Report from Executive Committee on Sidewalk Toronto. Plus a Word About Consent, Consultation, and Innovation.

Update from Executive Committee

On Jan 24th, 2018 the City of Toronto’s Executive Committee met and received a report about the Sidewalk Toronto project. The item had landed at this committee because the initial contract between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto still isn’t public.

The backstory is that Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, the sole elected official on the Waterfront Toronto board, made a motion to make the contract public late last year, and no one on the Waterfront Toronto board would second his motion. Rather than leave it there, Minnan-Wong made a motion to request City of Toronto staff to write a report on the contract.

It’s a good report, and details several issues that staff have flagged about the contract and the deal. The back and forth about it at council is strange in that Minnan-Wong has seen the contract, but no one else on City Council is allowed to, so it’s hard for them to talk about it. Minnan-Wong’s message to his council colleagues was straightforward:“I know enough about the agreement that I think you would like to know more about the agreement.” After some discussion, Minnan-Wong made a motion to take the report to Toronto’s full City Council, presumably to increase oversight.

His motion didn’t pass and the report won’t go to full council. However, Councillor Paul Ainslie made a motion to expand the process for the project, requiring other staff to be involved, terms for the data, and more — so the item has now moved over to Government Management Committee, though there is no date for when that will happen.

Councillor Janet Davis, Councillor Gord Perks, and Councillor Michael Thompson all said that they did not understand what the business plan was about in adequate detail, despite each having met with Sidewalk Labs staff.

Based on these meetings, as Davis and Perks shared, there are three or four lines of business that Sidewalk Labs is pursuing: real estate, infrastructure, venture capital, and technology.

Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong at Executive Committee on Jan 24, 2018

Known Unknowns

There were four particularly odd things about the way the conversation went down at committee.

The first one: the contract is talked about by City staff as a very high level “agreement to agree” — basically, that there’s not much to it, just a way to set the table for talks. But at the same time, the reason given for not making it public is that there is commercially sensitive information in it.

The most detail that Deputy City Manager John Livey could provide on this question was that: “…on this $50 million dollar question there are some commercial terms about how that money gets dispersed and at what time and I think that’s the kind of commercial relationship that they don’t want public at this time.”

The second odd thing is that it’s been reported that Sidewalk Labs has no issue with opening the contract. Davis hinted at the same thing. Which means it’s Waterfront Toronto that won’t open it. Which is weird because is it their commercial (read — ours) interest that we’re protecting here? Does that mean we should trust that and let it be? If that’s the case, and I only raise it to keep the option on the table, the time to explain this properly to the public has come and gone.

The third odd thing is the persistent repetition by City staff that nothing will happen until the Master Innovation and Development Plan is signed. Which isn’t for a year at least, it’s the end deliverable. Which is in conflict with the pilot projects being talked about. Isn’t the fifty million to be spent over the course of this year?

The fourth odd thing was Minnan-Wong dredging up this quote from the Globe and Mail, one from last October where Dan Doctoroff, head of Sidewalk Labs, says the project is “primarily a real estate play”. City staff concur that they also read that quote, and then that’s the end of it. It’s abrupt, and an interesting note to end the discussion on.

If you watch the video of the meeting it’s hard not to be reminded of the Donald Rumsfeld line of thinking — defining the known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.

It’s completely possible that the contract could be opened and there is nothing much to it, though this is in conflict with Minnan-Wong’s concerns. Also, having now heard the four lines of business they’re discussing, who knows which one or ones are primary and which are secondary.

All said, there is nothing standard about this deal. Which makes oversight that much more important. The contract should be public. If not, there should be a clearer reason given than vague “commercial sensitivity” so we can move on from this confusion.

The Consultation Plan

Taking this a step further, it’s disingenuous that this process has been framed and referred to persistently as a public consultation. Based on what’s coming out at council, Sidewalk Labs has four very intentional lines of business it will seek to explore and invest in. Why haven’t they come out directly with these four and spoken about them? They bury a possible outcome for the City in 200 pages of urbanism spiked with digital flourishes and avoid the one page summary we all need — their commercial plans. And why has Waterfront Toronto allowed this communications charade to go on this long?

Now let’s see how these four lines of business are framed in the consultation. Will we be having conversations about public-private infrastructure? Will we be talking about financing models for public investments in tech companies? Our comfort with loosening existing regulations? If we launch into a conversation about urban planning and sensors and data, are we skipping a whole discussion about business models and funding and impacts to public service delivery? Real estate and the Port Lands? Commercial influence on democratic process?

The public consultation plan will be released soon. The way that public input is sought on these types of lines of business, and our terms as residents to do them, is an important thing to look out for. As well as how these lines of business do or don’t fit into the long history of residents informing the plans for the Port Lands. Framing is critical. We need to be talking about high-level governance issues in this consultation.

Consent — Data Capture and Data Deletion

Part of my deputation to Executive Committee on behalf of Tech Reset Canada was to request that all data and data infrastructure related to this project be owned by the City of Toronto and its residents.

But another thing I mentioned was that we haven’t had a conversation about if, nevermind how, we want to have a smart city.

As we enter into this conversation about data we need to open the door way farther in terms of options around data. There is somewhat of a perceived consensus that having all this data and tracking is inevitable. This isn’t true. There are two pieces to any data strategy that we’re under-discussing. There is the option to not capture it at all and there is the option to delete it.

We also need to break out the types of data we’re talking about. We may all be fine with capturing environmental data (rainfall, shadows, humidity, pollution) but not fine at all with capturing any type of human data, even if it’s anonymized or aggregate data. Maybe that’s off the table.

Yes, a lot of this data is immensely valuable, but that doesn’t mean that it must be commercialized. People have agency and our agency is of foremost importance. We need to remember that there are numerous models we can talk about. As Pamela Robinson, Professor of Urban Planning at Ryerson, put it recently at a smart cities panel held by IMFG’s Innovation Policy Lab, “residents can help co-design the terms and conditions for the use of our data”.


There are so many different ways to use technology in our city. Some of the next work to do is to write the requirements for the smart city tech we want to have here. What do we need? How does it connect to the City’s existing tech? More importantly, how does it connect to existing City policy and priorities?

We can begin a process of community product management to have this discussion. This should be done collaboratively with Sidewalk Toronto through its consultation and independent of it. The federal smart cities challenge is one vehicle for this work, Future Cities Canada has just launched, and Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam recently held an event to look at Innovation and the Indigenous District.

At the end of the year there have to be many smart city options. This will help everyone understand and decide if the final vision that comes out of the Sidewalk Toronto process is the smart city we want for Toronto. Because it certainly isn’t the only one possible.