Democracy or Sidewalk Toronto. You Can Have One But You Can’t Have Both.

Public Governance is Getting Jammed by an Omnibus Distraction Plan

The days are closing in on Sidewalk Labs. The stakes on their increasingly overdue plan get higher everyday, it’s due this “spring”. As they pump out marketing events, panel and conference appearances, and public relations gimmicks to distract, it’s important to persistently reframe the conversation. Turn the volume up on a few issues that are lurking in Toronto, particularly within the urban planning and university communities. The problem, as it always was, is that people are still waiting for the plan, normalizing the increasingly unreal manufacture of public consent through sheer force and purchase.

Based on the jarring surprises Sidewalk Labs constantly launches into the media, I’m always looking over my shoulder, half expecting the plan to fall out of the sky. So, first things first. The plan will almost certainly be fine, on the surface.

They’ve being doing their r&d (tolerance testing) on a range of ideas since 2017, so the plan will take that all into account and not be very controversial. Granted, there is a Dan Doctoroff deal-making factor that I don’t know how to account for, so maybe they’ll push it where they shouldn’t on financing ideas. We’ll see. But save for an incorrect assumption on their part regarding our tolerance for explicit public sector subsidy, the plan probably won’t be the problem. Not in any easy to discern way, in any case.

Because if there’s one thing Sidewalk Labs’ excels at, it’s marketing. There will be no shortage of attention paid to the wrapping and bow. The plan will be long on irrelevant details and feel-good flourishes and short on critical issues, including any possible path that traces the final plan back to community input.

So the first line of rhetoric from the company, and its supporters, will be “see! it’s fine! what was everyone so upset about? paranoid! conspiracy-minded people…”

Of the thousand pages, the bulk of them will be devoted to more beautiful imagery, fun-sounding lifestyle ideas, and a generally “progressive” worldview. The issues that can’t be captured by the plan, they’re the real problem. It’s what’s happening outside the lines. Fundamentally, this company is taking a run at our governments.

Which brings us to issue number two. Sidewalk Labs, as Alphabet, is a powerful company. It has access to a pile of patient capital that its parent company has continued to accumulate as its lead revenue generator, Google, continues to exist as an unregulated monopoly. This creates a problem because Waterfront Toronto is trying to engage in negotiations with an irrational actor. Market rationale does not hold when trying to understand what this company is doing and why. A project where the only pressure and tension Sidewalk Labs’ experiences comes from pushing on one question - what will they let us do?

Artwork by Emmie Tsumura — IG @emsakko — Twitter

I don’t know how much money Sidewalk Labs is allowed to sink here. Which brings us to what is likely a vexing situation for the Waterfront Toronto board. Alphabet can basically pay their way to play with whatever they want. This may involve subsidizing housing, financing transit at better rates than available elsewhere, etc. This deal may be one where item by item, Toronto appears to get (or gets) a whole bunch of stuff it would like to have. But Sidewalk Labs is not a benevolent actor. It’s not a philanthropy, charity, or non-profit.

Which brings us to point three. The trade-offs.

This morning I received an email from the City Building Institute at Ryerson. It was a note about Ken Greenberg’s new book: Toronto, Interrupted. Ken Greenberg is currently advising Sidewalk Labs. As he wrote in Spacing, he’s been working with them since 2015. Back to the email. I clicked the link and read on. Much of the rhetoric is agreeable and lands squarely in the progressive vein. Then came this line about Toronto: “We make decisions together about priorities, even if it’s sometimes messy and time consuming, frustrating those with an authoritarian mindset.”

As a highly respected urbanist in Toronto, Ken Greenberg carries a lot of influence and soft power. His participation in the Sidewalk Labs project ticks a box for many people — oh, Ken is involved? Probably fine then. Other urbanists that have been at least mildly supportive include Richard Florida, Gil Penalosa, and Joe Berridge. If I’m wrong on this I’ll be the first to fix this and make a note, this is from observation of their comments over the course of the project.

When you hold the kind of power and influence on public opinion that these urbanists do, I think it comes with a certain degree of accountability. Maybe I’m wrong here, but if you are a public figure sharing your support, it would be really helpful to explain how you’ve squared your consideration of support with the range of risks at play, and the precedent this process creates. I’m not accusing anyone of anything. I’m asking to understand how people are getting to their position, from an earnest desire to have the messy conversations Ken Greenberg talks about.

These are informed and thoughtful people that care about the city and that believe and trust in Sidewalk Labs’ vision. They all have deep experience in urban planning and city building. It would be great to hear Mssrs. Greenberg, Florida, Penalosa, and Berridge come out and say that the urban planning being considered here is so special and unique, so impossibly important, that the issues this project is raising regarding public policy and democratic governance can be set to the side. I am unclear regarding which risks they have factored into their supportive calculus.

In this kind of discourse, I would be happy to learn more to make sure I see the sides that I can’t see as well or understand as deeply — to hear and learn about the upsides of flexible zoning, the supply chain of tall timber, streets that can adapt, affordable housing, walkability, flexible marketplaces, and more. I’m here to hear about all of these things and keep learning.

And I’m keen to talk about their interpretation of the threat vector that Alphabet represents. How the plan that is coming is so important to our future as a democratically governed city that it’s acceptable to turn away from the way democratic process was put up for sale to achieve it? That advisory meetings have been used to build support behind closed doors through soft power? That there are false binaries being used to talk about this deal (it’s Sidewalk Labs or the land lays fallow)? The assertion of legitimacy for this company to be shaping policy? Everyone’s comfort with pushing forward despite an acknowledged policy and legal vacuum? The list goes on.

If this plan comes out and the discourse jumps past all of this, and directly into the frame of urban planning, of streets and buildings and zoning and jobs, then we’re in the real badlands. This plan can’t possibly hold all the duty of engagement for policy discussions that warrant deep discussion at a reasonable pace, particularly when there are endless pages of distraction to obscure them.

And yet this appears to be the natural progression of the process, as planned. The plan will complete a sort of circular logic that Waterfront Toronto helped design. Do people think Sidewalk Labs will “oops!” miss the criteria that it was given? No. It’s a circle. And it’s the wrong conversation.

Sidewalk Labs is designing the frame of the discussion, and acting as though it’s just an ordinary ‘lil company, to be treated like everyone else. If Sidewalk Labs doesn’t have plans on how to benefit from a data-fied city, from a power and business perspective, then sure, this is just some harmless planning exercise. But that’s not what’s happening.

Sidewalk Labs can’t act in its own self-interest *and* design for the public interest *at the same time*. This is the structural conflict of interest at the heart of this project. It’s anti-democratic. And it was there since day one. It was built that way.