Sidewalk Toronto: Process Update, Plan Due Soon, Enter the City of Toronto

Where Things Are At

The project is in information avalanche mode. There are currently 73 documents on the project website. If I can’t keep up with the reading and meetings and reports (I’m struggling) I don’t know what to say for people that barely know what this project is.

Given the project timeline, Sidewalk Labs’ work must be wrapping up soon on the Master Innovation and Development Plan, the final deliverable that it had a $50 million USD budget to create. It is due to Waterfront Toronto by the end of March.

Slide 28 — Roundtable 4 Plenary Presentation

There isn’t any indication on this slide as to when the fifth and final Sidewalk Toronto public meeting takes place. This is telling. It’s important to know.

It’s also important to note that this process is giving Waterfront Toronto, Sidewalk Labs, and all levels of government three months to fix the draft plan before it’s finalized. Behind closed doors. At the last Waterfront Toronto roundtable, Waterfront Toronto said they would not release the draft plan to the public. They don’t want people to get their hopes up in case Sidewalk proposed things they couldn’t do. That was the rationale provided, roughly speaking.

The Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP) now meets monthly, so there are at least two more of those meetings prior to the plan being complete, with the next one happening on February 14th. Video of the last meeting, January 17th, available here — thank you Rosemary Frei.

Of note: the City of Toronto’s public consultation and staff report work on the project starts as early as April. The City has been fairly quiet, but based on what Sidewalk Labs said at the January DSAP meeting, City staff have been meeting with the company. There has been lobbying at the City level but that’s a separate post and update for another day. The latest political City of Toronto word on the project came from Councillor Joe Cressy in Spacing last month after joining the Waterfront Toronto board. His take, from his Spacing oped:

“I vow to see that the public’s interests are thoroughly protected as we review all aspects of the proposal for Quayside. Jane Jacobs used to say that communities have a right to say `no’ to things that are going to harm them, but a responsibility to say `yes’ to things that will help. That’s how I’ll approach the Sidewalk Labs debate.”

And speaking of the Waterfront Toronto board, the province has yet to name its new appointees. It’s also unclear how long acting CEO Michael Nobrega will be in place and how the search for new leadership is going.

Negative Ecosystem Impacts

One of the greatest disservices this project is doing to the City of Toronto is increasing cynicism around building a healthy co-design and collaboration space for urban tech. If governments reward and endorse this bizarre misunderstanding of community engagement, as they currently are doing, it shows that they don’t really get the potential of doing technology well. The critical importance of bringing residents in and along to learn about tech by creating safe and fun spaces for them to participate. Given that there are global examples of excellence to copy and play with, examples where the city stays in control, Toronto would do well to shake this experiment off soon and get onto the next one.

It would also be helpful if government officials and others would stop telling people that the upcoming municipal urban planning process approvals are the full story here. The suggestion that existing process will catch a range of impacts and trigger the conversations we need to have is flat out wrong and plays *exactly* into the hand of Sidewalk Labs.

Systems and Rules and Data

The latest document on Sidewalk’s website is an update on sustainability plans. It’s both detailed and not. But it shows these problematic grey zones we are dealing with. While it starts by situating the sustainability work in City policy, it eventually meanders into energy control models and tools that begin to push the edges of realms related to agency and autonomy. Behavioural nudging.

Below is but one small example. Beyond that, here’s a case of data capture where Sidewalk may be inserting themselves between the commercial tenants and the energy supply. What is the data governance framework for this model? It’s a different conversation than the one we’ve been having about public/private space. There is power sitting in this layer, and creating a system for it.

Slide 23:

Here, in garbage land, comes an app again:

Slide 27:

Tri-sorters (old news) connected to an app that … wait hold on. “pay-as-you-throw” — I’m not saying this is a bad idea, but we’ve crossed into a municipal regulatory realm I would think? In any case, now there is a system that is capturing data at a unit level around trash, types of trash, etc.

Knowing about this all is valuable and it’s another realm of sitting between information, humans, and larger systems. It’s also something to consider in the context of affordability and justice and incentives that may work well for some but not others. I’m riffing here but I’m saying these pay as you throw ideas intersect with core municipal operations and cost of living.

There also appears to be some kind of garbage machine-learning being suggested here too. So what is the data governance regime for this action?

I’m not trying to make big deals out of these slides. I’m using them as a few examples of product and service systems that warrant proper and alternative framing by municipal interests.

There are multiple ways to accomplish these things that don’t create new markets that play into Alphabet’s broader ecosystem and the power asymmetry situation. The way these systems will be sold, as “software products”, underplays what they are doing — how they organize information and control are not things to only consider from the vantage point of a vendor. This is the range of alternatives we are not leaving any space to see and discuss. Add in all the smart home and office pieces and this discussion shifts yet again.

Purposeful Solutions

Finally, a quick note on a term that also relates to the Sidewalk Labs Replica story by Ava Kofman in The Intercept that came out yesterday . “Purposeful solutions”. It’s basically a term that will be used to describe new products and services that have no market alternatives. This was the rationale that the Illinois Department of Transportation used in order to award Sidewalk Labs with a 3.6 million USD sole source contract.

Here is a blurb from the Sidewalk Toronto Plan Development Agreement, Schedule D, Procurement Principles (pages 36,37)

“As contemplated by A1.c of the RFP and RFP Submission Materials ,the MIDP will identify technological innovations that at the time of their development can objectively and impartially be shown to have no suitable alternatives available in the market (“Purposeful Solutions”), and the Implementation Agreements will generally contemplate competitive procurement processes, with limited exceptions — 37 — allowing for Sidewalk Labs or its affiliates to provide Purposeful Solutions, but only on a fair and demonstrably arms’-length basis.”

Sidewalk Labs or its affiliates. Interesting.

In any case, there is a messy thing here and how this gets brought forward into the MIDP is definitely a piece to keep an eye on.

Ok — more soon, next up (I think, I’ve got a few): why the City approvals process won’t catch all of the issues with this project.

Note: I removed this bit in brackets on Jan 29th because the phrasing is bad (This is a messy space because Sidewalk has invented a legal way to confirm sole sourcing in cases where they are designing new products and they can argue that no alternatives exist.) I’m thinking how to fix it so it’s clearer.

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