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

Fear for Sale, More Process Folly, and Power Aggrieved

It’s been another couple bumpy weeks in Sidewalk land, with the latest being Sidewalk Labs talking about pulling out of the project for the first time. They say that if transit for the Port Lands doesn’t get built, they have no interest in the work anymore. Seems like a bit of a due diligence fail. I continue to feel both naive and confused about how this kind of power politicking goes down — it reads like Sidewalk Labs is playing a game of chicken with the governments through the press. Is that a move?

This update post will cover three recent things: 1. The latest press blitz by Dan Doctoroff and Sidewalk Labs (they’re going full tilt to normalize plans the company sat on for an untold number of months and became public through a leak) 2. the upcoming plan submission (the final deliverable), from Sidewalk Labs to Waterfront Toronto — or: how Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto are working together (or not?) and 3. the Toronto Region Board of Trade’s recent oped.

Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff — “Most People Don’t Like Change”

James McLeod did a great interview with Dan Doctoroff, which revealed a few points to discuss, starting with that headline, Doctoroff’s assertion that “Most People Don’t Like Change”.

First, Doctoroff brings the worst of the tech hard sell forward here. “THIS” [Sidewalk Labs] is the future. This is progress. If you’re not with it, you’re fusty, old-fashioned, anti-progress, and you just don’t get it. As far as clichés go for tech, this is it —old faithful. Works wonders on politicians. Sidewalk Labs inventing a narrative to sell a vision based on scaring people into thinking they’ll be seen as anti-progress if they reject it. The worst. It’s selling fear. And at the same time trying to paint Sidewalk Labs as the hard done by creator of futures, with the thankless task of siphoning off municipal revenues to make it all happen.

Meanwhile back over here in reality, from what I understand of his background (and am open to correction), Dan Doctoroff isn’t a tech guy. The idea that this real estate and infrastructure financing scheme is the “bold new future” is a real stretch and a half. It seems like this company might have been caught off-guard with what’s basically a smart-washing/gimmicky scheme to cover the land grab and financing move, and they may be living to regret it.

This is not to say that the plausible future of all the problematic tech and data stuff isn’t on the table, because it most certainly is, but it’s more about that being phase two. As always, this isn’t either/or — it’s all of it. Phase one is secure a connection to the land. This seems like it was supposed to be Doctoroff’s buzz. But now the company really can’t shake the tech action as the headline.

In a few weeks, Doctoroff will head over to a Public Policy Forum event: “Daniel L. Doctoroff, Chairman & CEO of Sidewalk Labs, will share his thoughts on privacy, data and a 21ST century deal for Canada”. Then in another few days he’s at the Canadian Club: “when Doctoroff will share his observations on the project so far and how this new model of urban innovation could transform city building as we know it.” The proponent of this project, and its anti-democratic ways, is on a policy tour. This is how power works. It’s fine, as always, for the Sidewalk Labs side of the story to be told — but who is there to balance and counter it?

The final thing he says in this interview is a real eyebrow-archer:

“One area of the business model he was very clear about was to say that Sidewalk Labs does not intend to monetize data. Despite the fact that Google is a sister company to Sidewalk Labs, he said there’s no linkage between the two companies’ revenue plans. From a business model perspective, it is completely 100 per cent separate,” Doctoroff said.

Let’s start with Replica — ‘An initiative of Sidewalk Labs’. This thing. Remember this article by Ava Kofman in The Intercept last year? From that piece:

“A document from the Illinois Department of Transportation describes Replica’s data sources as “mobile carrier data, location data from third-party aggregators and Google location data, to generate travel data for a region.” This data sample, it adds, “is not limited to Android devices” and “is collected from individuals for months at a time, allowing for a complete picture of individual travel patterns.” In Portland, documents filed with its city council state that the data is sourced from “Android Phones and Google apps.”

Secondly, we’ve got the story of DeepMind and its health data merge with Google, a story kept alive by Julia Powles. Powles, “a research fellow at New York University’s Information Law Institute who has criticized DeepMind’s health-care work in the past, called the merger with Google “totally unacceptable” on Twitter. She said DeepMind had offered repeated assurances that no patient data from its work with NHS hospitals would ever be transferred to Google. “Now it has announced…exactly that,” she tweeted. “This isn’t transparency, it is trust demolition.”

This is the problem with a constantly moving target. Journalism is not organized to report on things that are plausible. Journalism is about what has happened, not what could happen. And thus, speculative and plausible future scenarios go un-assessed and under-discussed, by design. But knowing the last twenty years of technology history means that ignoring what is plausible here is the wrong way to go.

Tech influencing and exerting power on society happens incrementally. It’s rarely done with a bang, but rather with paper cuts of scope creep and quiet procurements and mission change and subsidiary shuffling.

Nest was an independent company, but once it was convenient for it to be brought into Google to compete better with Amazon and Apple, into Google it went. Speaking of Nest, they are the Google company with the recent “oopsie! we had microphones in our products” story.

Doctoroff’s assurances about separate business lines ring hollow and are ahistorical. They may be true right *now* (and there are some that argue they aren’t even true now) but that’s not what matters. These are companies that answer to shareholders not residents. If Alphabet says a thing should move into Google, or somewhere else, it will move.

Sidewalk Labs may not realize that their plans and Alphabet’s plans may not be cohesive. Things can change. It’s one danger of many related to entrenching anything in our city at a time of serious policy flux, and at a time where regulators are trying to figure out how to break up big tech because of some of the issues described here. It’s an election issue in the United States — see this from Elizabeth Warren.

Finally, one more comment on a different article — this one from Donovan Vincent, the result of a meeting with the Toronto Star editorial board.

This from Doctoroff is the most damning comment on the public engagement charade so far. “Overall, Doctoroff said he remains “optimistic” that once the public understands his firm’s project they’ll see a lot they’ll like.”

If this had been any kind of a defensible process *everyone* would already know what is going on. That should have happened months ago. The final meeting should be the one where people show up and see all of their work and feedback reflected in the plan, not to be treated to “a big reveal” — it’s again where this company borrows from the worst tendencies of Silicon Valley. This is not how you work in cities.

And this: “We tend not to present half-baked ideas. I don’t like to promise things we don’t have any intention of doing,” he said.

They clearly don’t understand co-design, nor is that a problem. That’s their choice. But they aren’t welcome in Toronto to do this style of work here in our city. Co-design and engagement are all about half-baked ideas. You bring out the mess, work on it with people, and keep evolving. That’s not just how you address critique — it’s how you build support.

These are lessons for the next project they embark on, if there is one. For Toronto, they can’t undo what they’ve done. And it was them that made these choices and decided to play a certain way with what was an incredible opportunity and privilege.

Writing the Plan Together, Assessing it Independently — Process Folly

Power brings us to section two, the Plan Development Agreement — the existing contract between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto — and recent remarks from Waterfront Toronto and all levels of government.

Something about this work fails to line up straight. I feel like I’m trying to read smoke signals from Waterfront Toronto, and then we’ve got the City of Toronto, the province, and the feds all being even less communicative. They all say they’ve not seen Sidewalk Labs’ plans. The exception to this is Meg Davis, who has said that she’s seen the lion’s share of the plan chapters.

First, from a transparency perspective, we the public are having a really tough time following along here. There are two clear possible cases of what is happening, neither or which are reflected in the legal agreement that is holding this thing together. And if there are more I’m open, as always, to everyone’s suggestions. Trying to talk this out, out loud.

Here’s part of page five in the Plan Development Agreement:

“Master Innovation and Development Plan — Joint Objectives (a) In furtherance of their shared goals and vision, the Parties will work together collaboratively, diligently and in good faith to jointly prepare the MIDP in accordance with the MIDP Scope, including the MIDP Targets set out in Schedule B, and all other terms of this Agreement. The Parties will seek to create the MIDP in a way that is in keeping with the spirit, vision and aspirations represented by the RFP and RFP Submission Materials.”

The way this reads to me, is that they are contractually obligated to write this plan together, which then implicates not only Waterfront Toronto, but through it, all levels of govt. It would be interesting to know who negotiated for this kind of language and process. I will ask.

So, those two options: 1. Are they doing this all together and not telling or 2. Have they gone rogue from the contract? One feels sketchy. Two feels plausible and is its own reflection of how screwed up this process and structure is. Why does this matter?

Because how in the world would one of the two parties that are jointly authoring a plan be able to turn around and then be in charge of approvals? And remember, this isn’t just Waterfront Toronto, this is all levels of govt represented at WT.

This is why the fix, from the Waterfront Toronto perspective, appears to be very much in. Unless the smoke signal they are sending is that they aren’t engaged with what Sidewalk Labs is doing and are waiting to spike this thing through the board or let Sidewalk Labs say they are the ones to walk away (that would seem the very Canadian thing to do). Which raises another question — what is management’s position versus the board’s position?

Granted, it’s all a nightmare to try and piece this together from the media so don’t think we don’t feel like this, because obviously…

But the press is all we’ve got out here, and they’re doing great (thank you!). WT and government communications aren’t shedding any kind of detailed light on what exactly is going on or has gone on. Plus Sidewalk Labs is lobbying up and down all levels of government (Sidewalk Labs accounted for nearly *a third* (87 visits) of all lobbying at City Hall in February — thanks Matt Elliott/City Hall Watcher). And then we’ve got Navigator “When You Can’t Afford to Lose” tm, and others of that government relations world swirling around in the mix. Which brings us the final segment on power, the Toronto Region Board of Trade.

Toronto Region Board of Trade

I’m grateful for the oped from the Toronto Region Board of Trade because this process has lots of room for back and forth and conversation in public about hard things. So a few quick notes on this piece that their President and CEO Jan De Silva wrote recently.

The first is about the Board of Trade itself. Again, the Toronto Region Board of Trade (TRBOT) is not a neutral convener or facilitator for discussions about Sidewalk Labs — it’s an organization for its business members. It has a vested interest in the outcome of this project. It has every right to have one, and the group should absolutely be part of this discussion, but it is not the table setter. It has a seat.

Now onto a few specific points.

The first has to do with supporters or paid consultants for this project. It’s a good time to clear the air again on this as it’s caused no shortage of outrage every time I mention it. People that have been paid by Sidewalk Labs should be disclosing it when they share their endorsement of the project. This makes sense and is necessary when people’s reputations are being used to endorse the work.

Before people have a meltdown again about this request, let me make this crystal clear. If I didn’t do this properly the first time, I’ll own that, but I suppose some of this seems obvious to me, to the point that saying it out loud seems off. However, here goes:

Lots of smart and well-informed people support this project that are not on the payroll. Most of the supporters in fact! Lots of supporters have been engaged, like what they see, and want to share their support. That’s fine and good.

Have a good chunk of them received the information they need to have a position on this project? That’s debatable, given that Sidewalk Labs still hasn’t explained exactly what they are proposing. But a small group of people most certainly have received a lot of info, have been heavily engaged by Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, and feel good about the project. Good for them. But that’s not the only acceptable position.

As I’ve asked since last January, it would be helpful for civic discourse that people that have been paid would identify that when they endorse the project. Simple disclosure. The fact this suggestion really sets some people off is … interesting. The structure of this RFP has created a broker role for Sidewalk Labs, which has then gone on to produce this murky situation in Toronto’s circles of influence.

Secondly, there is an idea raised in the piece that critique of the project exists in a Twitter bubble. Twitter users would probably be a demographic that would be more supportive of this project than most. There are lots of them, and it’s definitely not a representative or homogenous population, but it’s a lot of tech-friendly and tech-boosting people. But let’s consider the real world.

In my experience, there have been many immediate negative reactions to this project from a whole host of communities that aren’t online. Some of them can’t be online for safety’s safe. Some can’t afford to be. I speak for no-one but myself, but this op-ed seems to assert some things about online and offline worlds that don’t line up with experiences I’ve had in discussions around the city. Perhaps some of the offline business and finance community is all for this deal, but we’re back to paragraph one. The city contains multitudes.

Finally, the real kicker of this oped:

“Support for the Quayside project doesn’t have to mean unconditional support. For our part at the Board of Trade, we’ll continue to listen patiently to critics to identify reasonable, fixable public policy problems.”

Prior to this line, check out how this oped spends its time describing activists and advocates, the ones they’ll “listen to patiently”:

  • “a master class in not-in-my-backyard attacks on Sidewalk Labs and the Quayside project.”
  • “Activists insist the process isn’t considerate of public criticism. Those same critics attack Sidewalk for consulting with invited stakeholders to hear feedback”
  • “Contradictory arguments like these work for anti-Quayside activists because, for many of them, blowing up the entire process is the goal.”
  • “A better approach would be for Torontonians to tune out the insults.”

Attacks, attack, blowing up, and, insults. The Toronto Region Board of Trade would do well to review how Waterfront Toronto has responded to the critiques from community — with professionalism and encouragement, knowing the concerns come from a place of civic pride, care, and experience.

They know, and always have known, that the only way to get to a good outcome is by having hard conversations. The TRBOT would also do well to read the room on the global discourse around technology policy, especially for an organization proffering knowledge of the tech sector, and understand why people are angry, upset, and scared. Yes, some people feel the risks inherent in the structure of this deal and the precent it sets are problematic, dangerous, and unnecessary. I’m one of them.

Nevermind the plan and the tech. The democracy. Governments should not put public opinion up for sale, whether for $50 million dollars or any other amount. Sidewalk Labs was smarter than Amazon — they didn’t ask for freebies, they bought their power. And don’t think Canadians aren’t paying for all the chaos this is creating in three levels of the public service, in hours of time.

For a deal that is so asymmetrical and slanted to the vendor (power, money, rhetoric in media, access to political power) how can the discourse be so fragile? How can people that say they believe in democracy be so focused on shutting down discussion? Or challenging how it happens? Or demanding it be done in certain measured ways otherwise it’s invalid?

These responses all speak to immense privilege. They speak to systems of power and people that get incredulous the minute anyone dares challenge them. I’ve seen this kind of anger before, the entitlement. The “how dare they”. The events that are unfolding provide signal after signal that powerful people have decided this project is a good idea and anyone that thinks otherwise should get out of the way. It’s not happening.

Image: Jeremy Brooks — CC BY NC 2.0 —

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store