Sidewalk Labs’ Digital Innovation Appendix, Product Design, and Public Governance

I’m on page 50. Here are a few observations so far.

Corporate Design, Public Mitigation

“Future innovations in Quayside would be managed by existing public entities and subject to government regulations.” tweeted Waterfront Toronto recently.

But design? The stage where how the systems work happens? That’s Sidewalk Labs. Which as far as I can tell defeats the purpose of the story Waterfront Toronto is trying to tell. From page two of the Digital Innovation Appendix: “Waterfront Toronto has confirmed that, as part of the next round of public consultation, they will be generating materials to explain and seek engagement on the digital innovation components of the proposal.”

So the government agency is running Sidewalk’s product design through a public review phase.

If you’re like.. yeah, so? The appropriate order of operations would be to define policy for digital infrastructures, then to seek products and services to support those policies. Without defining policy before product design, Toronto is being subjected to corporate capture of governance, which is what the smart cities industry has always done. It’s hard to defend Toronto in making this mistake ten years into the industry’s existence. Which leads us to the understanding that after two years this is not a mistake at all — it’s what Waterfront Toronto wants to do, by design. As it had asked in the RFP.

Nothing about the recently reduced scope of the project, announced at the end of October, which many have been celebrating as a success for residents, changes or fixes this problem. The parties are still operating under a legal agreement that has their roles co-mingled.

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“NYCMAY01 — TRAP” by Hangar58 is licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0

Pass-through Procurement — Sidewalk Labs the Broker

The appendix features mention of how much tech in the space is not Sidewalk Labs’ tech, but tech from other companies. “ 75% would be substantially purchased from third parties (with only 25% anticipated to be built by Sidewalk Labs).” (page 10).

First off, why is Waterfront Toronto using Sidewalk Labs as some kind of broker for this much procurement in a public project? Why do these companies have to go through Sidewalk Labs, and why is Sidewalk Labs making these decisions on Waterfront Toronto’s behalf? You can say this is normal in real estate (I’m guessing) but this isn’t that.

Secondly, take a look at the list of digitally enabled services for Quayside under column N, “Proposed Lead for Procurement”. The design of these types of systems includes governance in the design. The products dictate governance.

From column N, Proposed Lead for Procurement:

Sidewalk Labs (SWL) as Lead Developer of Advanced Systems — Dynamic Streets

SWL as Lead Developer of Advanced Systems — District Parking Management

SWL as Lead Developer of Advanced Systems — Mobility Subscription Package

SWL as Lead Developer of Vertical Development

SWL as Lead Developer of Advanced Systems — Freight Management

SWL as Lead Developer of Advanced Systems — Waste Management

SWL as Lead Developer of Advanced Systems — Stormwater Management

SWL as Lead Developer of Advanced Systems — Advanced Power Grid

SWL as Lead Developer of Advanced Systems — Thermal Grid

I don’t understand how everyone is using the words that the public is driving the process on digital. They’re not. Getting in at the operational oversight phase is too late. If I’m missing something here, as always, I really hope someone can explain how they think this problem is being addressed in the public process. I can’t see it.

Precedents and Done Deals

“82% of these services/systems have existing precedents (i.e. they have already been partially or fully implemented in an existing project, either in Toronto or elsewhere around the world).” (page 10) Which might carry more weight if smart cities had resident buy-in already, when in most cases they don’t.

Then there’s the lack of exit — any question that can’t be answered is always punted further down the road. This puts everyone on a hamster wheel of enabling the technology. There is never an opportunity to actually say no because the product or service design is never done. No matter what the public raises as a concern in this appendix, the answer will always be that it will be it addressed in the next set of contracts.

Finally, the Google office on Villier’s West is still being conjured up: “Based on the performance at Quayside, Waterfront Toronto recognizes that there could be substantial public benefits by providing for an area of future expansion of the initial phase beyond Quayside to the area such as Villiers West to further Waterfront Toronto’s objectives, particularly in relation to economic development.” (page 21).

A lot of the new language from October 31st onwards seems to signal the two parts are joining forces again, as was always the co-design, co-authorship and circular assessment plan.

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