No Longer Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP, Entry 46: Waterfront Toronto’s Letter to Sidewalk Labs

Waterfront Toronto’s October 29 letter to Sidewalk Labs and related PowerPoint slide outlining their understanding of how the Master Innovation and Development Plan should be changed before March 31 is, in essence, a huge reset of the plan and the relationship, almost exactly two years since these two crazy kids officially got together. (If the first-anniversary gift is paper, the second is obviously regret and resolve.)

It clarifies, once and for all, that any plans will be limited to the 12 acres of Quayside. It confirms the obvious, that of course Waterfront Toronto doesn’t have the power to deliver a lot of Sidewalk Labs’ demands, such as transit and extensive regulatory changes across three levels of government. It highlights that Sidewalk Labs will have to follow Canadian laws, which is always a comforting comment to come across in such documents.

It asserts that Waterfront Toronto, and not some new administrative body (which may or may not be Waterfront Toronto) is going to see this project through. Related, it puts Sidewalk Labs in its place in terms of who will be running the show regarding with procurement and general governance.  It tells Sidewalk Labs to forget about getting a discount on this prime land: it’s market price or nothing.

The letter also punts some important questions down the road, while setting down some key markers. These include exactly how intellectual property and data will be governed, and the specific forms of governance required to implement the plan (the five proposed agencies are kaput, with some undefined task force(s) either filling in the gap or deciding what should be done).

Overall, though, we’re back to the beginning: Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto are going to work together to produce an innovation and development plan for the 12-acre Quayside project. Which is what was supposed to be happening all along.

Only now they have to complete it in five months. Unless there’s another delay, which I’m sure would never, ever happen. #belikebrexit

Feasibility: Cramming a 190-Acre Proposal into 12 Acres

While this letter is supposed to amend the MIDP, it is completely unclear to me about exactly how it can do so. You might recall that the MIDP itself is an unwieldly 1,500 pages, lacking an index and logical framework. More importantly, that entire plan was based on the argument that Quayside itself is not big enough to realize Sidewalk Labs’ vision. Its economic and environmental promises and projects are pretty much all based on developing something at the scale of the “IDEA District” (a verboten phrase under this newish agreement).

For example, timber skyscrapers were supposed to drive a lot of the economic and environmental effects in Sidewalk Labs’ plan. (Let’s pretend for a moment that this plan is actually feasible.) But the MIDP argued that setting up this whole new timber factory would only be feasible at the scale of the IDEA District, which is no more. A similar point can be made for the other drivers of economic and environmental effects: the proposed Google Branch HQ (off the table), and all those self-driving cars (maybe no longer feasible in just 12 acres?).

At the very least, you would think that this restricted size would require Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs to completely revamp the MIDP, possibly to the point that it’s no longer recognizable. They would also have to redo their assessment of its environmental and economic effects. If Sidewalk Labs was serious about their claims regarding scale, then it’s hard to see how they can actually produce (in five months) a Quayside-only plan. Assuming that this would interest them: a fair reading of the MIDP would lead one to think that it wouldn’t.

Of course, it’s pretty clear by this point that Sidewalk Labs needs Toronto as much (if not more) than Toronto needs them. Their dilemma is a variation on how the Canada-US relationship is viewed internationally, as a barometer of American reasonableness: If Americans can’t get along with Canadians, who can they get along with? Toronto is Sidewalk Labs’ proof of concept. They have no track record. If they screw this up, it’ll look really bad for them. And it’s not like Google has the smart-city market to themselves.

Goodbye, “Urban Data”

The most significant part of this letter, the part that will matter far beyond Toronto’s borders, is Waterfront Toronto’s much-appreciated body blow to the concept of “urban data” and the “urban data trust.” As Mariana Valverde points out, these concepts are designed to obfuscate Sidewalk Labs’ actions on data collection and privacy. There was never anything honest about them, and my attempts to come to terms with Sidewalk Labs’ manipulation of words like “trust” almost drove me mad.

While such dishonesty about a concept that is essential to the MIDP should’ve been a firing offence, Waterfront Toronto did the second-best thing and told Sidewalk Labs to knock it off with the urban data and use commonly accepted and legal terminology. This move will help put our data policy discussions on a sound, comprehensible footing while discouraging Google from trying this nonsense elsewhere.

Let’s Work Together

While this letter places Waterfront Toronto in the driver’s seat in many ways, it remains vulnerable to the problem that has plagued this project since the very beginning, namely the joint development of an “Innovation Plan” between a government agency and a private vendor. Here, it all gets a bit confusing: Section 2a. gives the two organizations joint responsibility to “develop an ‘Innovation Plan’” (p. 3), while reserving to Waterfront Toronto the role of evaluator and overseer. The two will also work together on setting architectural and public-realm standards, while Sidewalk Labs will be responsible for developing innovation and design standards and guidelines “reflective of the Innovation Plan, taking into account Waterfront Toronto’s Minimum Green Building Requirements and Intelligent Community Guidelines” (p. 4). All of this sounds like Sidewalk Labs will continue to have a central role in setting the base standards (i.e., the rules) for Quayside, and possibly the Eastern Waterfront, should Waterfront Toronto decide to adopt them.

Which brings me to one of the big questions. This type of joint partnership, to the extent that it could work well, depends on both partners understanding their own interests and the subject at hand. It seems to me that it is an open question whether Waterfront Toronto has the capacity to contribute equally to this project. In the letter it places emphasis on the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel to provide advice to Waterfront Toronto. However, as expert as these panelists are, they are only part-time. They are no substitute for in-house expertise.

Waterfront Toronto, as far as I can tell, remains a land-development agency. This letter shows that they’ve learned the first lesson, that data and intellectual property are important. But, it’s one thing to block; it’s another thing entirely to be able to develop and evaluate standards and innovations in this area.

Data and Intellectual Property: First Steps

While this agreement punts on the question of exactly these policies will look like, it does place some markers. Digital proposals will be subject to Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Principles, and will probably be subject to some consultations, although the weasel word “may” shows up in: “Digital proposals may be required to go through a public meeting process and approval by governments.”

Also, despite Sidewalk Labs’ objections, Sidewalk Labs will be required to store and process personal information in Canada, while also using “commercially reasonable efforts to store and process non-personal data in Canada” (p. 7). Exceptions will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

And apparently a Digital Innovation Appendix will be coming by November 7. Mark your calendars.

Finally, for good measure:

Sidewalk Labs agrees to work with Waterfront Toronto and its government stakeholders in good faith to ensure each digitally enabled solution will not impede (and where feasible, will  foster)  accessibility  in  Quayside,  freedom  of  association,  freedom  of  expression, equitable  treatment  of  marginalized  groups,  public  engagement  and  participation  and other fundamental rights and freedoms, as applicable. (p. 7)

On intellectual property, they’re going to work together to decide on the rules (again, this is something that Waterfront Toronto should’ve decided on its own and then presented to Sidewalk Labs as a condition of involvement). Still, the baseline is better than the previous terrible base line. Commitments include: net revenues for all IP piloted in the “Waterfront Toronto-facilitated testbed area,” better access and use of Sidewalk Labs’ hardware and software digital innovation patents, and an irrevocable, perpetual licence for site-specific intellectual property (p. 9).

Google Branch Headquarters

The letter also highlights that if Google wants Villiers West, it’ll have to talk with the actual owners: City of Toronto/CreateTO and Ports Toronto (p. 3). As it happens, Appendix B (pp. 13-14) is a letter from the City of Toronto laying out the process for buying that land. So, watch this space, especially given Toronto Mayor John Tory’s openness to the idea. Google’s Canadian Branch Headquarters might still come to town, but not, it seems, as part of a Sidewalk Labs play.

You Can’t Talk to the Government (But Your Dad Can)

Probably my favourite part of this letter is in the Digital Governance and Privacy section, subtitled “Interactions with Government,” in which Waterfront Toronto tells Sidewalk Labs basically that it can’t lobby any of the Canadian levels of government on issues related to Quayside data governance without asking Waterfront Toronto first.

The intent here is pretty obvious: to keep Sidewalk Labs from working the refs and changing the rulebook. But when you consider that Sidewalk Labs is effectively a Google company and an Alphabet subsidiary, any restriction on its actions that don’t affect either Google or its parent company would seem to be pretty toothless.

Consultations: When? And on What?

There are a few other interesting things in here, particularly related to the possible development of an Urban Innovation Institute and some new rules to improve the appeal of a venture capital fund for Canadian businesses, governments and investors (pp. 8-9).

The final question is, what next? The next official deadline seems to be March 31, 2020, when a new plan will go before the Waterfront Toronto board. No doubt, the two sides will be hard at work until then.

But there’s also the question of public consultations, namely when they would take place, what they would cover, and whether they will be taken seriously.

In terms of seriousness, past results are not encouraging. The summer consultations had no discernible effect on this letter. Stephen Diamond issued his demands to Sidewalk Labs before the consultations got underway, and the two organizations amended the Plan Development Agreement almost immediately after they concluded and before Waterfront Toronto issued its report into the consultations. Yesterday’s outcome had all the hallmarks of behind-the-scenes negotiations, with public consultations holding distinctly secondary importance.

Can we expect better in the future? I have no idea, but I’m pretty pessimistic. Waterfront Toronto’s letter claims that, following the Board’s approval (which occurred on October 31), “Waterfront Toronto will proceed with a formal comprehensive evaluation along with further public consultation in order to obtain a final decision from our Board by March 31, 2020.”

To which I ask: “a formal comprehensive evaluation” of what? On what will the public be basing their opinions? On the MIDP plus these 14 pages? That makes no sense. On a newly revised MIDP? How long will that take to produce? And then how long will it take to undertake an economic and environmental assessment of it?

Look: I’ve read the entire MIDP, and now I’ve read this letter. Taking the latter seriously would seem to require gutting the former. I have no idea how to reconcile the two. It looks like Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs have their work cut out for them. And of course, there’s the basic question: Should these two organizations even be in this relationship?

Like I said, we’re back to the beginning.

 

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No longer liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Bonus entry 11: Without whom…

So, yesterday was a busy day.

I’m going to write up my evaluation of the new Sidewalk Labs-Waterfront Toronto understanding in a little while. But it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on how we got here.

In particular, while this new deal (which itself remains nebulous) is being treated as a victory for Waterfront Toronto and Chair Stephen Diamond in particular, we shouldn’t forget that it was Waterfront Toronto itself that brought us to this point. Diamond may be on the right track, but he’s essentially helping to clean up the mess that Waterfront Toronto created in the first place.

Sidewalk Labs didn’t just descend on the city; they were invited in by Waterfront Toronto.

Sidewalk Labs’ much (and justly) derided MIDP was a mostly unsurprising outcome of a procedurally questionable Request for Proposals process (as documented by the Ontario Auditor General), including what looks like Waterfront Toronto giving Sidewalk Labs a leg up on the competition. It arose from an RFP that naively treated data and intellectual property – the lifeblood of any smart-city project – as an afterthought, and that sought innovative governance mechanisms that almost by definition would cloud the accountability relationships necessary to make an agency-vendor relationships work for a democratic society.

It was an RFP that never should have been issued. Everything since, including yesterday’s announcement, has been damage control.

And remember that Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs worked hand-in-glove pretty much until Waterfront CEO Will Fleissig was forced out by the Board in July 2018.

Forcing the issue

So before we get too comfortable with the narrative of Waterfront Toronto taking back the power from Sidewalk Labs, I think we should acknowledge the people whose sustained efforts, over two very long years, with minimal resources, forced the issue. Without them, yesterday’s events likely don’t happen.

(This list is incomplete, more of a top-of-mind reflection. If you’re not on this list, it’s not meant as a slight. Feel free to suggest other important people in the comments.)

I’m thinking of a few people in particular, but foremost is Bianca Wylie. When Natasha Tusikov and I first watched that November 2017 town hall livestream (so very long ago…), we realized immediately that Toronto was being sold a bill of goods. This is because we both study data governance and have worked in government, Natasha has a specialty in platform governance, and I also study the intersection between public and private power. So we immediately realized the danger inherent in Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs’ half-baked plans.

Anyway, Bianca Wylie’s name was pretty much the first one we came across when we first started looking into Quayside. In following her work for these past two years, we’ve continually been impressed by her grasp of the issues, her civic-mindedness, her ability to move the issue forward, and (never to be underestimated as a quality) her tenacity. In a sense, she is the key player in all of this, as she played such a central role in setting in motion the public backlash that led to yesterday’s announcement. No matter what happens from here on in, Bianca Wylie has cemented herself in Toronto’s storied history of civic activism, alongside such luminaries as Jane Jacobs.

More generally, everyone involved in #BlockSidewalk should take a bow. This is what citizens’ democratic participation looks like.

Special mention should also be made of Julie DiLorenzo, who resigned from the Waterfront Toronto Board in July 2018 over the – shall we say – highly unusual Waterfront Toronto-Sidewalk Labs relationship. Everything that has transpired since then, especially Diamond’s effective distancing of Waterfront Toronto from Sidewalk Labs, has validated her concerns. In bringing attention to this dysfunctional relationship, DiLorenzo played a crucial and courageous role.

Saadia Muzaffar played a similar role with her resignation from Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. The panel itself was created by Waterfront Toronto in the midst of a maelstrom of controversy over data governance, with the Auditor General of Ontario (another office that acquitted itself honourably in this debacle) highlighting its ineffectiveness. (That said, the panel’s August 2019 report was very helpful in outlining some of the most problematic issues with the MIDP.)

Muzaffar’s October 2018 resignation, in response to Waterfront Toronto’s lack of seriousness in dealing with data issues, and terrible governance practices. Her justifiably harsh words for Waterfront Toronto – made only a year ago – highlight the extent to which Waterfront Toronto must continue to demonstrate its seemingly newly discovered public-interest bona fides.

Other people played important parts as well. Ann Cavoukian’s October 2018 resignation from Sidewalk Labs garnered headlines and denied the company her personal brand, which is synonymous with individual privacy. Sean McDonald did (and continues to do) useful work on issues like data trusts and data governance, while Kurtis McBride helpfully bridges the worlds of governance and business. Meanwhile, Jim Balsillie, who knows his way around the worlds of data, IP and governance, kept the pressure on, insisting that Waterfront Toronto was on the wrong track with Sidewalk Labs.

(This is one of the ironies of this whole sad show. Toronto and Canada already have plenty of smart and pragmatic individuals who understand both good governance and how economic development happens in a digital economy. If Waterfront Toronto had only reached out to them instead of falling for Sidewalk Labs’ get-rich-quick scheme, we all would’ve been better off.)

Media-wise, the Toronto Star editorial board didn’t exactly cover itself in glory with its thoughtless civic boosterism support for Sidewalk Labs. However, The Logic really came into its own on this story, it being the type of thing it was born to cover. The Globe and Mail, the National Post and the non-editorial/columnist Star reporters also did well.

We also need to give credit where credit is due when it comes to politicians. Some, like Toronto councillor and Waterfront Toronto Board member Joe Cressy have done the work we would expect of our elected officials, while former Toronto Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong raised concerns about the agreement early on. Toronto Councillors Paula Fletcher, Kristyn Wong-Tam and Gord Perks have also been active in exercising oversight on this project.

But probably the most important politician in this story is Ontario Premier Doug Ford. It was his firing of Ontario’s representatives to Waterfront Toronto in December 2018 (including the then-chair) that led to Diamond’s appointment as Waterfront Toronto’s chair. While the Toronto Star editorial board might not be interested in giving Ford credit for a smart move, we should. Certainly, when weighed against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s actions – praising the project in 2017 and then going into radio silence as concerns continued to mount – Ford, and Ford’s Progressive Conservative government, perhaps surprisingly comes out as the more responsive, and responsible actors.

As for us academics, given how obviously half-baked the MIDP is and how blatantly the partnership violated basic good-governance principles, I had hoped that more experts would’ve stepped forward to raise the alarm. On the plus side, those who did really stood out. I’m thinking in particular of Mariana Valverde of the University of Toronto, Alexandra Flynn of the University of British Columbia (check out their recent open-access journal article on this very subject), and David Murakami-Wood from Queen’s University. Shoshanna Saxe, of the University of Toronto, was one of the very few engineers to speak out against the project.

I’d also acknowledge, of course, Natasha Tusikov of York University, who in particular was all over the nonsense “urban data” concept, as well as our colleague Zachary Spicer, now at the Institute of Public Administration of Canada, with whom I’ve written a few opeds related to Sidewalk Labs; we’re also working on a journal article on lessons for other cities from all of … this.

(And a special cross-border/cross-ocean shoutout also to Ellen Goodman and Julia Powles, from  Rutgers Law School and the University of Western Australia, respectively, for their very helpful early analysis of the Quayside project.)

I would argue that what stands out about all of these scholars (beyond the likelihood that their research is not funded by Google) is a willingness to speak truth to power. This is not every academic’s default setting. On the plus side, this critical instinct I think leads to better analysis, and a better understanding of the world.

The cost of engagement

But it can also be exhausting. Speaking only for myself, it is not a hell of a lot of fun recognizing that one of the world’s biggest, most powerful companies is trying to pull a fast one over on your country, and that the government agency that is supposed to be protecting the public interest is not doing anything of the sort. In fact, it kind of sucks, especially when you realize that there’s nobody in the wings to pick up the slack if you don’t step up.

It sucks to have to devote hundreds of hours to analyzing a report that was designed to bamboozle and misdirect, that contains such obviously disingenuous concepts as “urban data” and “urban data trust.” It doesn’t feel great to have to constantly call out government agencies for so obviously failing to do their jobs.

When Natasha and I tuned into that November 2017 livestream, we did so out of genuine curiosity over what potentially interesting things Waterfront Toronto (and Sidewalk Labs) might propose. Professionally speaking, we thought that we might be able to figure out an interesting case study on data governance.

We did not expect that we would be witnessing the beginning of a protest movement that would consume the lives of activists like Bianca Wylie in a years-long battle for accountability and good governance over a few blocks of undeveloped land, brought about by an RFP that never should have been issued.

I’m sure all of these people would rather have spent the past two years doing something other than playing a grinding, uphill form of defence. I’m pretty sure Julie DiLorenzo would’ve preferred not to resign from Waterfront Toronto on principle. And although as an academic I’m much less involved in the actual policy battles, I would’ve preferred spending more time working on a long-overdue manuscript instead of being holed up in a room in Germany trying to figure out a 1,500-page doorstop that was designed to resist easy comprehension.

Thousands of person hours, spread over two whole years, given by people with other, more productive things to do with their lives, in service of a public interest that a government agency had failed to protect: This is what led to yesterday’s outcome, which itself is merely the latest event in an ongoing process that never should have been started.

What a waste.

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

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Celebrating an ordinary election

The more I think about it, the more I’m coming around to the opinion that yesterday’s election – and in fact the entire election campaign – was one of the most remarkable in my experience of Canadian elections, stretching back to Brian Mulroney’s first win in 1984. To be sure, the outcome wasn’t dramatic, although it will be challenging (as it always is) to make a minority Parliament work. And the campaign itself was focused on low-stakes issues, as opposed to, say, the civilization-threatening menace of the climate emergency.

But it’s the very ordinariness of the campaign that is the most telling for where Canada as a country is at the moment. As a country we are, at least institutionally, in a very good place.

Consider the following:

  • The People’s Party of Canada failed to elect a single MP. Its leader, Maxime Bernier, lost his long-held seat, driven out by dairy farmers irate about his anti-supply management stance. Unlike in the US and UK, economic self-interest defeated straight-up xenophobia. Talk about your unexpected consequences of economic protectionism. There’s a ceiling on how far xenophobia will take you in Canada.
  • For all the talk of the nastiness of this campaign, this time around there was nothing to match Stephen Harper’s 2015 proposal for a “barbaric cultural practices” snitch line.
  • For that matter, that the Conservatives elected Andrew Scheer as leader in 2017, rejecting the Trumpist Kellie Leitch, is a very good sign, since far-right populism causes its greatest damage when it takes over a political party. That didn’t happen.
  • Also (ironically) a good outcome: that Maxime Bernier was the runner-up in that 2017 race. At the time, it was not clear to anyone how anti-immigrant he would go. So that the Conservatives had a normal, libertarian conservative (as they understood him at the time) as a runner-up was also a good sign, the better news being that he lost (in part thanks to those same dairy farmers) and didn’t have the chance to take the Conservatives full Trump.
  • Dealing with the climate emergency is no longer the politically poisoned chalice it was when Stéphane Dion proposed a carbon tax in 2008. We have a national carbon tax. More reforms are almost inevitably on the way. One suspects that even the Alberta-based Conservatives will have to adapt to this reality, or risk returning to their region-locked Reform Party roots.
  • Our big media players remain mostly responsible. When your closest analogue to Fox News is a website, you’re in good shape as a country – for all our focus on social media, TV is still king if you want to influence people.

Even the divisions that the next Parliament will have to deal with are old hat for a country bound together by regional jealousies, resentments and hatred of Toronto. A resurgent Bloc Québécois looking to protect the interests of a “distinct society”? That’s kind of Quebec’s deal. “Western alienation”? Again, been there, done that. I seem to recall that we elected as Prime Minister someone who wanted to put a “firewall” around Alberta. Welcome to Confederation: These problems come with the territory.

That isn’t to say that Canada has become a post-racial paradise – Quebec’s Bill 21 remains in force; people shrugged off Justin Trudeau in blackface, and Indigenous Canadians continue to be treated horribly, and horribly unjustly – or that Canada will rise to the economic and climate challenges it faces.

My only two points are that, first, this was a very Canadian election, reflecting distinctly Canadian strengths, weaknesses and prejudices. Canada does not fit well into the narrative of a wave of global anti-democratic and far-right racist populism. Something worth thinking about, for those laser-focused on the idea of such a wave.

Second, institutionally, our democratic political and social systems are working pretty well: we are nowhere near the kinds of collapse at play in the US and the UK. This is neither something to shrug off as boring and unimportant, nor is it something to become complacent about. It’s a huge accomplishment, and one that is reinforced by every normal, boring election. It’s also a necessary condition to deal with our long-term climate, racial and economic issues.

In 2003, a bunch of us were travelling through Russia. In Kazan, a city in central Russia characterized (at least at the time) by the surreal juxtaposition in close proximity of beautifully maintained boulevards and seemingly bombed-out streets, we passed a guy selling books by the side of the road. Our friend, Mark MacKinnon, as is his wont, struck up a conversation in Russian with the bookseller, and the topic of Canada came up. The bookseller congratulated us on having just been awarded the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and exuded glowing enthusiasm for Pierre Trudeau, whose visit to the Soviet Union had meant a great deal to people in the Soviet Union. “How are things in Canada?” he then asked.

“Nice but boring,” Mark replied.

“Ah,” he said, “I would take nice but boring.”

Canada: the boring country. May it ever be thus.

Posted in 2019 election | Tagged , ,

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

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

So, mark the date.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cutting your losses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flawed process, flawed data

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

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

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

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

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