Sidewalk Toronto: Democratic Deception, Smart City Doublespeak, and the Long Game

It’s been a busy few weeks in Sidewalk Toronto land — the house of cards is looking wobblier by the day. I can’t cover it all in one update so I’m picking three things to start with: the deception around the City approvals process for this project, the doublespeak of this “smart city” initiative, and where things appear to be headed for the next public meeting in December, #4 of 5, date TBD, tick tick tick.

I owe you a post about the good news and the antics involved in the last Waterfront Toronto Digital Strategy Advisory Panel meeting, which I’ll do up this week. In the meantime, be sure to read this great summary that Nabeel Ahmed wrote immediately following the meeting on October 18th.

Much has been made of privacy issues of late. The whole privacy topic has been a tire fire of misinformation from the start of this project, to be honest. But if you look away from privacy for a minute (side note, it’s a good idea to do this regularly if you follow this project) you’ll see a whole other set of larger fires burning brightly. But before we leave the privacy topic, see this set of flames from an article in iPolitics yesterday:

From iPolitics:

12 departments. 24 lobbyists. And that’s just the federal government. Yeesh.

Alas, on with the post…

Deception. Ring the Alarm: There is No Toronto City Council Vote on the Final Sidewalk Toronto “Plan”

Contrary to how everyone involved in this project has been talking about what happens at the end of the planning process, it turns out that if you read the fine print, there are really only two parties that have to approve the plan as a whole. That also means that there are only two parties that can decide to stop it. Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto. Which means there really isn’t an off-ramp that we’re in charge of in any democratic way. This is brutal.

I have paid attention to this project every day since it launched and I didn’t get this fact straight until a few weeks ago. I thought this thing was headed to City Council for a yes/no vote. There is no chance that the public at large isn’t thinking this too, based on the way the project is discussed in the media and by Waterfront Toronto. All this “it’s only a plan” talk and this “there will be necessary approvals” stuff is not getting at the truth.

See this from the Waterfront Secretariat at the City of Toronto: “The Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) will require approval from the Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs boards. If approved, the contents of the MIDP will be subject to numerous City approvals”.

Note it does not say the MIDP as a whole needs approval. This project is *not* going to City Council for a yes/no vote, unless of course a councillor decides to make that move. There is no plan currently to present the package deal and ask our elected representatives if they want in or out. It’s in by default, with piecemeal approvals.

This is extremely dishonest in terms of how the approvals process for this project have been communicated. No one has blatantly and directly lied about this fact, but no one has bothered to make the truth clear either.

People like to talk about the US$50 million that Sidewalk has used to take charge of this planning process. People aren’t talking about the thousands of hours our civil service has logged at all three levels of government to work on and enable this plan. This project is costing us money. A lot of money. And this does not bode well for our political leadership — it makes it that much harder for them to do what they should have done for a while now already and encourage (or tell) Waterfront Toronto to get out.

Our public service and the sitting governments’ political capital is getting further vested in making this happen, particularly as the government relations work gets ever more complicated. Add to the fact that Dan Doctoroff is using vehicles like good old McKinsey&Company to explain that “… political leaders need the courage to overcome the natural resistance that comes with any changes.” Political leaders need the courage to not get further sucked into corporate influence on democratic institutions via bad math lobbynomics of economic development plans.

So City approvals are likely to be a series of piecemeal applications regarding exceptions for planning. Perhaps some big ones. Who knows? This miscommunication has lulled people into a comfortable state of thinking our democratic process would play a role in this deal. Not true. Now, this is not to say I have any faith that the sitting Council wouldn’t vote this thing in — this is, unfortunately, right up the alley of any city facing austerity — shiny short-term things for unexplained long-term consequences. But going through the motions is a wild step to skip given the implications at play here.

If you can spare a minute to contact your councillor and ask them what they know of this project it would be helpful. More to that end soon.

Toronto City Hall, Nuit Blanche 2018 style

Smart City Doublespeak. Is this a tech company or is this a bank or what is this?

When this project launched it was about digital and data, about ‘emerging technology being integrated into the physical environment.’ Now Sidewalk seems to be trying to somewhat distance itself from the data piece of the work as the privacy headlines rampage Google’s brand.

So what exactly is the upside of partnering with Sidewalk Labs if it isn’t data and tech? Is it that the company is run by Dan Doctoroff, someone that can use scalpel-like precision in deal-making with our city government and other levels of government, to get them to participate in detailed and complex financing for urban infrastructure?

When you look at this deal truthfully, which is what Doctoroff shared early then never repeated again, that it “primarily is a real-estate play". How would Toronto’s urbanista community have responded to a company explicitly saying it wanted in on the big real estate opportunity that is the Port Lands? Would people have been really into it?

Probably not. Though the real estate path is getting a bit harder for Sidewalk to navigate you can rest assured they are still pushing on it. The new words for the nature of the real estate deal is “only the amount of real estate development necessary to prove to the private market that our vision is worth investing in.” Um ok. Here’s that bit in context from Doctoroff’s speech on October 17th to Sidewalk Labs’ VIP Advisory Council. The thing where media is not allowed to attend. The thing they spun up totally separate from Waterfront Toronto.

From Dan Doctoroff’s remarks Oct 17th:

So after a year we’ve gone from one vague undefined business plan (real estate, infrastructure, tech/data, venture capital) to a new word salad of a vague business plan (infrastructure catalyst, innovation magic, innovation jobs, real estate).

The catalyst part reads like Sidewalk is a bank. The Port Lands present a massive investment opportunity that will manifest in whatever “complex” and “detailed” plan they are getting ready to share. Where this is headed, strategically, seems like a big distancing from the problematic elements of the deal (data/tech) and a foregrounding of shiny progressive things (timber, energy, mobility, architecture) with little discussion about financing and infrastructure privatization. These are not things that should slip into the background but they continually do. In the near-term this is sounding more like boring old gentrification with new clothes, significant room for public/private boondoggles, all with a few sides of plausible surveillance infrastructure looming in the future, but not until the heat dies down.

The Long Game: Decide, Announce, Defend

“It is the totality of insights we will gain from engaging with the community that will ultimately inform the Sidewalk Toronto plans.” This is ex-CEO of Waterfront Toronto Will Fleissig and Dan Doctoroff when the project launched. This is untrue. This is not how sophisticated capital works, as this excellent piece from Shannon Mattern explains — vital background reading.

The model Sidewalk Labs appears to be following in this year of public engagement theatre is best understood as something called Decide, Announce, Defend. They had plans all along. They have spent a year asking vague questions and hoovering up all kinds of feedback from the public. Behind closed doors they are lobbying up and down all levels of government. And now public feedback will be used to reverse engineer consent for generic urban goodness, to apply it to whatever Sidewalk Labs’ plans are.

This will be bolstered by a range of economic development plays that are the core of the lobby work they are doing. Tall timber is the most visible of these, with recent references to the provincial economy on that front and an endless amount of it in the press. It’s not to say it’s a bad idea, but it highlights the public theatre — the lack of information about the economic development plan behind it. The green energy project has been quiet for a while, so that one is due to rear its head again. The City of Toronto and the province have both been excited about autonomous vehicles so there is something in the mix there too. The list is long.

The major thrust of whatever is announced at the next public meeting in December will be surveillance tech and data lite, economic development heavy, and full of “what were you worrying about?” gas-lighting all over again.

Where this gets insulting is the part where people are expected to suspend their belief and DuckDuckGo searches about Sidewalk Labs’ current operations. These include everything from health services such as CityBlock to advertising kiosks that are interfering with(irony alert) functional sidewalks in the UK.

Take a look at Intersection, a Sidewalk Labs affiliate, and its respect for a vibrant public realm.

Here is a post about a product Intersection calls “station dominations”, where they plaster subway stations with ads. They are described as “the highest impact advertising products for public space. Analogous to a homepage takeover, a station domination enables companies to saturate an entire train station with creative branding that generates buzz and tremendous recall”. Dan Doctoroff is the Chairman of this company.

Funny how these “urban innovations”- a la Intersection — aren’t being discussed for Toronto. Why would Sidewalk Labs be in these lines of business if it didn’t want to expand them? Why aren’t they in the plans here?

Because it’s a slow play. The real estate is a handle for Sidewalk Labs to grab onto to insert itself in this large piece of land. It would allow Sidewalk Labs to eventually introduce whatever “urban innovations” it is cooking up for residents, employees, and visitors to the space. Maybe Intersection. Maybe not.

But until then, and hopefully we never get there, Toronto will get the sanitized version of the “permissible” urban innovation agenda, kicking the timeline for the introduction of the more nefarious stuff down the road. They would likely hope to push it all past the Master Innovation and Development Plan stage, which if approved, becomes the point of no return.

This process is all part of the R&D. We are teaching this company a lot. And instead of adjusting and owning up on the missteps and sharing stuff honestly Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs are doubling and tripling down on this whole “we’ll show them, we’ll be valiant in the face of doubters” kind of bravado, saving it all up for the big pacifying reveal.

This is not how we should aim to run our cities. This is not innovation in cities and this is not sustainable collaboration. This is big money and power rolling up with a “we know what’s good for you” kind of attitude. Economic development first, people second. For whatever reason, many of Toronto’s establishment types are here for it. Would be nice to see some of them stepping out publicly with some words of support or their rationale for involvement. Maybe then we’d be getting somewhere with the real discourse. Instead it’s still “trust us”.

This is a really bad look for democracy.

Our governments should know better.

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