Sidewalk Toronto: Cynical City-Building Through a Parasitic Partnership

Sidewalk Toronto is an anti-democratic project that pits the public against its government with a false narrative about progress. The theatrics should not be rewarded.

Sidewalk Toronto, as a project and a process, is nearing a milestone — its plan will be delivered to Waterfront Toronto sometime in June. So now comes the eleventh hour scramble where the various actors seek to save face, to create a narrative that will vindicate the wannabe protagonist (Sidewalk “we’re here to help you/you just don’t understand us/it’s too complicated for you” Labs), make light of the critics, and normalize the governments and their complacency in it all.

Last week, at Toronto’s Collision Conference (a tech conference), Sidewalk “we’re not a tech company” Labs did the expected but not respectable — it continued to sell imaginary futures. Sidewalk Labs did that while knowing full well that the public and the Canadian governments would prefer if they would stop selling themselves through the PR touring and finish their work instead, so that everyone can begin to ground the discussion in reality. Yet they ignore this, continuing to stretch out the privilege and opportunity they have been given as a partner of the governments, and by extension, the public. They do what is best for their company, not the project. This persistent lack of respect for process may be the fatal cultural error in this deal.

The company’s senior leadership seems unable to understand that this tech showman thing does not land here with everyone. It’s uncomfortably cliché. Who has to contend with the people that Doctoroff and his pitch seek to get all fired up through lobbynomics, incomplete information, and pretty pictures? Who is left holding the bag to now walk back and reframe marketing efforts that avoid discussion of trade-offs and maintenance and risks? The governments, of course.

Artwork: Hudson

This is the Uber thing where governments are forced into the role of being the adult in the room. You can feel governments are cagey about being critiqued for being hesitant to buy into the pitch and the vision. It’s because this project has jammed two narratives into one — the governments want the economic development announceables but didn’t realize that the city as a product doesn’t fly. The conflation of tech as jobs and tech as city life is a big issue here.

This all follows a method that tech companies have long used to bully their products into government purchasing or to force reactive policy in society. In the last decade in particular, as products have continued to define how we live and exist together in cities, the impacts on our systems have been chaotic. Not all bad, to be sure, but not intentional enough either, given that it’s our society we’re talking about.

Sidewalk Labs is doing is a cynical thing and our governments are letting them. It’s how this process was designed. Sidewalk Labs was given 18 months to do marketing and advertising before the government discussion takes over. And now, Waterfront Toronto and the governments are set up to appear to the public to be taking something away that doesn’t even exist yet. Magic. The danger of this fait accompli set-up has come to full fruition. Now the governments feel they aren’t allowed to say no. This was masterfully strategic in design for the deal’s proponents, and deeply troubling for local democracy and the idea of consent.

The Evolution

Sidewalk Labs came to town in 2017 with the support of the Prime Minister of Canada. They also came with such an assured sense of self-importance that they used to openly declare, repeatedly, how they picked Toronto. That’s not how government procurement works. Setting that aside, one of the most significant moments happened last July when Will Fleissig, the former CEO of Waterfront Toronto, and the architect of this deal, was forced out by its board.

Few things say more about the problem with this deal than this particular event. Will Fleissig was most likely supposed to be the one that would have made Sidewalk Labs’ work easy, the one that would have been able to push and prod on Waterfront Toronto’s mandate for flexibility in growing their influence on the development of the Port Lands. In a quiet but important way, Fleissig leaving was when Waterfront Toronto first signalled that things weren’t going as Sidewalk Labs had hoped.

While this governance grappling was going on inside, the community and some media was pushing from outside, moving Sidewalk Labs away from its ‘we’ll do whatever we want/we have no idea what we’re doing” story and pushing for accountability and honesty. The company continued to deliver neither. Then there was a document leak, a confirmation of the attempted land grab, and more. This set the company back again, despite their efforts to make the leak seem beneficial and welcome.

And by late last year, Sidewalk had sidestepped the data issue by co-opting the idea of a data trust, then doing no work to properly engage on the topic. Neither have the governments, let’s be honest. Currently, any questions about data are answered by “data trust” which is essentially a non-answer given how little investment has been made in supporting the community side of the equation. The important issues — the ones about power asymmetries and control and privatization — continue to float around in the air, unresolved. They are not privacy issues, they are discussions about making markets of the public realm, issues that are not captured by current policy or law, and problems that will not be resolved at City Council because this is not an urban planning problem, it’s higher order regulatory entrepreneurship.

Disrespectful Engagement — Not the Business Partner We Deserve

Sidewalk Labs says words about being respectful of government, but fail to act in ways that demonstrate it. They create pretty pictures and experiences that speak to a viewer’s self-interest, a magical future where not only is the neighbourhood beautiful, but where your start-up has been funded too. Because of course they would, they’re here to sell themselves. But they’re doing it in the way that pits the public against the government.

Their narrow story leaves governments to worry about all the less glamorous externalities: democracy, control, liabilities, security, insurance, maintenance, labour, and more. The structural problem that Sidewalk Labs cannot be both actors continues — it cannot be working towards public good while trying to determine its future business models. It’s why you don’t conflate the role of policy maker and vendor/investor. This has never been tenable. It’s the problem no one can fix. With the right actor, this project might have turned out differently. But it hasn’t, and now here we are.

Despite all of this, Sidewalk Labs was *again* out in public last night, saying the project is simply suffering from a communications problem. This is insulting.

No one is struggling to understand the ideas that are on display at their showroom. The questions are not about tangible physical things, they’re about process and power. This quasi-broker role that Sidewalk Labs wants to play — what and why is that? Have the governments really decided that they’re willing to sell out public governance in order to finance transit infrastructure and a supply chain for tall timber construction?

There is inadequate information currently available to understand and assess what is being shown because it’s removed from any semblance of fiscal context or public governance. The public isn’t stupid and the deal isn’t that complicated. To characterize critique of this deal as due to a lack of understanding takes a certain amount of hubris that few companies selling to a *government* should be able to muster.

Lest this be perceived as negative regarding government and the community, it’s not. Sidewalk Toronto, as Sidewalk Labs had hoped it would exist in Toronto back in 2017, is dead. A free-wheeling, “experimental” environment won’t happen with this or any other vendor. That’s thanks to a lot of work within our communities, so let’s not forget to celebrate that success.

Governments are also sitting up straight in their chairs. There is immense support within many communities to pick up the energy that this work has galvanized, by seeing and knowing what we *do want* in contrast to what has gone on and continues to loom. This can all end well for the City. But now is not the time to accept a negotiation that was gamed from the beginning.

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