It’s been almost a week since the third public meeting of five for Sidewalk Toronto and I’m still struggling for words to describe the arrogance and gas-lighting that took place there. The best way to provide an update on the ever more entrenched mess we’re sitting in today is through two key events: The recently signed plan development agreement, and the framing of the project and this recent public meeting.
The Plan Development Agreement — Failure to Write the Requirements for Public Digital Infrastructure and Public Ownership of Data
I *still* haven’t finished reading the two contracts that were made public recently — the initial framework agreement and the second contract, the plan development agreement. I remain of the opinion that we shouldn’t make public policy with a vendor, so this was a bad deal at the beginning and is still a bad deal today. Having said that, it was widely reported that the second agreement was an improvement on the first for Waterfront Toronto, reducing the scope of the project back to the 12 acres of Quayside, amongst other things. But Waterfront Toronto’s failure to secure two key assets for Toronto’s residents is a glaring omission. This was an opportunity for Waterfront Toronto to set requirements for data collection and ownership. That whatever this “digital layer/digital infrastructure” is, the one that Sidewalk Labs hasn’t talked about in a while, will be publicly owned, and that the data will also be owned and managed by Toronto residents.
These key issues have been kicked further down the road. This was a massive lost opportunity in the negotiations. Now that Waterfront Toronto has confirmed its inability to take charge on data and digital infrastructure, it’s truly over to the City, the province, and the feds to exert policy on this front and exert it soon.
This can’t wait until the master innovation and development plan because a likely outcome at that point will be to kick these issues even further down the road. Perhaps move them into future consultations that would occur if the master innovation and development plan gets approved based on beautiful public realm and urban planning illustrations. This is the insidious nature of technology and surveillance infrastructure — it can be installed and lie latent, then continue to evolve with time. So long as the idea of it remains plausible, which it will unless clear requirements for public ownership and standards are created.
This danger is best understood by tracking what’s *not* clearly defined in the contracts and plans, rather than what is. And to be clear, this is only one of many risks and opportunity costs related to doing this project. I’m not even starting down the road of the economic development situation, the infrastructure, the public service integration, real estate, the sophistication of data products, the idea that data should be collected at all, inputs to intellectual property - the list goes on. But this was one simple and clear opportunity and it was missed.
Alphabet’s medium and long-term intentions with this project don’t need to be made known in the master innovation and development plan. Big tech companies generally don’t talk about what they’re up to until they unleash their products on the market. Google isn’t ever mentioned in this project, until someone asks Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs, about data security. And then there it is. These are all looming and ignored parts of the story, by design. Which brings us to the gaslighting.
Gaslighting a City by Framing the Narrative Incorrectly
Can you imagine the audacity it takes to know that Toronto residents, and residents around the world, are immensely concerned about the idea of a sister-company to Google developing a neighbourhood and then, in the face of that, deciding that you have both the ability and authority to ignore it?
Hi Toronto residents— you’re concerned about data collection and consent and use? That’s nice. The world is burning on those fronts right now, that’s true. Welcome to tonight’s meeting. Tonight we’re going to talk about public realm, streets, and buildings. Things that no-one, absolutely no-one, is concerned about in regards to this project. The level of disrespect on display at this meeting was a stunner. Waterfront Toronto went to great lengths to talk about process, transparency, public engagement, accountability, and public stewardship. And in the very same night made it abundantly clear that they have forgotten something: consultation is as much about listening and responding as it is about talking.
This is turning into a big game of chicken. How unforgivably insulting to push it onto the community to have to raise the issues that they are concerned about, but also aren’t confident or well-acquainted with. It’s hard to not fear seeming slow or nervous or stupid or paranoid or a luddite. This was the meeting for leadership on these issues. This was the time to proactively acknowledge these concerns about data, spend some time on them, and to say — hey, we’re trying something new here and wow, have we ever learned that we’re struggling, globally, around issues related to big tech and data and monopolies and power asymmetries. Let’s talk about what we can do about that, starting tonight.
Rather than this human and honest response the team dug in and dug in hard defending the wildly theatrical public engagement campaign they’ve held to date. And in doing so, gaslighting everyone that this is a normal way to proceed given what’s going on globally with technology and data. This meeting was a dare to the public to disturb and disrupt the narrative they were presented. Because Toronto residents are used to respectful and honest engagement they wouldn’t. I’m proud of us for that, and I have the same instincts myself. Not because I’m not immensely concerned but because I have respect for process. Something that isn’t being shown to Toronto residents.
One embarassingly clear element of the defensive language of this meeting was the idea that Sidewalk Labs, the one that’s been funding this sales and marketing roadshow, knows how to do engagement. That what they’ve done to date was a good idea. There was a steady stream of photos and numbers and terms and activities. Different groups and public events. Sidewalk Toronto staff seem genuinely confused as to why the public roundtables are such a focal point for the process. Let’s break this down.
Talking to a whole bunch of people in small groups can be a great way to meet people where they are at and to gather feedback. Certainly. But along with doing that comes a high bar for documenting what you are doing and making it extremely tangible as to how all of that talking feeds back into decision-making. This is not a giant research and development project where Toronto residents are bit players in a global product development game. The public is not here to feed tonnes of input into a process and then hope and wait for the big reveal, one that impacts their home.
The residents’ reference panel is being paid for and run by a corporation. That’s called a focus group. The fact that the materials and process aren’t transparent doesn’t lend itself to being a defensible input. Same goes for these other projects and vehicles. There are some notes from the neighbourhood association meetings online, that’s the extent to which the engagement that isn’t the public meetings is being documented for public access. Nothing from any of the many advisory groups.
The public meetings are the only place where it’s all documented properly, it’s the one place where key milestones should be announced, and where there is a big room to tell everyone the same thing at the same time. To build a community of stakeholders that feel confident about the grand narrative as a whole, not its sub-component parts, the breaking into little pieces that also breaks down public understanding. Learning about small isolated parts of this project don’t help people see the big picture. We all need to see the big picture together.
The process being followed is by design. It’s control. And it’s Waterfront Toronto’s fault for letting it be done under the auspice of a “public engagement campaign”. The language in the most recent contract spells it out — as does the more than $11 million USD being put towards “communications, external affairs and engagement”. This program will “seek to ensure support for the master innovation and development plan among key constituents in Toronto”
This is a broken record point but it’s another core error in this public process: if you are doing public engagement you have to make it clear how the feedback you’re collecting is impacting outcomes as you go.
You talk to people, hear what they have to say, then come back and say how you used it. It doesn’t mean you have to do all of it, it means you’re accountable for all of it. You do this over and over as the project unfolds to build trust. Instead, this has been a giant hoovering of information, input that will now be used to reverse engineer an outcome. At public meeting #2 there was discussion about data. So at public meeting #3 there should have been a review of what was heard and how it is being applied to the work. Instead, crickets.
These are trickle-down issues from the absolute coup by Sidewalk Toronto in how they’ve framed the project and thereby organized the discussion. It’s got the weighting totally wrong for the real public issues. There should be two boxes above. Urban planning and technology. Creating this much complexity gets everyone confused. By this manner of organizing it’s a pure numbers game. Six of the boxes will be cool and beautiful while the two other boxes are trouble. How they interact with each other? Unclear. Get people to interact with the pretty six and ignore/isolate the toxic two as frequently as possible. Through this methodology, support can be built through the sheer quantitative power of the framing.
Everything shown at this public meeting was beautiful. Do you like these beautiful open spaces? Yes! Do you like these lovely wooden buildings? Yes! Do you like access to the water? Yes! Do you think we should be conservative with our transportation planning and do more of the same or should we be bold and try and make it safer, pedestrian friendly, and more about public transit? Bold! I mean…
More soon(ish) on the two contracts. If you’re as concerned as I am about our governments being asleep at the wheel on this file and others related to digital rights, please consider signing the Digital Rights Now petition.
In conclusion, here’s an excerpt from this recent piece by Nick Boisvert at the CBC about concerns with this project related to data:
“Those concerns have grown since the Associated Press recently revealed that sister company Google continued to track its users movements after they explicitly told the company not to.
“We’re very sensitive and aware of those issues and we are monitoring the sister company’s activities as well,” said Kristina Verner, Waterfront Toronto’s vice president of innovation, sustainability and prosperity.
Sidewalk Labs says parent company Alphabet Inc. — which was created as part of a Google restructuring in 2015 — has been clear about its intentions with the project.
“[Alphabet] is very focused on the outcomes, and what’s possible when applying this type of approach to building cities,” said Shapins.”