Sidewalk Toronto: Cynical Assumptions and City-Building

In the course of talking to people connected to the Quayside project I’ve had two nearly identical conversations. In these conversations, both people asserted that the City’s planning regimes were broken so this project was necessary in the name of progress. Both of these people know urban planning well, so I’m not challenging their assessment of the municipal planning regime. But I do challenge their confidence in seeing a project like Quayside as the solution. And how the safety of their social position enables them to hold that opinion.

It’s a cynical take for democracy — rather than do the work to improve the system to fix core problems the answer is to turn to “the market” for leadership. This isn’t new and this isn’t unique to this project. But it certainly denigrates the bureaucracy and shoves existing institutions further into a corner at exactly the time they need to be strengthened and invested in.

Another thread of this problem is funding, acting as though increasing funding for public infrastructure is somehow not an option on the table. It’s always an option. Let’s take a lack of public transportation funding as an example. That’s the result of political choices to not invest in public systems.

When I read in the Star this week: “Sidewalk Labs, which is planning to build a high-tech test community on Quayside, has described the LRT as “critical to the future and success” of the project” I can’t help but wonder if they might be thinking about being involved in funding the LRT.

Maybe not — this is me speculating and thinking out loud as I try to do here. Could be totally wrong. Maybe it’s nothing except the conflation of Sidewalk Labs’ business needs and our public needs in this narrative, but there we have it. When you underfund and underfund as a habit, whoever comes along with the money to change part of the picture may be granted a wide berth to operate.

Sidewalk Labs came to Toronto and immediately tapped into local knowledge to inform their planning efforts. Knowledge about everything from community health to accessibility to environmentalism and more. It’s not bad to have done this work, but it’s also reminiscent of the toxic approach used in government technology procurement — professional services consulting.

This is not a method that builds institutional knowledge. It’s an incremental outsource of both policy creation, and worse, public confidence. Sidewalk Labs has done none of the long hard work on city-building, but is swooping in for the last mile glory. They’re leveraging cynicism with government, whether intentional or not.

Harrowing walking to the waterfront

Organizational Culture Matters

The technology industry is feeling a lot of heat from government regulators globally. So it’s no surprise that a company like Alphabet is looking to diversify their business. In Alphabet’s parlance, lines of business outside their major revenue stream (advertising) are called “other bets”. And to this end, Sidewalk Toronto has never been about one thing — it’s about how many different things might be profitable. And how many things this company can push people to support experimentation in. It’s a game of daresies. If no one objects, go forward. This is permissionless innovation. Permissionless innovation is not inherently bad, but it’s inherently risky for the public it impacts.

This Bloomberg article in 2016 talks about Google getting restructured into Alphabet: “As X retrenched, [Larry] Page went into an exploratory mode of his own. Starting in 2014, he began handing off day-to-day responsibilities at Google to Sundar Pichai, a longtime product executive, and assembled a small, internal think tank. The group operated in secrecy — staff members at X who caught wind of it began calling the unit, derisively, Google Y. Page called it Javelin. The Javelin team kicked around ideas, including a plan to mass-produce skyscrapers and another to create a “smart city,” which became Sidewalk Labs, a startup run by Dan Doctoroff, the former CEO of Bloomberg LP.” From the same article: “as one [Alphabet] ex-executive puts it, “No one wants to face the reality that this is an advertising company with a bunch of hobbies.”

You won’t be surprised to learn that my interest level in being part of someone’s hobby is low. It’s mostly because there are a lot of people in my community and across this city that have been working on every single issue that Sidewalk Labs has tried to stake a claim on — the environment, mobility, transportation, housing, and the rest of it. I want them in the lead on these issues.

I want to support the people that have been doing this work for decades, not the ones that have an interest because they have so much money that they can have an interest in everything. “A former Google engineer recalls meeting Page in the late 1990s. “Are you interested in — ” the engineer started to ask. “Yes,” Page said, cutting her off. “We’re interested in everything.””

Starting Again on Toronto’s Urban Innovation Play

There are lots of ways to integrate new technology into physical places, both populated and not. That work can be led by governments and supported by industry. But in tech those lines have been blurring, and not in a good way. Inherent to the government/vendor relationship working well is a necessary respect for governmental institutions and the wide range of people that they answer to. Also a deep understanding of the political history that has led to where cities stand today. The problems are not largely technical. This is not to say tech can’t help, but it must be given an appropriately sized box.

Sidewalk Toronto is not *the* way to do urban innovation— there are lots of other ways to do urban innovation. There are approaches that have government and residents in a stronger lead role. Governments can lead on this work. This is a political position for sure, and I welcome debate on the topic.

It’s the conversation people in this city should have been given a chance to have prior to the RFP being issued for Quayside. If everyone had explored a set of options and decided this was the way to go, fine. But that didn’t happen. And critique of this project is getting endlessly rolled into privacy. It’s so much more than that. For me, for one thing (of many), shutting down the chance for a totally different tech narrative to emerge is a huge loss.

And to those I hear saying that it would somehow be bad for Toronto to stop this deal, I’d like to offer some confidence in the huge amount of local knowledge and enthusiasm that could be used on a different kind of project. Alternatives. There are lots of them. Write requirements locally, then source globally.

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