalk Labs less of an advisor and more of a policymaking governmental co-equal.
  • “Deliver essential technology.” This would involve procurement as well as developing its own technology, called “purposeful solutions”
  • “Optional financing for critical infrastructure.” Including light rail and municipal infrastructure. It’s formed a company that does infrastructure financing.
  • “Unlocking $29 billion in third-party investments.” via some initial investments.

The intellectual property profit-sharing deal

For certain technologies that Sidewalk Labs develops and deploys at scale in connection with the project, Sidewalk Labs also proposes to share 10 percent of the profits with the public sector. (p. 31)

What it wants from government

This section repeats Overview pages 208-209. It serves as a reminder that Sidewalk Labs seeks either the restructuring or replacement of Waterfront Toronto:

the proposal calls for government to designate a public entity to serve — or, if Waterfront Toronto is so designated, to continue to serve — as revitalization lead for the IDEA District with certain additional powers. (p. 32)

And as we’ve seen previously, a lot of what Sidewalk Labs wants to do, like build “liveable” super-tiny apartments, is currently illegal. It therefore wants special rules to only apply to its area of the Eastern Waterfront, or as it frames it, “A carefully targeted package of regulatory reforms and development standards” (p. 32)

And it’s also a reminder that Sidewalk Labs wants “performance payments to compensate for non-standard upfront costs and for serving as a catalyst to deliver on Waterfront Toronto’s priority out- comes and accelerate development across the eastern waterfront.” In return it also offers a piece of the action “if Quayside and Villiers West are more profitable than expected,” and that 10% share on some intellectual property. (p. 32)

Part 2: Seven Principles Guiding the Proposed Partnership (pp. 26-27)

Repeats the principles listed on Overview page 200, adding in a list of Waterfront Toronto’s priority outcomes.

Part 3: Overview of Innovation and Funding Partnership (pp. 28-35)

Quayside is touted as a “scalable proof of concept for the ideas that will drive economic growth, achieve urban progress, and deliver on Waterfront Toronto’s priority outcomes.” (p. 28).

I’m not sure that something can count as a “proof of concept” if you have to agree to the whole package before developing the proof of concept.

And for those of you who like a good table, page 34 has a Summary of Innovation and Funding Partnership proposal table (labelled Fig. 0.3, although that doesn’t matter much since there’s no list of figures anywhere in the report).

What does Sidewalk Labs do?

Sidewalk Labs structured its Innovation and Funding Partnership Proposal to capitalize on its own unique combination of strengths, including a team that spans urban planning, technology, policy, architecture, engineering, development, and finance; its exceptional technological resources; its access to patient capital that is able to take a long-term view of investing, where warranted; and its ability to serve as an economic catalyst. (p. 42)

This description of Sidewalk Labs’ supposed strengths sounds eerily like what a government agency can do and leverage.

Part 4: How the Proposal Reflects the Seven Transaction Principles (pp. 36-44)

This is an expanded (!) version of Overview pages 199-200, which includes a list of desired outcomes, which we’ve already seen mentioned several times over the past thousand-plus pages.

Performance targets: If missed, would affect Sidewalk Labs’ involvement in the project. (p. 40). I would want an independent evaluation of Sidewalk Labs’ numbers for Quayside, as this setup (if it doesn’t meet Quayside, e.g., targets it can’t proceed) gives it an incentive to underpromise on Quayside.

Also, I’m unsure that Waterfront Toronto has demonstrated the capability of pushing back against, or evaluating Sidewalk Labs.

This seems like a bit of an empty promise for a for-profit company:

And unless and until Sidewalk Labs demonstrates the commercial feasibility and the effectiveness of its solutions for achieving Waterfront Toronto’s priority outcomes, no other developments would deploy them. (p. 40)

If a solution isn’t commercially feasible, why would Sidewalk Labs deploy it in the first place?

“Strong public oversight,” underdeveloped governance proposals

Sidewalk Labs’ statement that it is interested in “strong public oversight” (p. 42) would be more credible if it had put any thought into the number of people and resources that would be necessary to create the expansive bureaucracies that they’ve proposed throughout these pages.

Climate positive?

Sidewalk Labs claims that the IDEA District would be “climate positive” via exporting of energy to the rest of Toronto. Climate experts: would this count as being “climate positive”? (p. 38)

Interesting that pretty much everything they’re proposing on pages 38 and 38 is “financially infeasible” if only done in Quayside. Maybe their financial time horizon isn’t long enough?

If only there were a previously existing institution in society that was designed to make investments in the public interest without having to earn a profit. If only…

Part 5: A Partnership Proposal Intended for Ongoing Refinement (pp. 45-47)

The never-ending proposal

This quote fills me with dread:

The Innovation and Funding Partnership Proposal constitutes a proposal. It is subject to further negotiation with Waterfront Toronto and, for certain elements of the proposal, the three orders of government. Ultimately, the proposal’s success will require Sidewalk Labs and government to work together collaboratively and to adapt to unanticipated conditions that could arise. (p. 45)

I’m not looking forward to reading MIDP II: The Embiggening.

And how will these responses to unanticipated consequences be subject to democratic review? Neither Waterfront Toronto nor especially Sidewalk Labs are set up for the type of reviews that would be typical of an ongoing City, provincial or federal project.

Overview of Volume 3 (pp. 48-49)

The chapters that follow provide substantial detail on the overall transaction structure, the proposed roles and responsibilities of the various participants, the financial and legal terms, the preconditions needed to deliver the business case for the transaction outlined and the vision set out in Volumes 1 and 2, and the anticipated implementation of the project and its various components. (p. 48)

tl;dr: There was no need for Volumes 1 or 2, and the Overview should’ve been shortened to an executive summary. Also, Sidewalk Labs should’ve sprung for a copyeditor.

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Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 38: The MIDP Volume 3, Partnership Overview: Chapter 1: The Innovative Design and Economic Acceleration (IDEA) District, Introduction and Part 1

This Volume is essential reading for anyone wanting to cut through Sidewalk Labs’ PR hype and see exactly what Sidewalk Labs is proposing. For those of us foolish to had read the whole thing front-to-back, it’s a distillation of what we’ve read before.

These final five posts will highlight those issues that stood out to me as being the most significant, or whose importance I hadn’t previously fully understood. This first one is a long one, because it’s time to end this series. Let’s get to it.

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

This chapter discusses a proposal for the consideration of government to achieve these aims by designating a public administrator with the development authorities needed to administer a new targeted innovation strategy for the IDEA District. (p. 48)

Introduction (pp. 52-61)

It’s telling that this section is targeted at the “IDEA District” level, rather than at Quayside, with the rest of the waterfront as a the secondary objective. This proposal’s driving theme is “IDEA District or bust.”

The IDEA District would have “three essential components,” discussed in the rest of this chapter (p. 56):

  • A public administrator

Mandate: “oversee and steer key real estate, infrastructure, and technology decisions — all with a focus on better addressing the core urban challenges facing Toronto.”

Its mission would be economic-focused: “promote innovation and development within the geography”

  • A modified regulatory framework

In other words, it would be subject to its own particular laws and regulations. This would involve changes to various laws at all three levels of government. It would also require the introduction of new regulations specific to this area.

In other words, Sidewalk Labs – the brains of this outfit – is looking to convince the three levels of government not only to change their laws to suit their needs; it is looking for the right to set its own rules and regulations, in the guise of its Innovation Design Standards Guidelines.

  • Financing mechanisms

Fees, development charge credits, local governments ponying up cash, “the use of local land proceeds,” and, potentially, tax-increment financing.

In short, this is gonna cost the Toronto taxpayer.

Confusing geography

I just figured out that the River District is the IDEA District minus Quayside and Keating West. (p. 59)

Keating West is included in all the area-level results predicted by Sidewalk Labs. So why do you have something called the River District? So confusing.

Every time I see “could,” I also see, “or maybe something else will happen. Who knows?”

I thought the purpose of a “plan” was to offer a proposal to do something specific:

The IDEA District

could be established through a Community Improvement Plan (CIP). (p. 61)

Incrementalism?

Quayside, then Villiers West, then the rest of Sidewalk Labs’ desired land. (p. 61)

The decision to move forward would involve

hitting certain performance targets tied to Waterfront Toronto’s priority outcomes … (p. 61)

Outcomes that, per the RFP, Sidewalk Labs was given the responsibility of setting. The administrator might be administering the test, but the student chose the questions and the grading rubric.

When it comes to setting my final exams, I will not be offering this innovative, imagineered option to my students.

The Everything’s Going to Work Perfectly school of urban planning

For analysis purposes, the MIDP assumes that all private landowners opt in to the IDEA District. (p. 61)

Part 1: IDEA District Component 1: A Public Administrator (pp. 62-71)

In which it is proposed that a public administrator that may or may not be Waterfront Toronto be given many responsibilities (p. 62).

“Specifically, the public administrator should be granted the authority to:

  1. Set innovation and development objectives for the IDEA District;
  2. Impose additional requirements on developments within the district, consistent with the objectives described in Item 1;
  3. Determine whether new developments can access the regulatory relief approved for the district;
  4. Perform precinct and infrastructure planning for waterfront development;
  5. Certify development and construction permit applications before their submission to city agencies;
  6. Develop a master transportation and infrastructure plan for approval by relevant city authorities, in phases, and give final approval before construction;
  7. Receive and direct infrastructure contributions for the infrastructure proposed for, or built in, the district; and
  8. Enter into and oversee agreements with developers, vendors, and partners, including Sidewalk Labs as Innovation and Funding Partner.”

One of the big problems with Waterfront Toronto, as the Auditor General of Ontario laid out in his report, is that its structure and lack of authority impeded its ability to actually develop the waterfront. In this section, Sidewalk Labs says it will attempt the neat trick of providing the public administrator (which may or may not be Waterfront Toronto) with “a greater ability to collaborate with all orders of government to streamline the development process and advance an integrated innovation strategy” (p. 63) all the while not displacing current city, provincial, or federal authority.

After reading this page over several times, I’m not sure how what Sidewalk Labs proposes would break this gridlock. It seems to be based on “granting the administrator [which may or may not be…] a clear mandate and the tools to be successful” (p. 63). Which seems to be simply stating the obvious. I would think the only way you could break this gridlock, as the Auditor General seemed to note in his discussion of a similar agency in Winnipeg, would be by granting decisive powers to the administrator (#WMOMNBWT). It comes down to authority. If you don’t have it, you’re reduced to begging and cajoling.

Public administrator role in planning and implementation (pp. 64-67)

The public administrator (WMOMNBWT) is asked to do A LOT: “to oversee a comprehensive innovation and development strategy,” with the goal of cultivating and expanding “the diverse ecosystem of real estate developers, service providers, employers, design firms, public agencies, research institutions, non-profits, and others — all working together in the IDEA District to advance job creation and economic development, sustainability and climate-positive development, housing affordability, new mobility, and urban innovation.” (p. 64)

Let’s leave aside the fact that this paragraph assumes a great deal more unity of purpose among diverse entities than is observable in the real world.

Planning would be done with the City of Toronto (a non-exhaustive list of agencies is provided) (p. 64).

The “planning deliverables”:

  • An Infrastructure and Transportation Framework Plan “for areas of the IDEA District with no existing infrastructure master plan” Question: Would the public administrator (WMOMNBWT) coordinate with the city to ensure compatibility?
  • Innovation Design Standards and Guidelines. Although, as we’ll learn below, despite this formal authority, Sidewalk Labs would play a key role in creating these. And based on Waterfront Toronto and Ontario’s (and, I’d guess, the Government of Canada’s) lack of expertise in the area of smart-city development, these rules would be Sidewalk Labs’ to write. (p. 64)
  • Precinct plans and implementing bylaws. This would seem to insert Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs formally into the City of Toronto bureaucracy. I’d love to hear more from municipal government experts about whether it is normal to allow outside agencies and companies bylaw-setting powers. From my vantage point, given Sidewalk Labs’ central role in planning in its IDEA District, this would be a key vector for the privatization of the bylaw-setting process, as well as an indirect way for the federal and provincial governments (via Waterfront Toronto) to similarly set municipal bylaws.

Sidewalk Labs doesn’t want to wait for bylaws to be passed

The administrator may also elect to permit the development of certain land parcels following the completion of a precinct plan and prior to the adoption of implementing bylaws, where such development is in the public interest and is consistent with the Precinct Plan. (p. 65)

I’d always been taught that a law has to be passed and go into effect before it can be enforced. Yet here Sidewalk Labs is suggesting that they do not have to wait for bylaws to be passed before getting down to work.

So much for Sidewalk Labs’ claim that it would follow the law of the land.

For this whole section, I’m sure the devil is in the details, and I’m not much qualified to discuss bylaw-setting processes. Municipal government experts would do well to pay close attention to this section to assess exactly what Sidewalk Labs is asking for, and the extent to which it does or doesn’t follow normal procedures.

Back to the list of “planning deliverables”…

  • Infrastructure and Transportation Master Plan (pp. 65-66).

Now it’s a list of Administrator (WMOMNBWT) implementation responsibilities:

  • Development call and land disposition management, following City guidelines and those of the (Sidewalk Labs co-created) Innovation Design Standards and Guidelines. Unclear: Would this power involve giving a public administrator (WMOMNBWT) control over land that Waterfront Toronto does not currently possess?
  • Certification of development and building permit applications, following Innovation Design Standards and Guidelines. And presumably bylaws that have been rewritten to allow for super-tiny “liveable” studio apartments.
  • Management of municipal infrastructure development: “Working closely with the City of Toronto, the public administrator [WMOMNBWT] would manage the design, construction, and turnover of all required municipal infrastructure, including site preparation, domestic water, sanitary sewer, storm drain conveyance, shoreline improvements, bridges, and public realm (such as parks, plazas, promenades, and streetscape areas), except where noted in Chapter 2, on Page 114. (p. 66)

That’s a lot of responsibility.

  • Management of further light rail transit (LRT) development, with corridor design reviewed and approved by the TTC. The public administrator (WMOMNBWT) would procure and oversee contractors, “again with the TTC itself managing certain elements, such as electrical wiring and special track work, as appropriate.” (p. 66)

So now the public administrator (WMOMNB…) will also have to pay transit experts and run procurement for something where local expertise presumably rests elsewhere in the city. I can’t imagine what could go wrong.

This is going to get pricey, and is going to lead to amateur mistakes. For all of Sidewalk Labs’ talk of scale, they’ve paid precious little attention to the fact that these administrative capabilities make no sense at the scale of a neighbourhood.

My prediction: The IDEA District, if it comes to pass, wwould end up being characterized by less responsive governance (due to the extra layer of unaccountable bureaucracy), more expensive services (due to the huge number of new service fees), and shoddier service deliver (due to the number of disparate tasks that would be foisted upon a new agency that, if it is Waterfront Toronto, has no track record in delivering). The disparity between the IDEA District and the City of Toronto would be obvious and problematic for the area’s elected representatives.

Back to the list…

  • Management of advanced systems. There are a lot of them: “a thermal grid, an advanced power grid, an advanced stormwater management system, a pneumatic waste system, dynamic streets, a digital communications networks, a freight management system, a mobility subscription package, and district parking management” (p. 66).

Sidewalk Labs would deliver them in its two tiny parcels of land (Quayside and Villiers West). The administrator (WMOMN…) would be responsible for developing and managing them everywhere else. And for managing them in Quayside and Villiers West, too.

This is getting expensive, and expansive.

  • Oversight of (many, many) new management entities.
  • Annual public reports on the IDEA District’s progress.
  • Public engagement. Let’s see what they mean by public engagement:

This would include online content, social media, public workshops, charrettes, and meetings with working groups, agencies, and other stakeholders (p. 67).

Which presumably would include elected representatives.

On the Capabilities and capacities of the public administrator [WMOM…]. Basically, it has to do everything:

  • a sophisticated understanding of land-use planning and the management and implementation of large-scale construction, infrastructure, and transportation projects. sufficient knowledge of technology to oversee the work of third-party consultants
  • adequate staffing and institutional resources.
  • developing and managing the performance of advanced systems in later years will require the administrator to develop specialized expertise.
  • appropriate institutional mechanisms to monitor compliance by parties participating in eco- nomic development activities across the IDEA District, including Sidewalk Labs, developers, technology firms, and others.

And it will all be “self-financed,” which is a fancy way of saying taxes and user fees.

Saying that these skills and institutional capacities would be needed, and that they will be “self-financed” is easy. But notice that there is no estimate of how much it would cost to assemble all this skill, especially since they would be asking municipal workers to do complex work that is not being done anywhere in Canada. There is no estimate of how many people would be needed to staff these offices, or of anything resembling serious thought as to whether getting a single agency to do the work of an entire city government is actually workable.

Also, I’ll eat my Sydney Swans toque if self-financing of such a small district is actually feasible. More likely, services would be reduced to the level of available self-financing, which may or may not be enough to deliver the incredibly complex goodies Sidewalk Labs is promising.

This is not a plan; it’s a notion.

Governance and management of advanced systems and solutions (pp. 68-71)

I’m getting tired of repeating myself here, so I’ll try to be brief and just note some points that catch my eye and that I haven’t previously covered about the five new agencies/bureaucracies that Sidewalk Labs is proposing. Those interested in more details can note which pages cover which proposed agencies.

The organizations that Sidewalk Labs suggests here are reported without suggesting budgets or human resources that would allow us to determine whether they could deliver the services that Sidewalk Labs wants them to, or what level of “self-financing” (which is still taxes and user fees in some form – nobody rides for free) would be necessary to sustain them.

They assume that the talent needed to run these agencies and implement these services would be easily available, even though they would be asked to implement complex digital systems beyond what municipalities currently deliver.

The proposed Open Space Alliance (p. 68) would require resources diverted from the City of Toronto (Parks, Forestry and Toronto). Sidewalk Labs also sees non-profits taking up the slack for the management of many of its green spaces.

I’ve already talked a lot about the proposed “Urban Data Trust” (p. 69). Ditto the Waterfront Housing Trust (p. 69). The Waterfront Sustainability Association (p. 69) would be responsible for “Administer[ing] and enforce[ing] all operational service contracts for sustainability-related systems within the district, and Report[ing] on performance relative to sustainability objectives within the IDEA District.”

Not sure how this would work, or if it’s referring to policies that go beyond current regulations:

The proposal seeks to establish a mechanism to hold operators accountable and to fairly represent the interests of users in the district for systems that are not currently subject to public regulation. (Where they are, those regulations would prevail and not be replaced by any requirements of the WSA.) (p. 69)

And I’ve already discussed exactly what I think about the Waterfront Transportation Management Association (p. 70). It was a poorly thought out idea several hundred pages ago; it remains one now.

 

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Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 36: The MIDP Volume 2, The Innovations, Chapter 5: Digital Innovation, Part 4; Public engagement

Ending our five-run digital-innovation posts, which were written “from the internet up.” Includes some thoughts on “public engagement.”

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

Part 4: Launching Core Digital Services That Others Can Build On (pp. 442-453)

This is the platform, Sidewalk Labs as intermediary.

Sidewalk Labs plans to offer this limited set of core digital services in cases where achieving fundamental project goals around transportation, affordability, housing, energy, public space, and other areas would require an innovation the market has not pursued. (p. 443)

other entities would be free to develop competing services. (p. 443)

I’m not sure how much competition Sidewalk Labs would for the provision of core services.

Its proposed services

  • Mobility management system: to “coordinate all travel modes, traffic signals, and street infrastructure, and apply demand- based pricing to curb and parking spaces.” (p. 444)
  • Outdoor comfort system: “A proposed system of outdoor-comfort tools, deployed in real time, … including building “raincoats” to block rain, awnings to provide shade, and fanshells to provide group cover.” (p. 444)
  • Flexible retail platform (Seed Space): “A proposed leasing platform [that] would help small businesses and other retailers book a wide range of ground-floor space sizes … .” (p. 445)
  • Open space usage and management (CommonSpace): “A proposed digital application [that] … would make it substantially easier, faster, and less expensive to collect more reliable data on how people use public spaces… .” (p. 445)
  • Public realm maintenance map: “A proposed real-time map of public realm assets … .” (p. 445)
  • Civic engagement (Collab): “A proposed digital application … would aim to engage community… .” (p. 446)
  • Outcome-based building code: A proposed “real-time building code system could monitor noise, nuisances, and structural integrity” (p. 446)

Of note: Sidewalk Labs argues that it can be deployed “without sacrificing public safety or comfort.” (p. 446) However, safety and comfort are in the eye of the beholder, and no law will ever satisfy everyone. So I’d take the claims for this recommendation with a grain of salt.

  • Active stormwater management: A proposed system that “would rely on green infrastructure and digital sensors to retain stormwater, reuse it for irrigation, and empty storage containers in advance of a storm to avoid combined sewer overflow.” (p. 446)
  • Energy Management System (schedulers): A “proposed system of Home, Office, and Building Operator Schedulers [to] automate energy use to optimize residential, commercial, and building heating, cooling, and electricity systems.” (p. 447)
  • Building Waste Management systems: A proposed system that would “help residents and businesses sort their trash, recyclables, and organics (foods) by illustrating common sorting mistakes.” (p. 447)

We’ve discussed the proposals below elsewhere, so I’m just going to list them here.

Spotlight (not a goal?) 1: An outcome-based building code system to enable a safe, vibrant mix of uses (pp. 448-449)

Spotlight 2: An Office Scheduler to optimize energy use (pp. 450-451)

Spotlight 3: A mobility management system to reduce congestion and improve safety (pp. 452-453)

Public Engagement (pp. 454-462)

I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been so annoyed by the Public Engagement sections in this Volume, and I think I know what the problem is: the stories that they’re telling are too pat. The Public (21,000 people!) talked, Sidewalk Labs listened. Each chapter is illustrated with an example of this type of feedback.

However, there are a few tells that this is more of a feel-good public-relations exercise than an account of consequential public consultations. I’ll illustrate with my own experience, focusing on my time as a researcher for the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance.

Every year, the Finance Committee, supported by two or three economist staffers, would hold several months of hearings, some lasting all day, and including hearings across the country, on what Canadians wanted to see in the upcoming federal budget. We heard from hundreds of people and organizations about everything you could imagine. If you could attach a dollar sign to it, someone talked about it.

For an economist interested in public policy, it was a dream assignment: Every year I received what seemed like my own detailed update on the state of the entire economy, from coast to coast to coast.

Our job as the economists/analysts attached to the committee, was to prepare background materials and questions for the committee members and then go through all of the written and oral testimony to write up a report detailing what the committee heard, and what it would recommend to the government for the budget. Once the draft was completed it would then be scrutinized, revised and eventually approved by the committee (sometimes with dissents, sometimes not).

In writing the report, we analysts had two main objectives. First, we had to represent all of the voices that submitted to the extent that we were able. This is because it was important that every citizen who took the time to appear before the committee felt like they were being heard, and therefore respected, by their elected representatives.

It was a job we all took seriously, and overall I think we did pretty well.

Our second objective was to formulate recommendations – the meat of the report – reflecting the will of the committee. To be clear, these weren’t the researchers’ recommendations; they were what we gathered the committee wanted from talking with the members (the Chair, an MP from the governing party, of course playing a key role) and watching how the hearings were playing out. The recommendations, like the overall report, belonged to the elected MPs; we analysts were merely the ones writing it up.

The recommendations were, of course, political, and they were often arrived at  in discussion with the (partisan) committee chair, who certainly had their own (partisan) views on what the recommendations should be and the votes to push them through if needed. However, during my time, they were also conscious that the more cross-party support you can muster for a report, the better (different governments and chairs may behave differently).

I digress a bit. The important point is this: the recommendations were pretty much always based on the testimony we heard in committee. As corny as it sounds, Canadians really did have a hand in writing these reports.

And here’s the clincher: we didn’t just include testimony that agreed with the final recommendation, because people disagree, in good faith, all the time even about the most seemingly innocuous issues. And it’s only fair to represent these ideas, even if the report ended up recommending something different. We were still drafting a political document that had to justify what the committee was recommending, but we also had to respect Canadians’ dissenting opinions.

Which brings us to one of the problems with the MIDP: It’s all too neat. People talked; Sidewalk Labs listened, and what they heard almost always confirmed almost exactly what they were going to do.

The other thing that makes it hard to take Sidewalk Labs’ public consultations seriously is the lack of detail. Any parliamentary committee report includes with it the names of the people who drafted it, including (from time to time) outside consultants. It also includes the name of every single meeting held, and a list of the witnesses who appeared before or submitted something to the committee. And every time someone was quoted, their name was attached to what they said. There was, in other words, a paper trail of evidence supporting what was in our reports.

Sidewalk Labs’ consultations reports, in contrast, are a wonder of anonymity. The members of their various councils and advisory groups are nowhere named. People who made interventions in public fora also go unnamed. The dates, times and participants in the many, many meetings with various officials that Sidewalk Labs claimed are nowhere here documented. The nature of the participation by the 21,000 people who supposedly participated in this consultation is not described.

The lack of detail regarding their consultations makes it impossible to see Sidewalk Labs’ public consultations as anything other than a public-relations exercise. Returning briefly to the world of politics, what these Public Engagement sections most closely resemble are a politician’s stump speech in which they claim that the everyday folk support their party’s policies. These type of lines, designed to showcase how well the politician listens to the people, are so clichéd they practically write themselves:

I’m proud of the work my government has done for people like my barber, with whom I discussed the unfair tax burden he faced. And the mother of four who told me how much our government’s child care grant helped her family. And the university student who wants to become a land developer, and who is so thankful that my government is slashing the regulatory burden standing in the way of the construction of “liveable” efficiency apartments.

The Public Engagement sections in this report sound exactly like a politician’s bid to seal the deal. They sound nothing like an account of a legitimate, give-and-take public consultation. Like almost all of the Master Innovation and Development Plan, they are a sales pitch, and should be treated as such.

Goodbye, Volume 2, Hello, Volume 3

And with that, we’re done with Volume 2. We’ve covered a lot of ground, but if history, like the MIDP, repeats itself, Sidewalk Labs has saved the meatiest bits for last. Tomorrow, Volume 3: the long-awaited Partnership Overview.

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Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 35: The MIDP Volume 2, The Innovations, Chapter 5: Digital Innovation, Part 3: Creating a Trusted Process for Responsible Data Use (II)

In which I get into the Urban Data Trust and make a classic South Park reference.

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

Goal 1: Implement the Urban Data Trust (pp. 420-423)

It would be responsible for overseeing “the digital governance of urban data for the IDEA District” (p. 420).

The first phase of its implementation would involve an agreement between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, neither of which would control it. The initial board would have five members, which “could” (sigh) include: “a data governance, privacy or intellectual property expert” (weird that these are seen as being interchangeable); “a community representative; a public-sector representative; an academic representative; and a Canadian business representative” (p. 420)

The board – likely two lawyers, a businessperson, a government official (which level of government?) and someone from the community – would be independent once established, but how would they be selected? Given the legally close relationship between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, there’s no way that they could select a board that had a veneer of impartiality.

You know – and I’m just spitballing here – but we already have an entity whose entire job involves representing diverse community interests. It’s called The Government. Given that this Urban Data Trust would be setting its charter and policies at the very beginning, what justification is there for not making it a public body right off the bat? To do otherwise invites accusations of conflicts of interest.

Anyways. The big hire would be a Chief Data Officer, who “would be:

  • responsible for developing the charter for the Urban Data Trust;
  • promulgating RDU Guidelines that apply to all parties proposing to collect urban data, and that respect existing privacy laws and guidelines but also seek to apply additional guidelines for addressing the unique aspects of urban data (see Page 424) [i.e., figuring out a way to square the weird urban data concept with Canadian personal information privacy law];
  • structuring oversight and review processes (including creating an appropriate privacy impact analysis (p. 429));
  • determining how the entity would be staffed, operated, and funded;
  • developing initial agreements that would govern the use and sharing of urban data; and
  • coordinating with privacy regulators and other key stakeholders, as necessary.” (p. 421)
  • Also, helping “startups, companies, and organizations understand these factors when preparing the RDU Assessment.” (p. 429 – not on main list)

Big job. Lots of responsibility. Wonder how much it would cost to run this office. And I’ll keep wondering, since this plan has no estimates at all. Funding “would need to be worked out in a consultation process” (p. 422). Indeed; why include an actual plan in a planning document, when you can always plan for more consultations? What a great way to exhaust the public and ensure that by the end, the only people paying attention are those with deep pockets and an abiding direct financial interest.

The major, and I think fatal, problem with this proposal is that it’s being undertaken at the wrong level. To use Sidewalk Labs’ language, the scale is too small for this type of organization to function well. The questions the Urban Data Trust would be asked to consider are the proper purview of either the federal or provincial governments, or both, not a tiny waterfront development funded by fees from the few businesses set up in this area. (Also, they want to pay for this with another local tax – sorry, data collection and use administration fee. How many fees does Sidewalk Labs want to charge us?)

Finally, the proposal that the Toronto Public Library be given responsibility for this job is ludicrous. They may have “expertise in managing [some types of] data and … credibility and trustworthiness …” (p. 422), but what guarantee that they can act as a business regulator? What guarantee is there that they will receive sufficient funds and resources to do their job?

This proposal seems like a cynical way to free-ride on the Library’s “trustworthiness” (almost everyone loves libraries!) by an organization that has very little of the same.

Trusting “trusts,” or, Sidewalk Labs breaks my brain

Sidewalk Labs notes that this entity is not intended to be a “trust” in the legal sense — legal trusts are not designed to benefit the general public. … While Sidewalk Labs proposes a non-profit entity, the final legal structure (and name) would be determined based on input from government, the community, researchers, and industry. Sidewalk Labs also now calls this entity the “Urban Data Trust” to clarify the proposed responsibilities [the stewardship of data]. (p. 423)

I honestly don’t know what to make of this statement as anything more than a weird exercise in semantics and public-relations jargon. The stated problem with “Civic Data Trust” was that it seemed to imply that the beneficiary would be the public, when the legal definition of “Trust” under Canadian law holds that it cannot benefit the general public.

So, changing “Civic” to “Urban” does… what? I thought the problem was with the legal definition of “trust.”

With “Urban Data Trust,” you get to keep the warm fuzzies from the word “trust” (as in, confidence in), but did anyone reading this proposal think anything other than this agency was designed to protect the public interest? That’s the whole point of the agency in Sidewalk Labs’ telling, no matter what you call it. Does Sidewalk Labs telling us that it will now be a “legal structure that provides for the independent stewardship of data,” reflecting the Open Data Institute’s concept of a “data trust” mean that it wouldn’t benefit the general public?

That would make no sense.

If there is any problem here (and I don’t think that there is, but I’m not a lawyer), it’s with the word “trust.”

I fear I’m falling victim to the Chewbacca Defence.

It’s all odd and makes no sense, except as a way to give legitimacy to the phrase “urban data.” And at the end of the day, it’s still unclear exactly what an Urban Data Trust would look like, except that there would be one. And it would operate in the public interest. Unless it wouldn’t.

Goal 2: Establish RDU Guidelines (pp. 424-425)

These should follow Privacy by Design.

They should

address key areas of digital governance, ethics, and open access to information, as well as the ways in which aggregate or de-identified data can impact individuals and groups of people through the use of advanced analytics, such as artificial intelligence. (p. 424)

Sidewalk Labs proposes the following principles:

  • Data use should have “a clear purpose”, “a clear, direct connection to the ways in which the project and proposed data collection activity would benefit individuals or the community.” Urban data use “must incorporate Canadian values of diversity, inclusion, and privacy as a fundamental human right.” (p. 424)
  • Transparency and clarity should be guiding data-collection and use principles. (p. 424)
  • Data minimization, security, and de-identification by default. (p. 425)
  • “No selling or advertising” … “without explicit consent.”
  • There would be no “proposed prohibitions placed on data collectors who would like to sell data containing personal information ro to sue such data for advertising.” The most Sidewalk Labs can promise is “a higher level of scrutiny”: these companies would have to “follow all applicable privacy laws” (um, thanks?), “provide clear justifications for this activity and demonstrate (with examples) how they plan to obtain explicit consent from the affected individuals.” (p. 425)

Data would be publicly accessible by default, and organizations

should be required to detail if they are going to be developing AI systems. If so, they should be required to show how they have incorporated Responsible AI principles into their development and decision-making to reduce the likelihood of biased and unethical outcomes. (p. 425)

As noted elsewhere:

Sidewalk Labs has already committed publicly that it would not sell personal information to third parties or use it for advertising purposes. It also commits to not share personal information with third parties, including other Alphabet companies, without explicit consent. (p. 425, emphasis added)

Goal 3: Set a clear process for urban data use or collection (pp. 426-441)

The steps:

Step 1: Classify the data. Urban data gets assessed, transaction data doesn’t. (p. 426)

Step 2: Submit an RDU Assessment (p. 428)

(We also learn that “Sidewalk Labs has been developing an RDU Assessment template since the summer of 2018,” and has been using it internally. (p. 428))

The Urban Data Trust would use the RDU Assessment to assess how the proposal con- forms to the RDU Guidelines, privacy laws, Privacy by Design principles, and any other relevant factors or applicable laws.

Sidewalk Labs proposes that the RDU Assessment consider the project purpose, data sources, legal compliance, and a risk-benefit analysis. (p. 431)

Step 3: Receive a decision by the Chief Data Officer. (p. 432)

Step 4: Meet post-approval conditions. (p. 433)

The underdeveloped part of the Data-Authority proposal

Given all the different jobs the Urban Data Authority would be asked to perform, a rough estimate of the number of people required, and the necessary training, would have been a helpful addition to this plan.

Proprietary data wouldn’t be open data

Sidewalk Labs gives some examples:

These cases could involve data that contains personal information — for example, a government organization that collects transponder data or images of licence plate numbers for enforcement.

And here’s an important exception: proprietary data, “collected at great cost to a company” might allow you to control that data and not have to share it, because that would “undermine investment and competitive advantage, discouraging businesses from locating within the IDEA District.” (p. 434)

This would almost certainly represent a monster-sized loophole in the commitment toward providing open data. This exemption would make the Eastern Waterfront very open to certain types of companies, those intent on not sharing their data.

It also prioritizes specific commercial interests over other commercial and social interests.

Urban Data Trust as negotiator

Another job for the Urban Data Trust people:

Sidewalk Labs proposes that the Urban Data Trust facilitate access to urban data via data sharing agreements, including the terms of any potential restrictions or licencing fees. (p. 435)

Urban Data Trust as auditor and enforcer

The Urban Data Trust should retain the authority to audit all collections and uses as needed and order the removal of digital devices in the event it discovers a violation. (p. 435)

The Urban Data Trust would be able to seek legal remedies for violation of agreed-to conditions of data collection and data use. (p. 435)

And all I can see is the paperwork (paper or virtual) and levels of bureaucracy that would be needed to make this thing run well.

Have you had your fill of data trusts and urban data? One more post will bring this section to a close. See you tomorrow.

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Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 34: The MIDP Volume 2, The Innovations, Chapter 5: Digital Innovation, Part 3: Creating a Trusted Process for Responsible Data Use (I)

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

This post, on Part 3 of the Digital Innovation chapter ran long, so I’m cutting it into two posts.

Part 3: Creating a Trusted Process for Responsible Data Use (pp. 414-441)

a third core condition of digital innovation is instilling community trust that information collected in cities will preserve the privacy of individuals and be used for the greater good — while promoting the growth of new businesses and the rise of new tools to improve urban life. (p. 414)

In which Sidewalk Labs makes the case for a category called “urban data”

I tried going through these sections in chronological order, but they’re such a mess that I’m just going to summarize their points. See Dr. Natasha Tusikov’s comprehensive discussion of urban data and the Urban Data Trust for the final word on both.

This part of the report has two objectives: To describe and legitimate Sidewalk Labs’, um, novel data classifications.

“Some private spaces”

Sidewalk Labs sets the table with a couple of odd turns of phrase, such as:

Torontonians are also concerned about the collection and use of data gathered in the city’s public realm, publicly accessible spaces, and even some private spaces — whether or not that data identifies specific individuals. (p. 416)

What odd phrasing: “even some private spaces.” Are there other private spaces where people weren’t concerned about data collection? I would imagine that by definition people would be most concerned about data collection from private spaces, full stop. But, as we’ll see in a moment, this phrasing is key to setting the groundwork for the overall data-collection plan.

Turns out there are a couple of private spaces at play, such as “Private spaces accessible to the public, such as building lobbies, courtyards, ground-floor markets, and retail stores” (Digital Governance Proposals for DSAP Consultation, p. 13). So don’t set up in Quayside if you don’t want your customers and yourself being monitored.

Oh, and private spaces can also refer to “Private spaces not controlled by those who occupy them (e.g. apartment tenants)” (Digital Governance Proposals for DSAP Consultation, p. 13), which has a real creepy ring to it, especially when it comes to surveillance. Just imagine your access to affordable housing being contingent on agreeing to have Sidewalk Labs and who knows what other companies watching your every move. That type of deal would come uncomfortably close to coercion.

“Urban data”

Which brings us to the second odd phrase in this section:

A second big theme heard during public consultation was that, in addition to personal and collective privacy, Torontonians are concerned with the ownership and stewardship of urban data. (p. 418)

Here, the odd phrase is “urban data,” a term that Sidewalk Labs invented and that only really hit anybody’s consciousness in October 2018 when Sidewalk Labs released its “Digital Governance Proposals for DSAP Consultation” document. Who was calling for this protection of “urban data,” and when? I don’t know.

What I do know is that from the very beginning Torontonians have expressed very strong concerns about the protection of personal data. That’s always what this has been about. Insisting that Torontonians were “concerned with the ownership and stewardship of urban data” smacks of Sidewalk Labs trying to fix the narrative to fit its interests.

Because here’s the thing: The protections Sidewalk Labs proposes for “urban data” only muddy the waters around this issue, and would effectively reduce the degree of individual consent sought.

What is urban data?

(For more on this, you should read Dr. Natasha Tusikov comprehensive overview of the Urban Data Trust and urban data.)

Sidewalk Labs does not make it easy for people to figure out how any of these terms work, because they present everything in tidbits and out of order. So, let’s try to make some sense of it, based only on this document.

Sidewalk Labs does not distinguish between public and private data, or personal and non-personal data. Rather, they distinguish between “transaction data” and “urban data.”

Urban data includes personal and non-personal data, aggregated data and de-identified data (although research increasingly demonstrates that no data can be permanently de-identified) (p. 417). It is data that is collected from the following spaces:

  • Public spaces, such as streets, squares, plazas, parks, and open spaces
  • Private spaces accessible to the public, such as building lobbies, courtyards, ground-floor markets, and retail stores
  • Private spaces not controlled by those who occupy them (e.g. apartment tenants) (Digital Governance Proposals for DSAP Consultation, p. 13; creepiness quotient for the third category having been duly noted).

Note that the only spaces not covered by urban data are privately owned spaces.

Transaction data, meanwhile, covers “in which individuals affirmatively — albeit with varying levels of understanding — provide information about themselves through websites, mobile phones, or paper documents” (p. 415). Such data could be generated in public or private spaces.

Sidewalk Labs argues against the Urban Data Trust regulating “transaction data” because “the data collector is already accountable under applicable privacy laws …”

Then again, so is some personal “urban data,” to use Sidewalk Labs’ terminology.

Also, such data “arguably is not uniquely connected to public spaces, nor is it generally considered a public asset requiring additional protections within the public interest.” (p. 426)

The question here is, is the location of data collection the most relevant characteristic of data? Also, urban data, using Sidewalk Labs’ own definitions, covers data in both semi-private and private spaces. Sidewalk Labs’ argument makes little sense to me.

Maximum surveillance

This redefinition of personal and non-personal data, or public and private data, into urban and transaction data, accomplishes two important objectives.

First (assuming it’s legal under Canadian privacy law), it gets around the problem of needing explicit individual consent from people moving through the smart city (in public, semi-private, and some private places) for the collection of personal data (as opposed to, say, a counter measuring the number of people passing over a bridge). I’m not a lawyer, and this document is anything but clear, so I would welcome any clarifications.

This move seems to be essential to the functioning of this type of Smart City, which depends on ubiquitous surveillance and data collection.

This mass consent would instead be provided by a central agency, in this case an Urban Data Trust. It would also probably depend on claims that this data can be de-identified, although as I’ve previously noted, it’s increasingly clear that de-identification is not a one-way street.

Although it only hints at it in this document (a single reference to “signage” on page 456, as far as I can tell) in an April 19 Medium post, Sidewalk Labs suggests that this “community consent” (Digital Governance Proposals for DSAP Consultation, p. 38) could be obtained by placing a variety of signs in the area to let people know how they were being monitored and for what purpose. But otherwise, this 1,500-page “plan” makes no mention even of how such consent could be obtained, sticking instead to musings about “being transparent” and “providing clarity” (p. 457). None of these goals necessarily have anything to do with consent.

Second, this urban-transaction distinction would leave “transaction data” wholly unregulated by the proposed data authority. Whereas, if Sidewalk Labs had concentrated on protecting personal data, they could have proposed a truly gold-standard policy that did just that. Instead, they’ve left the door open for mass individual surveillance while ensuring that Google’s personal-data pipeline stays wide open.

To be continued….

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