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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easier to prototype:

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

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

The tech-law connection:

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

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

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

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

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

Real-world consequences:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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