Sidewalk Toronto: Amnesia, Willful Ignorance, and the Beautiful Anti-Democratic Neighbourhood of the Future

Look past the neighbourhood, focus on the process precedent and the finances

You Might Like the Quayside Neighbourhood Plan, But We Should All Like Local Democracy More, Or?

December 8th is the 4th Sidewalk Toronto public meeting in the series of 5. At this meeting, Sidewalk Toronto will reveal the components of its overdue plan for Quayside.

The agenda shows the meeting will include four sessions — one about the site plan for land and transportation, one on affordable housing and social infrastructure (?), one on data governance, and one on sustainability. The agenda and other details about the meeting can be found here, hope you’ll join. Tech Reset Canada, Digital Justice Lab, and the Toronto Open Smart Cities Forum are working on some questions that we’ll share next week, prior to the meeting.

Before the updates below, as this post is pretty damn long — here’s what will likely come next on December 8th: a high-level plan for Quayside that will be shiny and beautiful and modern and good for the environment and fun and and and and.

It will probably be short on details about Sidewalk as the “essential catalyst”, what “creative finance” means exactly, how Sidewalk is working on the creation of financial “vehicles” central to this whole project. As I always say when I speculate, maybe I’ll be wrong — maybe we’ll get all of that too. It would be really helpful to get those parts of the plan so we can fundamentally understand what the hell the business plan is for Quayside.

It’s not enough to like what’s presented. Beyond the democratic how of this project, which has been a nightmare, there is also the business plan how. This thing is basically an omnibus proposal that makes coherent analysis difficult. And we really need to understand who will be paying for what. The City? The residents? How? And for what, exactly?

The smartness and data-ness of this neighbourhood, the wrapper of cool about this project that was so exciting to many at the beginning has gone quiet. The city as a mobile operating system has been walked back. Tech and data will be “open” and “shared” so everyone can participate in the world-leading urban data innovation research hub and testbed. And win.

Side note: after at least five years of watching the private sector make use of open data I can tell you this — it’s not the economic development innovation unicorn that Sidewalk Labs is making it out to be, the one McKinsey drove to near-hysteria in 2011 with its 3 trillion dollar valuation. It’s a myth.

The jobs narrative is getting louder — that’s a separate post as I have to pull in others that can myth-bust job numbers better than me. But hey, one year in and we may well be getting close to clarity on what’s really really going on here in Quayside.

Sidewalk Labs is basically …..a bank? (for now) and who knows what else later?

So again, the number one thing here remains the same: no matter whether you love or hate the plans for this neighbourhood, it’s the process and the precedent it sets that is the problem.

But also hi, waving from the other side of the room — hello to the looming threat that is Google and its ability to bankroll anything it wants to and subsume subsidiaries once they become profitable.

Julia Powles has more on that below, with DeepMind stories. And am I ever grateful for scholars and humans like her that can help put this threat model puzzle together and are willing to name it for what it is. They are in really strange short supply.

Always Read the Request for Proposal

With any public sector project, the Request for Proposal is a critical starting point for analysis.

In the Sidewalk Toronto case, some of the core issues with this project stem from how the RFP was designed. In the name of innovation and economic development, the power to frame the narrative for neighbourhood development was handed over in full to a corporation. The definition of governance for data in the space was handed over as well.

So while everyone is flailing around and trying to keep a straight face that Waterfront Toronto and its digital strategy advisory panel is in control here, along with all levels of government, this is fundamentally untrue and structurally impossible.

Sidewalk Labs is paying to set the terms of the plan. It’s a $50 million dollar R&D adventure. This elephant is taking up 90% of the room and on we go, in perfectly Torontonian passive-aggressive style, pretending it’s not there. We’re still in the passive part of our mode. Here Sidewalk was much smarter than Amazon. They paid (relatively little) for their power so by comparison they look downright wholesome. And don’t forget, this is all something people here are supposed to be grateful for, as Dan Doctoroff said recently to the Sidewalk Labs VIP Advisory Panel:

“Let me be clear: Nothing has been promised to us. The development of this plan, and the $50 million cost attached, is entirely at our own risk — a risk we are taking because we think this is important work. When we are finished with the plan, it must be approved by Waterfront Toronto and then, in various contexts, by the relevant governments.”

Sorry? The residents that live here and will be subject to the implications of this plan and its short and long-term impacts are wrapped up in this risk. Risk is not only financial. It’s moral, democratic, and political.

Again, it’s not Sidewalk Labs’ fault for responding to this RFP. Waterfront Toronto’s misstep, along with all three levels of government, was thinking this RFP was a good idea.

But together, this pair really knows how to communicate in a privileged and out of touch way. Operating recklessly in ways that only those personally safe from the potential negative consequences of this deal could possibly do.

Maybe all the urban establishment people in Toronto think that corporate influence of this level and depth is the only way out from bureaucratic deadlock. So rather than fix the way the City makes rules, let’s go for the big money and power workaround. (File under above reference to privilege)

Watching Toronto’s institutions and establishments meekly defend this plan because of their own self-interest in it has been painful, to put it mildly. The only way I can make sense of where we’re at, as Julia Powles called it recently, is that powerful people are infected with this “internalized inevitability”. It would make sense of all the “well the future is coming so let’s do this” nonsense that otherwise generally intelligent people have been spewing.

The people in power and adjacent to power clearly don’t understand tech well enough to consider the many different ways tech can be put to use, both in cities by residents and as an economic development opportunity. There is so much beautiful potential there but it absolutely demands some imagination and leadership. And I’m not saying this in a jerky judge-y way. I’m saying it because we need to say things out loud to make them real.

I don’t know. The only kind way to understand how Toronto’s urban establishment is so on board with this fiasco is wilful ignorance. Other than the second problem, which is how many people and firms are on the Sidewalk payroll at this point. Such a boring and problematic divisive tactic — to fund the communities that should be engaged and helpful critics. It’s an old part of the money as control playbook. Hello Bloomberg.

Views from the parking lot


On November 23rd, Waterfront Toronto hosted the first of a series of Civic Labs, video of the event here. It acknowledged that the meeting was a long time coming. The thing is, Waterfront Toronto and its digital strategy advisory panel can talk until it’s blue in the face about data governance but as of right now they’ve given that work to Sidewalk Labs. And to do that work with an economic development mandate in mind. All the work done to date on data governance has seen Sidewalk Labs being in charge, then dumping it over the fence to Waterfront Toronto and its digital strategy advisory panel at the 11th hour.

From the RFP under Partner Scope & Deliverables on page 17, Section 4: Economic Development & Prosperity. This is the section that defines what the “partner”, Sidewalk Labs, is responsible for:

Create the required governance constructs to stimulate the growth of an urban innovation cluster, including legal frameworks (e.g. Intellectual Property, privacy, data sharing), financial considerations (including investment opportunities and revenue sharing expectations), deployment testbeds and project monitoring (KPI’s, reporting requirements and tools to capture data).” (emphasis mine).

And in the Plan Development Agreement, the most recent contractual agreement, Waterfront Toronto’s role is currently “oversight”. — from page 4: the role of Waterfront Toronto is “(iv) Overseeing digital governance elements of the MIDP, including through the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel in accordance with the Digital Governance Framework Principles;”

The framework principles gesture at terms from human rights to privacy to world-class to “Canadian values”. They make the powerless point that all existing laws will be adhered to. It’s all loose and Waterfront Toronto isn’t lead.

The funny part about Sidewalk Labs’ panicky data trust proposal is that it managed to both punt the issue to others to deal with AND frame it in ways that have now stuck. It invented a thing called urban data. Sean McDonald did a great analysis of how this urban data invention is problematic in this recent post.

I’ve already argued that neither of these parties should be in charge of data governance, it should be residents and government, not corporation/economic development corporation/volunteers. It sounds like Sidewalk Labs agrees. So again, it’s on Waterfront Toronto to clearly and formally hive this responsibility off for itself, and, in an ideal world, hand it over to government.

This Civic Lab was the perfect meeting to acknowledge the reality of the current state of affairs, to talk about the importance of control and accountability, and to figure out a contractual revision to get the data governance issue hived off for proper democratic management. That didn’t happen.

Then on November 27th, the comedy show of control theatre continued at Waterfront Toronto’s workshop on data trusts, run by MaRS. Where it was revealed that Waterfront Toronto’s work on data trusts, contracted to MaRS, is being paid for by, yes….. Sidewalk Labs. It seems like it’s probably part of the terms of the Plan Development Agreement (I think? someone help me if I’m wrong). But I mean honestly, this is a circular reference problem.

Wilful Blindness

The Procurement

Which, in a roundabout way, brings us the persistent suck and blow problems with this procurement. Let’s number them:

  1. Sidewalk Labs: “We don’t know what we’re doing with data! Let’s do it together! But also, Waterfront Toronto — let’s put Sidewalk in charge! So Sidewalk Labs has no idea about data and is just a little start-up, starting from scratch on data in cities and what the issues might be. This makes no sense given the adventures they’ve had in NYC with InLink. No sense at all. Then when they started here: “Sidewalk Labs “hadn’t foreseen” how fiercely Canadians would demand that their data be retained within the country. We have no idea what’s going on, let’s do this! It’s been their refrain about all things data governance. And repeated by their privacy lawyers. And then, yep — they’re the ones being put in charge of how it should work. By Canadians. Yep.

He calls the process somewhat unusual. He also says that based on the scoring, no reasonable person could conclude anyone even came close to Sidewalk Labs. But he also says repeatedly that the RFP confers no advantages or disadvantages to bidders.

This is a realm for others to keep digging into. It would be interesting to know more about how engaged fairness advisors get in the weeds of projects like this. Wonder how this would all factor into the Auditor General’s audit, which should be out soon, as reported here by Amanda Roth. As a bit of a public sector procurement enthusiast I’ll be following up on this track when I can. And I wonder how much Mr. Osborne considered the following:

3. Sidewalk Labs isn’t Google. Until it is.
Here’s Rit Aggarwala on Sidewalk Labs in this piece by Laura Bliss: “Aggarwala insisted that his company shouldn’t be conflated with its backer. “If it was Google that was the innovation partner and the developer here, that might the case,” he said. “But we’re not Google.”

Julia Powles, a brilliant legal scholar who has been researching, tracking and reporting on a Google subsidiary adjacent to Sidewalk, DeepMind, has a few things to share with us in Toronto.

As she explains, DeepMind is “revered as a posterchild British tech company, despite its 2014 acquisition by Google,”. Go local innovation go. As Powles documents in a widely-circulated academic paper with journalist Hal Hodson, in 2015, DeepMind leveraged its apparent independence from its parent to gain privileged access to the British National Health Service, resulting in an “unprecedented data dump”–1.6 million Londoners’ fully-identified health records, likely for use in a patient alert app to monitor for kidney injury–a deal subsequently found by Britain’s data watchdog to have involved *four* major breaches of UK data protection law.

Powles goes on to explain how for three years, the founders of DeepMind emphasised that DeepMind is “a British technology company, founded by people who have relied on the NHS all our lives,” Go local innovation go. They pledged that “DeepMind operates autonomously from Google, and… that at no stage will patient data ever be linked or associated with Google accounts, products or services.” Yet, in an act of total hypocrisy, this month DeepMind dissolved its entire health arm, announcing that it would be subsumed into–you guessed it–Google Health, a new mega-division of the tech giant.

DeepMind’s patient alert app, Streams “now is a Google product and service,” Powles says succinctly. “If that’s not linking, associating, or connecting with Google, then what is?”

The worst of it, she points out, is that this is the most basic app that you can imagine. It was only built out in 2017, after Google hoarded patient data for 18 months, and it runs on a flow-chart developed by the NHS itself, without an ounce of AI or independent development. Even the UX comes from a third-party developer. “The app is a Trojan horse for getting deep inside the NHS: deep into patient data,” she says, “as well as into data about how clinicians and hospitals work.”

Powles sees a direct corollary between DeepMind and Sidewalk, a company that is also occupying her research. “It’s obvious: all of the Alphabet subsidiaries are operating on a long leash to eventually dominate areas that Google has long coveted. The folks at Sidewalk, just like the folks at DeepMind, benefit from a sense of independence, ultimately guided by a deep-pocketed, incredibly shrewd patron. As soon as it’s time to turn the ratchet, the hapless execs at DeepMind and Sidewalk get called to Google HQ. They are pawns in a bigger corporate game.”

So yeah. Sidewalk isn’t Google. Yet.

The Beautiful Anti-Democratic Neighbourhood of the Future & Creative Financing

Regardless of all the noise and bad press, Sidewalk pushes on relentlessly with the hubris. Like no one in Toronto is working on building affordable housing and like no one can look up how New York gentrified intensively under Doctoroff’s watch. So here’s Dan Doctoroff in Detroit recently:

“ Well the first thing you have to understand is we are not a technology company, we don’t view ourselves as a technology company, we view ourselves as a place-making company.” (this is the tech walk-back).

“From the very first conversations that we actually had with Google, Larry Page, we all agreed that this place had to be a diverse place. That is was
going to be mixed income, that it should then possibly reflect the diversity of the surrounding metropolitan area wherever we ended up doing it and so we have committed to a dramatically higher level of housing affordability than exists in the downtown area of Toronto today — it will be multiples of what they actually do. We will achieve that and will be very specific about how
we do that, we will achieve it through creative financing approaches, the kinds that we used in New York to produce, in the Bloomberg administration, 165,000 units of affordable housing over a 10-year period of time.”

“One of the real pillars of what we are talking about is using wood as sort of the structural component of most of the buildings in this place with a factory on or near the site that we believe over time will give us the ability to lower building costs by 15–20%. 15–20% is a huge dent in the subsidization necessary to actually provide sort of the level of the affordability that we hope to actually achieve. This will be a failure if this is a haven for millennial tech workers. In our view, that’s in Google’s field and I think that is something that is really important to point out. Google’s interest, Alphabet’s interest
in doing this is not related to any existing business. It’s because we actually believe that we’re at a moment in time where having a model of what is possible across all of these different realms that can ultimately and meaningfully improve quality of life is why we’re actually doing this.
Yes, we’re a company, yes we have to make money but at the end of the day the way in which we evaluate ourselves is whether we can bend the curve on literally every single quality of life metric.”

So about creative financing. And jobs. And lobbying.

I don’t have to type much more here, but look at Hudson Yards in New York to see how 5.6 Billion of taxpayer subsidy played into Doctoroff’s last real estate adventure. Credit to Alex Bozikovic, the one who caught the comms gaffe, said once and never repeated — that this was primarily a real estate play.

Look, this is not my background, but perhaps this all ties back into visits to Infrastructure Canada and others? How Ontario will look at tall timber for economic development and how timber will reduce housing costs so…

I’ve talked to people that I respect that think Sidewalk Labs and Doctoroff could do a great job being the master financier of all things Eastern waterfront. I have to assume some people in Toronto think the same. But if this is really at the heart of this project, let’s start talking about it, yeah? It’s the one of the worst qualities of Canadians to fear direct conversation. These are the moments I wish people could find their inner New Yorker and just get into it so we could get to the best outcome.

The Amazon HQ fiascos prove that people are waking up to this corporate/governmental wheeling and dealing when being done in unnecessarily dodgy ways Queens reaction to HQ2 is a good example. And people are not loving it when it’s happening in the anti-democratic style we’re seeing in Toronto.

So on to two final points.

There was a recent piece and great celebration that Waterfront Toronto was going to create a list of dos and don’ts for Sidewalk Labs’ proposal. This is another deeply ahistorical take on this project.

After A YEAR of working with Sidewalk Labs, Waterfront Toronto is deeply vested, as are all levels of government. And now they are going to be checking each others homework? Funny they take this step once they’ve got the draft plan well in hand. It’s these persistent circular references, this pretending, that really grates. It’s insulting to people’s intelligence to think that this, now, is going to be an independently created checklist. It’s weird to me that it could be printed in major press as such.

Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs are constantly meeting. According to the report from the last Waterfront Toronto Finance, Audit & Risk Management Committee Meeting there is a Draft Master Innovation and Development Plan item for Quayside and Eastern Waterfront (yep, Eastern Waterfront — remember how happy everyone was about the PDA because it made it all about Quayside? Yeah no). The plan is on track, with the initial draft targeted for the end of December 2018. Which means it should be public very soon. Too bad it won’t be ready for the 4th public meeting, which is where it should have been launched.

As it stands, the draft Master Innovation and Development Plan isn’t coming out until the last meeting. AGAIN. So, as ever, we’re short a meeting. There should be six meetings in order to explain how the plan responds to feedback before it goes to both boards.

The reason this needs to come out is because this “creative financing” is the thing that may impact everything on the site. Sidewalk Labs has talked endlessly about infrastructure — this means energy to transportation to water and more — these aren’t things to “creatively finance” without public oversight and interrogation.

The City of Toronto announced at the first Civic Lab that it would be doing its own consultation process. That’s a glimmer of hope in a situation where the folly of the project structure continues to undermine the range of good pieces that may be contained within it.

The process is the problem, as it ever was.

Side note:

I’d like to give a little Internet high-five to Kristina Verner at Waterfront Toronto for being the only person I see visibly working to have critical discourse inform this work. She seems to understand that you don’t get to a good deal without it. So thank you Kristina for showing up for hard conversations and supporting our community in sharing our work. You’re holding the line for an organization that seems to have forgotten how to operate in public engagement. You clearly know that if you want to deal in public assets you better be ready for critical conversations. Also thank you Carol Webb at Waterfront Toronto for always being responsive with requests and questions, it means a lot and we all appreciate it.