Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 11: The MIDP Overview II: Project Background

Previous Master Innovation and Development Plan liveblog entries available here

The Overview consists of a Foreword (pp. 26-27) not listed in the table of contents) and four sections, three of which correspond to the other three volumes and one of which provides the background to the whole project.

Also, lots and lots and lots of pretty pictures.

This post provides a part-by-part overview of the Overview’s first section, Project Background. Fun fact: the Overview’s Table of Contents doesn’t list every part in this (or subsequent) sections! Huzzah for transparency!

Subsequent posts will cover the remainder of the Overview, followed perhaps by some more targeted analyses. Then it’ll be on to the other volumes. Let’s dive right in.

Section A: Project Background

Five things to know about the Sidewalk Toronto Project (pp. 36-37; not listed in the Table of Contents)

Summary of the MIDP’s three volumes (pp. 38-39; not listed in the Table of Contents)

Part 1: Toronto Waterfront: A Historic Opportunity for Inclusive Growth (pp. 42-53)

Four pages devoted to pictures and eight devoted to seize-the-moment rhetoric and building up (pun unintended) Waterfront Toronto, which, we are informed in a moment of pure Lionel Hutz over-reach, was “Born to raise the bar on urban development” (p. 46).

Part 2: Seeking a “Unique Partner” to Help Set New Standards for City Building (pp. 54-65)

Most of this section (and the report to this point) reads like a sales pitch, including pitching a parade of horribles to which this particular smart city design is the solution, but it does hold two interesting tidbits.

Donwplaying your main calling card: From “from the internet up” to “from the community up”

First, Sidewalk Labs engages in a bit of historical revision. Sidewalk Labs’ original pitch was centered almost entirely around their desire to build a city “from the internet up”; the phrase appears ten times in Sidewalk Labs’ original Project Vision. The phrase and outlook were obviously core to Sidewalk Labs’ entire identity and raison d’être: Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel L. Doctoroff penned a Medium post in 2016 titled “Reimagining cities from the internet up.”

Fast forward to 2019, and “from the internet up” is nowhere to be found in the entire MIDP. Instead, this company – which was hired for its internet prowess/connections to Google – instead claims that it “aims to create the open conditions for ongoing improvement — recognizing that the best solutions to urban challenges come not from the top down but rather from the community up” (p. 63, emphasis added).

Given that Sidewalk Labs is still a Google company whose vision still boils down to networking everything it can get its hands on, this change reads more like an attempt to couch the technical aspects of what they want to in less-threatening language. It’s on the level of all the serene illustrations they produced for this project: if you were just given these images (or their new catchphrase), you’d never guess Sidewalk Labs wanted to build a digital utopia.

It would be interesting to hear from the horse’s mouth why Sidewalk Labs has so thoroughly disowned its main contribution to the smart-city marketplace.

Sidewalk Labs justifies itself

Second, one of the most interesting parts of the Overview’s first part is Sidewalk Labs’ discussion of why it is the right company for the job (pp. 59-65). They boil it down to three reasons:

  1. Sidewalk Labs has access to Google money, which gives it a longer period for its projects to become profitable.
  2. It has many bright and experienced people working for it.
  3. Google (note: not Sidewalk Labs) has “an uncommon ability to catalyze economic development” (p. 65).

Playing devil’s advocate, I’d wonder:

  1. Sidewalk Labs can’t lose money forever, and its de facto parent company, Google, has a reputation for cutting bait on major infrastructure (Google Fibre) and public-interest (I.P. Google Reader) projects that don’t fit with its corporate (money-making) vision. What is their profitability time horizon?
  2. The company itself doesn’t have a track record. Richard Florida may vouch personally for Dan Doctoroff “and key members of his team” but what happens if he or another key person leaves over the next 10-15 years?
  3. Sidewalk Labs argues that its catalyzing of an economic cluster “is anchored by the relocation of Google’s Canadian headquarters to the eastern waterfront as part of a new innovation campus.” How much of the anticipated economic effects from this project would be driven by Google, and how much by Sidewalk Labs? I hope these numbers will be provided in a later volume.

Part 3: Launching the Sidewalk Toronto Project and a Robust Public Engagement (pp. 66-83)

This section provides a very high-level overview of Sidewalk Labs’ consultation process, which I covered briefly in a previous post.  It highlights the following engagements (pp. 67-68):

  • “dozens of community meetings and programs”
  • “a series of large-scale roundtable meetings”
  • Advisory Working Groups (p. 71; no names listed)
  • “a series of public talks”
  • “Sidewalk Toronto Residents Reference Panel, a group of 36 residents from every corner of the city and diverse back- grounds. Across six Saturday sessions, spread over nine months and dozens of hours, the panelists received an in-depth look at many aspects of the Sidewalk Toronto project and provided a detailed set of recommendations, helping to shape the plan in the best interests of all Torontonians” (see below)
  • “Sidewalk Toronto Fellows Program,” which I’ve discussed previously, along with why their inclusion doesn’t pass the true-consultation smell test
  • a YMCA kids camp, which, c’mon
  • Six topic-specific advisory boards “filled with local experts”
  • “hundreds of one-on-one or small group meetings”
  • Displaying urban innovations at Sidewalk Labs’ 307 space in Summer 2018
  • Outreach to under-represented groups, including a design workshop for members of the Indigenous community, and travelling “to middle schools to ask children and youth for their ideas”

The report also mentions Waterfront Toronto-run consultations on digital-focused elements and “design jams” (pp. 68-69).

Missing: a comprehensive list of meeting dates, times and/or attendees.

Regarding the Sidewalk Toronto Residents Reference Panel whose members aren’t identified in the report, In an article for Now magazine, Cybele Sack, who participated in the Reference Panel, raises serious doubts about its representativeness, including Sidewalk Labs’ aversion to discuss data governance in favour of “safer examples to frame the conversation. Let’s talk about potholes, they said, or how to make sure an older woman can have extra time to cross the street. Who would object to that?”

Parts of the process, she writes, “felt like a sales job – we were instructed not to choose whether we wanted this project or not, but to provide specific feedback on elements of it.”

Conspicuously absent from this section, from the subsidiary of the company that runs Google Groups and that wants to build a city “from the internet up,” was any mention of online engagement beyond livestreaming (which gets a few mentions only in the consultation timeline, p. 70) and posting documents online. No innovative online community forums, no hangouts. The Brazilian government showed more digital creativity and willingness to engage in an actual conversation with people in its internet-governance consultations than did Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto.

Again, the picture that emerges is of a company that is less interested in building a city “from the community up” and more one that wants the illusion of consultation while maintaining maximum control over the narrative and outcomes.

This section also highlights seven themes that emerged from these consultations, themes that tend to reflect issues that Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs had previously identified in the Project Vision (Sidewalk Labs) and the Plan Development Agreement (the Pillars; Schedule B) documents. It says how it will achieve these goals, invoking a mix of actual policies, aspirational technology, new institutions, and claims about what their proposals will accomplish. Most of this is covered in greater detail in later sections, so I’ll leave it until then.

Sidewalk Labs’ Intentions for the Sidewalk Toronto Project (pp. 84-85, not listed in Table of Contents)

Sidewalk Labs lists its (heavily qualified) “won’ts”

In which Sidewalk Labs foreswears selling or using for advertising “personal information,” which I include in quotes because one of the things Sidewalk Labs is up to in these documents is redefining different types of data according to its own idiosyncratic definitions. We’ll get to that in a later post.

Even better, they qualify this seemingly unambiguous guarantee two sentences later. A guarantee not to sell personal information becomes a commitment “to not disclose personal information to third parties, including other Alphabet companies without explicit consent” (emphasis added). No word here on how “explicit consent” will be defined, and Dr. Natasha Tusikov, who is finishing up Chapter 5 of Volume 2, informs me they don’t deal with that issue there, either. A timber skyscraper-sized loophole, as it were.

Claim 2 is that “Sidewalk Labs is not motivated by a desire to export Canadian talent or intellectual output to the United States,” stating that it

is not an internet company that can exist anywhere. An important part of its business model involves going “all in” on physical places. This proposal seeks to make Toronto such a place. Moreover, Sidewalk Labs has committed to share profits with the public sector of certain technologies first deployed in Toronto (p. 84).

This claim strains credulity. If Sidewalk Labs is interested in developing intellectual property, to the extent that it controls this intellectual property it will be exporting developed-in-Canada IP to the United States. This has nothing to do with being an “internet company” or not.

This is also another example of Sidewalk Labs’ too-cute habit of shifting between claims that it is or isn’t a Google company depending on the audience and its immediate strategic needs. As I noted in my previous post, most of the economic benefits Sidewalk Labs is promising Toronto will be the result of Google’s presence at the heart of its new tech hub. Google works in part by acquiring IP and companies because that’s what tech companies do. There is absolutely no reason to think they will act differently in Toronto.

Also, if an American company controls the IP developed by Canadian companies and talent, there’s no reason to “export Canadian talent … to the United States,” so this promise doesn’t seem to be worth much.

Claim 3 is that they are not interested in developing “the wider Port Lands” (p. 84). This claim might be technically correct (which is the best type of correct), but it obscures the fact that even their play for Villiers Island goes beyond the original RFP and that their governance proposals would see them exerting significant influence over this.

Having foresworn so much, all it wants is “to create places that apply 21st-century concepts in design and technology to achieve improvements in nearly every dimension important to quality of urban life, from creating jobs and reducing the cost of living to increasing mobility and advancing sustainability” (p. 85). And to “earn a reasonable return on its investment” (p. 85), whatever that may be.

Submitting the Master Innovation and Development Plan (p. 86, not listed in the table of contents)

In which we are reminded that once Waterfront Toronto finishes its consultations, Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs will then negotiate a final(ish) version of this document, which would then require other levels of governments and agencies to agree to change their rules to fit what Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs are proposing.

It is also a reminder that Sidewalk Labs is asking for things that Waterfront Toronto cannot deliver on its own and which Waterfront Toronto cannot compel from other levels of government. Some of these things, such as redirected transit funding, could cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Others will involve creating new bureaucracies and special rules (read: special treatment) for a tiny, corporate-directed sliver of land. No prizes for guessing who would be responsible for funding these positions: call them user fees or taxes, but residents (including many who won’t even be living in Quayside) will be stuck with the bill one way or another.

Then again, this fits with Waterfront Toronto’s original strategy as I read it back in the Auditor General’s report and original Request for Proposals: use its direct control of Quayside to kickstart Waterfront Toronto-driven development in the rest of the Eastern Waterfront. The only difference is, under the MIDP as currently written, Sidewalk Labs, not Waterfront Toronto, would be in the driver’s seat.

That’s enough for today. Tomorrow, on to Section B: The Plans.

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