Debrief on Sidewalk Toronto Public Meeting #2 — Time to Start Over, Extend the Process

The second Sidewalk Toronto public meeting was held this past Thursday May 3rd, and the project is at the halfway point of its year-long $50 million dollar existence. Whether we’ve arrived here through intention, negligence, or “innovation by design” the public engagement process is off the rails. Continuing to pretend that the current project status is normal, defensible, or just a little behind schedule is not acceptable given the possible implications of this deal.

Slide 8 from the presentation at Sidewalk Toronto public meeting #2
Slide 43 from the presentation at Sidewalk Toronto public meeting #1

At the start of the meeting, the MC, John Brodhead of Sidewalk Labs, presented a summary of public feedback from the first meeting. This is a meeting he didn’t attend as he was not employed by Sidewalk Labs at the time. Brodhead also shared the news that a draft plan wouldn’t be available for public consultation until the fourth and final meeting. The third public meeting is set to feature “Initial Sketches of the Planning and Development Work for Toronto’s Waterfront” but that sounds vague and broad, so it’s difficult to say what kind of details might show up there.

It was notable that leadership from either part of the joint venture, people that *had* been there since day one, didn’t make this process piece their own to present, particularly given the importance of the public process to the project’s success. (A minor logistical aside for your calendar that wasn’t said out loud at the meeting: the dates for public meetings #3 and #4 went from fixed at the first public meeting to loose at this one (see above), so those initial dates might be moving if you are holding them.)

Presenting a Draft Plan at the End of a Process

Without a clear roadmap of project milestones and deliverables, the public meeting process has provided the next best thing for an idea of how the work is being organized and shared. The most important information provided at this second public meeting was that the draft Master Innovation and Development plan, the final deliverable in this year-long process, wouldn’t be available until public meeting #4 in October.

The reason this is seriously problematic from a process perspective is simple and applies to every public consultation with few exceptions. Exceptions could be imagined in cases where the outputs are well known and the stakes somewhat lower, though it’s never ideal to leave the details of a proposal to the end. In the case of this project, with all the related complexity, the proposed timeline leaves no space to take public input and apply it to the plan in a way that can be seen by the public once more before it is submitted for government approvals. Without having this time there is a legitimacy problem with the project. In a normal case where there are appropriate laws and policy and precedent, the feedback from the public might not hold such weight. But in this case, in the absence of up-to-date laws and policies, and in the act of creating policy with a vendor, there is no room for this rushed approach.

This issue is something that Waterfront Toronto knows and understands. In an article published after the meeting, Kristina Verner of Waterfront Toronto spoke to the opportunity to extend the process if need be. The thing is, it shouldn’t take any resident sticking their hand up and asking for this. The Sidewalk Toronto project team thought sharing the plan at the fourth meeting was a defensible approach. It was their idea. That’s a problem. The right thing would have been to see the timeline, see that deliverable at the end, and then add at least one more meeting (ideally more) and explain why, proactively. The fix, thankfully, is simple — extend the process.

A Few Other Small Asides on the Consultation Approach

The Sidewalk Toronto project team mentioned that they held meetings with three neighbourhood associations and offered to hold more with any interested groups. This is good. The lack of any documentation of those three meetings is not. If they exist and I can’t find them I’m happy to fix it. If you meet with people and don’t write anything down the meeting is not an input to an engagement process, it’s information out.

Then there is a Residents Reference Panel that has been set up, a group of 36 people that are intended to represent the diversity of Toronto residents. They are volunteering to meet and learn about the process and write up an independent report at the end of their process. It would be helpful to have access to the materials and information they are being given, how the project is being framed for that group, and how they are being brought up to speed on tech/data/ethics/law/sociology/urban planning/finance models/etc. I know I would struggle in creating that curriculum so I’m keen to know what they are getting and how to make it a publicly available resource for others trying to learn more on these topics. Here is the FAQ for participants, and the topics the panel is looking at, outlined at the first meeting on April 21.

Slide 15 from the presentation at Sidewalk Toronto public meeting #2

Finally, no one working on this project is surprised that people have concerns related to data use, data ownership, data collection, and more. But the public education campaign for this kind of information has been close to nonexistent. When participants have been given a chance to talk about data, as they were at this second meeting, some background education would be helpful if not vital to help them weigh in with confidence.

It is somewhat bizarre how most of the public’s time has been spent at these two meetings so far — asking people questions about how they would or wouldn’t use a car or thoughts on affordable housing such as “What would make renting an apartment appealing to you?” And because people are polite they do the exercises and have great conversations about broad urban planning issues (I did at my table, at least) but that’s not what these meetings are for. This boil the ocean hubris is reflected well in the breadth of the advisory groups that have been set up for Sidewalk Toronto, essentially mirroring full government operations, for consultation on a 12 acre piece of land. But that’s the charade — the product development process everyone is being taken through is for any city, which is why it feels so broad.

Slide 17 from the presentation at Sidewalk Toronto public meeting #2

Much More than Privacy is at Stake

The fact that privacy and data issues are dominating public discourse plays directly into the communications strategy for this project as designed from the start. Not to say they aren’t important issues, they are, but they are not the end of the line — governance and privatization issues are equally important.

Governance and privatization topics have generally failed to gain public discourse traction because everyone working on this project keeps saying they don’t know what they are doing. Which sends the narrative further into the spiral of negative assumptions in the absence of any work. There was a wide range of ideas in the vision document, from automated vehicles to garbage disposal to energy to building methods to sensors. Why aren’t we getting into details on those ideas and the implications of having them in the neighbourhood or the district? We should be making up frameworks for public digital infrastructure as well, but without anyone describing what it might look like in this project plan, we’re left clawing at the abstract and listening to more hand-waving about innovation, a narrative that has received zero rigorous analysis from, say, a rights-based or labour or economics perspective. This idea that there is a big economic development incentive aligned with this project is another stream of conversation entirely in need of public debate.

There also appears to be significant confusion about what co-design means. Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto both have extensive urban planning and technical knowledge in their staff, and for Waterfront Toronto, in their project history. Sidewalk Labs has billed itself as the team to bridge the divide between technologists and urbanists. It is up to this project team to bring forward products and services, and up to the public to assess them and weigh in. Co-design at these public meetings doesn’t mean delegating authority or responsibility for the work to residents. It is increasingly beginning to feel like no one knows who is in charge or where this is going. That’s not what innovation feels like, that’s what a dangerous process feels like. And historically speaking, in terms of procurement, when government doesn’t take the lead on defining what it needs, the market most certainly will.

Infrastructure Means What? Fifty Million Dollars Where?

I asked again at this public meeting for details on the business plan, and any particular possible insights on infrastructure as a business model. Again there were no specific details provided. The term infrastructure matters on several fronts. Infrastructure is central to public service delivery and public utilities — if there is any private infrastructure being considered, the model demands scrutiny and soon. There are also domino impacts to how the Port Lands may be developed if what Sidewalk seeks to develop might be a utility or service for the rest of the waterfront.

These are a lot of process legitimacy issues. So how to get back on track?

Extend the Engagement Process to Line Up with the Federal Smart Cities Challenge

To keep exploring and testing real possibility within this enthusiasm for economic development, the city of the future, jobs, a tech hub, and urban innovation the process needs to get back on the rails. The way to do this is to extend the timeline for the development of the Master Innovation and Development Plan. The handy timeline to jump onto is the federal government’s Smart City Challenge, a contest where cities across Canada are competing for federal funding for their smart city proposals. The bids for that project are already submitted and will be public in mid-May, which will give everyone more material to review and learn from and consider in a policy context.

Making this change to the Sidewalk Toronto process would see the Master Innovation and Development Plan submitted to the Waterfront Toronto board for approval in the Spring of 2019. If successful there, it would then be submitted for government approvals next. This would help get it lined up with policy work currently being done at all levels of government to support the technology proposals created for the Smart City Challenge.

This extension would help get us all closer to some shared policy resources on how to manage tech in our cities. This isn’t the first and won’t be the last project of its type. And for this particular project, it would scratch the six months of nothing that has occurred and allow everyone to start again with an honest dialogue about some of the issues raised here, and more. If this matters it has to be done right. A year was never enough time in the first place, so it’s important to get it back and try again. There is nothing wrong with moving milestones when they no longer fit the reality of an engagement process, quite the opposite — it’s the responsible thing to do.