Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 12: The MIDP Overview III: The Plans, parts 1 and 2

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

Our examination of the MIDP Overview continues!

Readers will recall that Waterfront Toronto’s initial plan was to bring in a partner to develop their Quayside plot of land (which it controls). It would then, if possible, try to expand this development into the wider Eastern Waterfront, for whose development it is responsible but which it does not directly control, as lands became available to it. Or (bird in hand v two in bush), more precisely, should these lands become available. The Partner was to help promote this expansion, which would require the cooperation of various levels of government, as well as dealing with other existing landowners.

Also, as the Plan Development Agreement states, Waterfront Toronto’s partner would have to make a business case for it to be able to move beyond Quayside.

A common-sense reading of these documents (to the extent that such a thing is possible, given the degree of obfuscation that has characterized everything to do with this project from its inception) suggests an obvious progression: Develop Quayside and then we’ll try for more.

Sidewalk Labs’ response in this section collapses all of these plans into one audacious power grab. Effectively, they’re saying: “Here’s your business case: Quayside is too small to warrant our super-innovative smart city attention. We need more land. And more control over the parts of the waterfront we won’t own. And light rail. We really need light rail. So, we will develop Quayside first, but only as an integrated stepping stone to something we’ll call the IDEA District, which will also include something that we will call… oh, I don’t know… the River District. Has anyone ever used that to describe this part of land ever? No? Let’s use that.

“And we want our own public administrator to be in charge of it. That’s already Waterfront Toronto’s job? The guys who hired us in the first place? Yeah, they can stay, if their mandate is completely rearranged and we’re inserted into the governance framework. But a new agency would do us just as good.

“And it will all be served by light rail. Did we mention the light rail? I’m not saying that we’ll take our surveillance capitalism system and go home if you don’t pony up for our light rail system, but we’d hate for our hand to be forced.”

Sidewalk Labs is attempting to dramatically expand the scope of the original project, simply by renaming different parcels of land. Sidewalk Labs is trying to make it so that we’re not discussing Quayside, but the “IDEA District,” which would encompass Quayside, Villiers Island (divided by Sidewalk Labs into East and West), McCleary and Polson Quay, and part of the Keating Channel Precinct, which Sidewalk Labs seems to have divided into West and East (Sidewalk Labs gets the East). Take it or leave it.

And also the “River District,” which seems to be a subset of the “IDEA District minus Quayside and the west part of the Keating Channel Precinct.

If this goes through, while it would clearly be far beyond the scope of the RFP and the Plan Development Agreement, it would realize one of Waterfront Toronto’s objectives as revealed by the Auditor General’s report, namely, a way to break the waterfront-development governance logjam. Ironically, however, doing so would require either the transformation or elimination of Waterfront Toronto and the elevation of Sidewalk Labs into a formalized governance role. That’s some high-stakes drama right there.

Below I’ll briefly summarize each part of Section B (and also, very briefly Section C), which, like Section A, contains tons of pretty, non-threatening pictures. It hints at a lot of important governance proposals and much else besides, which I’m saving for some future posts, probably related to Section E (probably tomorrow), which is when Sidewalk Labs lays most of its cards on the table.

Section B: The Plans

Part 1: Introduction to the Plans: Geography, Role and Innovation Aspects (pp. 90-95)

Sidewalk Labs redefines the project to focus on an IDEA District (190 acres), with Quayside to be developed first, followed by Villiers West, future home of Google’s Canadian branch headquarters and a co-located Urban Innovation Institute, on which more later, and then the rest of the River District.

Sidewalk Labs introduces its intention to serve a governance role across the entire IDEA district. It would:

  • “work with Waterfront Toronto to prepare a set of ‘Innovative Design Guidelines and Standards’ that can be used to ensure that all developments in the IDEA District achieve the desired outcomes.” Waterfront Toronto would be responsible for convincing other levels of government to approve them, and would be responsible for implementing them (p. 92)
  • deploy its key technologies throughout the entire area, ensuring that everything that occurs in these areas develops according to Sidewalk Lab-desired standards (code and infrastructure are law, kids) (p. 92).
  • provide “optional infrastructure financing” for critical infrastructure (p. 92).

Why is Sidewalk Labs changing the terms of the debate to focus on its self-styled “IDEA District” and not Quayside? Because only at the scale of the IDEA District is it possible “to create a truly transformative experience” (p. 94).

Realizing all the awesome things they want to do with transportation, housing and environmental sustainability involves making changes to physical and digital infrastructure, and public policy (p. 94).

One of these will be an urban data trust, on which more later, “an independent entity tasked with overseeing a transparent process for responsible data use, which would apply in addition to existing Canadian privacy laws” (p. 94).

I don’t know about you, but whenever a foreign company reassures me, “Don’t worry, your laws will totally continue to apply here,” I get a little nervous.

It identifies seven “urban innovation areas” (p. 95): Mobility (transportation); Public realm (streets and “open spaces”); Buildings; Housing; Sustainability (promising “climate positive communities”); Social infrastructure (“Health, civic life, learning, and workforce initiatives”); and Digital innovation (i.e., data governance). Each of these is given the sales treatment in Parts 2 and 3.

Part 2: Quayside: A Complete Community and a Proving Ground for Innovation (pp. 96-129)

One of the first hints that this part of the document is primarily a fancy sales brochure is that the equivalent of just under half of these 32 pages is taken up with tasteful, calming artists’ renditions.

This part is comprised of two main sections. The largest part, the part suggested by the title, outlines all wonderful things that Sidewalk Labs wants to do in Quayside. However, lest one forget that Sidewalk Labs only sees Quayside as part of a larger unit, the final four (text-only) pages make the case that Quayside is Not Enough. First, the first part.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda

Beyond that, here’s the thing. These pages, which focus on the Quayside part of Sidewalk Labs’ proposal, promise that their smart city will have everything but a dedicated puppy room, and that its technologies, infrastructure and new rules will hit targets such as encouraging “73 percent of all trips to be made using public transit, walking, or cycling” (p. 104).

I’m a political scientist/former economist. I’m not a transportation expert, or an environmental scientist (mad props #heroes). I have no idea if much of what they’re proposing is feasible, or whether they will have the effects they claim. Some of these technologies sound far-fetched, but what do I know? We went from imagining Star Trek communicators to iPhones in 40 years.

What I can do, however, is identify certain tells in their proposal, and offer some cautions when reading it.

The first is, these pages only deal with best-case scenarios. In the case of the “mobility” outcomes mentioned above, Quayside only hits that number if all of Sidewalk Labs’ technologies and policies are approved, and the tech works out. In other words, these results are contingent on self-driving cars actually becoming a thing, which I would not bet any amount of money actually ever happening. As an engineer once told me, self-driving cars are five years away, and will be for the next 20 years.

Another way of putting this is that Sidewalk Labs’ plans are hostage to a technology that may not ever work out.

Or the production of mass timber buildings/skyscrapers, which seem to be driving a lot of their economic development and climate-positive-effect numbers. It’s an untested technology at the sceal at which they would deploy it. It assumes wood will come from an “Ontario-based factory” (p. 108 – good luck with any World Trade Organization challenges or a Google decision to withdraw financing under pressure from a protectionist U.S government to favour U.S. woodlots). It assumes that governments will change building codes to allow such a thing.

Second, Sidewalk Labs is presenting many, if not most, of their proposed (vapourware) innovations as an unmitigated advancement over what we have now. What it doesn’t address is, what are the current costs of what they’re proposing? What is the actual cost (in terms of money and annoyance) of delivery trucks versus creating an entire underground parcel delivery system? Phrased in this way, does this type of investment make sense?

Sidewalk Labs is selling the most sci-fi techno solutions they can think of. Are there cheaper ways to deliver the same advantages without relying on untested, or non-existent technology? Has Sidewalk Labs looked into this, or are they working backwards from their preferred solutions?

Third, focus on the “coulds.” Most of what’s in here is things that Sidewalk Labs would like to see invented. It’s a conditional term. Some will work out; some won’t. Writing “may” or “could” is exactly equivalent to writing “may not” or “could not.” Sidewalk Labs is selling a dream as much as anything. This is why, as I’ve already noted, the key questions have to be: Is Sidewalk Labs a trustworthy partner? How will this project be governed, by whom, and with what effects?

Odds and sods

(We’ll go more in depth into these things in a later post)

New bureaucracy alert!

Sidewalk Labs proposes: “A proposed entity called the Open Space Alliance would coordinate programming, operations, and maintenance across Quayside’s parks, plazas, streets, and water spaces for a more responsive public realm” (p. 107).

“Creating a trusted process for responsible data use, with a proposed independent Urban Data Trust to oversee and approval the use or collection of urban data” (p. 109).

Sidewalk Labs as regulator

“A proposed “outcome-based” building code system would monitor noise, nuisances, and structural integrity in real time to help a mix of residential and non-residential uses thrive without sacrificing public safety or comfort.” (p. 109)

In Quayside: set “data standards that are open and secure” (p. 129). Currently, Waterfront Toronto doesn’t have the expertise to contribute meaningfully to this discussion. A part-time Advisory Panel isn’t enough to make up for this lack. Advice isn’t any good if you don’t have the ability to evaluate it.

What passes for innovation

Sidewalk Labs invents the community centre! “A Civic Assembly, adjacent to the Care Collective, would provide neighbourhood access to spaces for community programs, civic engagement, and cultural events” (p. 113; I’ll get back to this tomorrow).

Sidewalk Labs invents the bookmobile! “A proposed collaboration with the Toronto Public Library (TPL) would explore ways to integrate the library’s presence throughout the neighbourhood, resulting in potential pop-up lending services or TPL-developed classes on digital literacy” (p. 113).

Quayside is Not Enough, or Exploring larger scales to realize and maximize the impact achieved in Quayside (pp. 126-129)

In which it is argued that “comprehensive planning and scale are necessary to realize and maximize Waterfront Toronto’s ambitious priority outcomes.” A.k.a. the River District.

First up, an urban innovation cluster, centred on Google’s new Canadian branch headquarters on Villiers Island (p. 126). Then, the creation of a “mass timber industry” supplying the entire area (p. 127). Also, a new, climate positive energy grid that can only be realized with a district-wide customer base (p. 127). And they can’t build affordable houses using new techniques if they can’t monetize it across this area (p. 127).

And did we mention the light rail? They won’t fund it, but they can finance it, at what would doubtlessly be reasonable rates (p. 128). And a few square blocks isn’t enough to get the benefits of new transportation options (p. 128). Finally, their fibre optic and network security ideas would only be financially feasible if spread to the entire district (p. 129).

Two comments on this last point. I’m not sure why they can’t treat Quayside as a digital tech lab and monetize the results by deploying it in other cities. Second, I hope they have better stick-to-itiveness on fibre optic internet than Google did.

There’s also some important remarks on p. 129 about setting standards that raise the issue of Sidewalk Labs as a rule-setter, but we’ll get to that later.

This post is getting long. I’ll cover Parts 3-5, and Section C in the next one.

This entry was posted in Quayside and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.