Sidewalk Toronto: A Hubristic, Insulting, Incoherent Civic Tragedy — Part I

The Public Consultation — Broken Narratives Break Community

The public reaction to the recent Toronto Star exposé regarding Sidewalk Labs’ possible financing plans, and the scope of their ambition, speaks volumes about how the partners on this project have communicated with its stakeholders.

It doesn’t matter that some of these intentions were documented by John Lorinc at Spacing days after the project started. It doesn’t matter that Sidewalk Labs’ project website has always talked about the Eastern Waterfront. It doesn’t matter how many time the words Ports Lands or “at scale” were written or mentioned, whether in the RFP, legal agreements, or nestled in slides at public or advisory group meetings.

What matters is that both partners have weaponized ambiguity throughout this process. And by watching them in the media in the last 24 hours, both partners have decided than rather than own up to it they are going to dig in even harder and crank the volume on the crisis communications.

When you run a public engagement, you, the process steward (and in this case, Waterfront Toronto, the public steward) have the absolute responsibility to communicate clearly. To design a clear narrative for people that may pay attention to your topic for somewhere between 3–10 hours a year. Or half an hour through a neighbour.

This is not the media’s job. This is not public relations. This is not strategic communications. This is vital process work if you want to run a defensible consultation. A resident needs to be able to attend a meeting and turn around and go tell others in their community about it. Not everyone can join a public meeting, there are barriers. Both parties here have gone over and above on accessibility, but it has zero value when you are making useless conversations inclusive. Beyond that, few people have time to read dense legal agreements. By breaking the clarity of a narrative in a public process you break a community’s capacity to organize and respond.

The way this project has been set up, from the beginning, broke the frame.

Rather than talk about the high level factors that matter so much to this city, such as finance or scale or scope, people were directed and sorted into smaller bits and pieces, groups and topics. So yes, there is always plausible deniability regarding the big important topics and how they were communicated (obliquely) but people were immediately and intentionally encouraged to get into the weeds. Do you want to talk about data collection? Go here. You care about public realm? Go over there. Transit and AVs — that group to the left.

This is cunning because it breaks the group into controlled topics and fails to build community around the big themes that matter. What is the role of this company? What does their $50 million USD mean? Where will it go? How will we respond to that as a community so we stay connected and not divided? What does at scale mean? Which things have a scaling component? What is that business model? What does innovation in governance mean? How does the city feel about financing some of its missing infrastructure?

Those would have been some potential critical discussions to seed. From day one. For the first few months. In the wake of the Star’s story, some thoughtful conversations about the need to finance the overdue LRT or other core parts of the infrastructure have emerged. So everyone lining up to say it was all out there all along? In the most evasive way possible. If that’ s the leg you want to stand on, go for it. It’s shaky. What’s more important is to look at is the intention of how these two partners worked together, as “thinking partners” to divide and focus attention.

Public Meeting #1

Who is the Community Here Anyway?

So who is this consultation for, anyway? Cracks in Waterfront Toronto’s current story begin to emerge once you go down this track. Back on April 19th, 2018, Waterfront Toronto had a meeting of its Quayside committee. At that meeting, Waterfront Toronto talked about how this project was attracting a lot more attention that other projects, and that a lot of people that don’t know the organization are getting involved. Marissa Piattelli, Waterfront Toronto’s Chief Strategy Officer, who resigned yesterday, and whose departure marks a huge loss of institutional memory and knowledge (she worked there for 15 years), talked about the challenges this all presented. She reminded the room about the consultation principles that are meant to guide public engagement at Waterfront Toronto:

Our public consultation principles

  • Consultation is a legitimate part of the decision-making process
  • Effective consultation occurs early in the decision-making process
  • Those consulted have differing views and this diversity is encouraged and respected
  • Consultation is coordinated with the three governments to avoid duplication and where necessary to comply with legislative requirements

So a few things.

What has happened through this process is that the second principle of early consultation has been completely captured by a profit-seeking corporation. Is that legal? Yes. Is that a good idea, given how important those early days are, and how much Waterfront Toronto knows that? No, clearly not. So all of the new chanting about all these upcoming consultations — from Waterfront, from the City, maybe from others —they’re tainted. And to the advantage of the vendor.

Beyond the public, let’s talk about the City. Dan Doctoroff, recently on The Agenda, challenged Councillor Paula Fletcher’s reaction to the Star’s article. He challenged her surprise about the project scope by asserting that she, respectfully, needed to look at the facts. This exchange reminded me of the early days reactions of several councillors at executive committee last January. At the meeting, city councillors shared their experiences in dealing with Sidewalk Labs’ lobbyists, including how they didn’t get direct answers to their questions. To minimize that response from the very politicians that are charged with oversight of the process and this project? Hubris seems too small a word. So both the general public is lost and so are the City Councillors and it’s our fault. The video from that executive committee meeting is worth a watch. This was a meeting where the committee could have voted to bring the project to City Council.

They didn’t. Mayor John Tory has that to answer for. That would have been an important intervention, a chance for City Council to dig deeper into what was really going on. Instead, he and the committee went along with the usually safe process of giving Waterfront Toronto a little extra space to do its thing, an independence that previous Waterfront Toronto CEO John Campbell showed immense respect for by sticking to the generally understood and successful approach, by all levels of government, for the Port Lands. Will Fleissig? Not so much. Will Fleissig took Waterfront Toronto’s hard-earned trust, and in the name of innovation, took liberties with it — a decision that has taken Waterfront Toronto’s slowly built reputation and dragged it all through the mud.

Will Fleissig appears to have been the architect of this RFP and project. Will Fleissig resigned before the second contract was signed. And Will Fleissig should certainly be called before the ETHI committee with both Dan Doctoroff and John Brodhead.

Other questions about the RFP include who needed to be consulted. While the local community may have been consulted around the plans for Quayside prior to the RFP, and the are undoubtedly key and important stakeholders, they are not the only public resident stakeholder community. This is a project that was designed to impact Toronto proper. If the RFP is about scale and data and systems and pilots, its impact will not be bounded by the 12 acres. If the discussions about infrastructure intersect with the City of Toronto’s budget, and of course they do, again the City writ large is impacted.

So while yes, the people that live directly in the neighbourhood matter a tonne, so do those that don’t, those that hold a wide range of different concerns. One of the many confusing parts of this narrative is that the project was also pitched as a test-bed, an innovation zone. The City staff report on the Framework Agreement said there was a large economic development component to the deal. The range of stakeholders that this impacts is broad. Business. Labour. Housing. So again, this is not to downplay the local community, but to say there are a lot of others that have a voice that matters here too. They have not been well served by the divide and conquer framing tactic. To now belittle them for not following along with confusing and conflicting statements about scope or scale is insulting.

Sidewalk Labs has engaged with many local groups and organizations, creating affiliations. They’ve tagged their work onto the reputations of those they’ve worked with. It’s a good point to check in on how those groups are feeling in the wake of the Toronto Star story. Proud? Supportive? Excited? Duped? Embarrassed? Conflicted? (My DMs are open).

Waterfront Toronto has also said the RFP didn’t look for a smart city concept. Whatever pre-consultation work it did on this RFP with the local community. did it cover the swathe of issues that come along with this concept? Great if so, would be good to know. The broader city did not sign off on this part. And the rhetorical swipe happening now is Waterfront Toronto acting as though it has license to proceed with a sensor-laden neighbourhood. It’s not time to sing the chorus about Privacy by Design, nor the time to get into discussions about commitments to data de-identification. It’s time to get clear on who asked for one.

The amount of twisting and contorting to reverse engineer some kind of veneer of defensibility for this project is unnecessary. It’s dragging Toronto residents to the table for day after day of nonsense, daring people to get tired. Amping up the predictable lobbyist refrain of jobs jobs jobs to push this through. Canada just invested 1.2 billion dollars in flood protection to begin to enable development in the Port Lands. To suggest that this public investment should open the door to receive this fiasco is gross. There are many others that could be engaged on this work. The land is going nowhere. Shut this down. #BlockSidewalk

I’m not done, that’s how much nonsense flew around in the last 24 hours. Part two coming soon as possible. Time for lunch.

Photo: Jamie Allen — CC Licence

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