No Longer Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP, Addendum #2: Credibility gone: Yet another extension (Statement from Waterfront Toronto Board Chair, Stephen Diamond)

Following yesterday’s announcement that Waterfront Toronto is seeking yet another extension for the Quayside project, my main question is, at what point in a botched project do the actors involved lose all credibility? From where I sit, with no formal ties to either organization but having a professional and academic understanding of how these processes should work, this announcement settles the question of whether Waterfront Toronto should be considered a credible organization. After months of pulling stunts like this, it’s impossible to take anything Waterfront Toronto says about Quayside at face value.

Stephen Diamond’s statement is absurd on its face:

Today the Board of Waterfront Toronto agreed to extend the date for a decision on moving forward with the Quayside project from March 31, 2020, until May 20, 2020. This extension is to allow the public more time to offer input into Waterfront Toronto’s evaluation of Sidewalk Lab’s proposals for Quayside.

Since last November, Waterfront Toronto, assisted by local and international subject matter experts, has distilled the over 1,500 pages of Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan into 160 solutions and evaluated those solutions for their effectiveness in addressing critical urban challenges faced by growing cities like Toronto.

The committee overseeing the analysis of the MIDP confirmed that the work done by Waterfront Toronto over the past three months, and many of the innovations proposed by Sidewalk Labs — when considered against the goals and objectives for Quayside — merit consultation with the public as well as further refinement and negotiation with Sidewalk Labs prior to the Board’s decision.

“Today’s extension allows for more time for the public to provide feedback on Waterfront Toronto’s evaluation of Sidewalk Labs’ proposals and for the Board to hear directly from the public on its priorities before any decision to proceed to implementation is taken,” said Board Chair, Stephen Diamond. “This Board will not sacrifice the public good for expediency,” Diamond concluded.

Waterfront Toronto will seek further public feedback at public meetings scheduled for Saturday, February 29, 2020 at the Westin Harbour Castle (1 Harbour Square), and through online consultations.

A meeting agenda and materials will be provided in the coming weeks through the project website (QuaysideTO.ca) and all Waterfront Toronto social channels. (emphasis added throughout)

To claim that this delay is being sought to get more input from the public is, quite literally, unbelievable. Here’s where things stand, on Friday, January 24, 2020, just over one month before the single planned public meeting:

  • The only complete plan for this project, the mastodonic Master Innovation and Development Plan (you’ve read it, right?), was supposedly amended on October 31, 2019. The amended text has not been made publicly available. As one of the (very, very few) people who has actually read the MIDP in all of its disingenuous glory, I will categorically state that adapting it to meet the terms previously laid down by Waterfront Toronto (no urban data, limited to Quayside, etc.) would require completely gutting and reworking the entire plan. In other words, the public at the moment has absolutely nothing solid that it could plausibly comment upon. Other than the incompetence of Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, I supposed.
  • The only other document in front of the public of any relevance is the 500-page Digital Innovation Appendix, which was released a few weeks (and late, of course) after the October 31 announcement that the MIDP had been amended. As longtime readers my have noticed, I haven’t blogged about it, mainly because it’s an appendix either to a) a report that no longer exists, or b) a report that has yet to be released. It’s vapourware. Also, given that it took Sidewalk Labs two years to create the MIDP, it is, frankly, unbelievable that it could turn a substantive appendix around in a matter of weeks to reflect the revised plan.
  • And yet we’re promised “materials” sometime in the next 34 days that will cover “160 solutions.” Wonder how long that document will be, and when it’ll actually be delivered.

So, after jerking the public around for seven months about the project’s deadlines, the public is being asked to comment on a plan that nobody’s actually seen yet. In one single public meeting. On a Saturday, FWIW. How expedient.

Granted, cramming your “consultations” into one day with no details about when anyone will be able to actually read the relevant plans demonstrates about as much respect for public opinion as rushing consultations on a 1,500-page report in the dead of summer after having stated in advance your conclusions about the report.

And also, constantly moving deadlines and an almost allergic reaction to clearly laying out a reasonable timeline itself shows great disrespect for the public, all of whom have busy lives that shouldn’t have to revolve around the caprices of a development agency. If Waterfront Toronto truly cared about public input, they should’ve announced a series of public consultations for Fall 2019, with a second round of consultations in Winter 2020 to address a revised report. This isn’t rocket science; I proposed it back in July 2019, a solution as obvious then as it is now.

That is, if you’re serious about listening to the public.

Survival mode

It’s been clear since the establishment of the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel in April 2018 that Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs have been madly improvising pretty much everything to do with Quayside. The creation of the DSAP was a tacit admission that Waterfront Toronto didn’t understand the importance of data when undertook this project (a suspicion confirmed by the Auditor General of Ontario’s report, which highlighted this lack of expertise). The DSAP was created to address this gap.*

At least cosmetically: The DSAP is more important to Waterfront Toronto as a provider of legitimacy than as an actual source of insight. Otherwise, they would’ve provided the Panel with enough time to review relevant documents.

If I were a member of the DSAP, I would be very concerned about the extent to which Waterfront Toronto’s dependence on the DSAP to provide it with the veneer of credibility on these issues would start to affect my own credibility.

Now, we’re in a situation where both Waterfront Toronto’s and Sidewalk Labs’ fates are tied to the successful implementation of this project. Sidewalk Labs, a company with no track record, desperately needs Quayside as its calling card in an already-potent field of competitors capable of delivering smart-city-related products and services. Waterfront Toronto, a time-limited agency, wants to ensure its continued existence and sees Quayside as its golden ticket.

In short, we’re watching desperate organizations frantically trying to come up with a way to make this work, even if it involves retooling a land-development agency into a data-regulation agency with its own independent funding stream, creating a fact-on-the-ground that will warp Canadian data and innovation policy for decades. If anyone in the three levels of government had any foresight, they would shut this project down for this reason alone.

The death of Waterfront Toronto’s credibility

My personal hunch is that Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs are still figuring out what MIDP 2 will actually look like. This would fit the longstanding pattern in this case, in which public consultations have been a mere sideshow to the real behind-the-scenes action. (See: the initial misleading of Torontonians about the nature of Sidewalk Labs’ $US50 million spending; and Diamond’s pre-consultation publication of the Note to Reader, outlining Sidewalk Labs’ concerns with the MIDP, and post-consultation statement, but pre-report-on-consultations, demanding specific changes.)

Whatever way you cut it, there is ample evidence that Waterfront Toronto has not been playing straight with the public for a very long time. The Auditor General’s report clearly lays out serious problems with the RFP process. Waterfront Toronto has never been clear about the nature of its relationship with Sidewalk Labs: in the Plan Development Agreement, it’s a partner, but when it’s convenient, it’s an evaluator. Its approach to consultations related to Quayside, while always weird (kids’ day-camps as consultation, anyone?), has been, since the publication of the MIDP, superfluous. According to the Auditor General, its (part-time) digital experts do not feel like they’ve been adequately consulted.

At a certain point in such a process, one has to move from questions of substance to questions of credibility, from “Why do you think this is a good idea?” to “Why should we believe anything you say?”

Yesterday, for Waterfront Toronto, that day arrived. Maybe we don’t need any new documents to prepare for the February 29 meeting. The question on the table is as obvious as it is straightforward.

* An earlier version of this post incorrectly linked the creation of the DSAP to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which came to light in March 2018. I’ve since been informed that the formation of the DSAP had been in the works several months before that. I’ve amended this paragraph to correct this error.

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