Sidewalk Toronto — Secrecy, Identity Problems, and the Ticking Process Clock
Just over two weeks ago, on June 7th, Waterfront Toronto held the first meeting of its Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. This panel was created to provide independent advice to Waterfront Toronto on its technology approach in the Sidewalk Toronto deal, and beyond. The agency will continue to use technology in its development approach for the entire Port Lands, as they always have. It’s an intentional (and correct) governance approach to have advice provided directly from this panel to Waterfront Toronto. Not to Sidewalk Toronto and not to Sidewalk Labs. Waterfront Toronto. The entity in this deal with a mandate to be a public steward.
Three key things of note from this meeting, aside from a wealth of thoughtful and critical advice from the panel: Secrecy continues, identity confusion, and a possible timeline extension.
The meeting was a long affair, five hours. And it was open to the public. Save for one section of the meeting that was going to be closed. That part of the meeting didn’t happen because members of the panel did not agree to sign the confidentiality agreement they were given a short amount of time before the meeting. So rather than hold that closed session, it was removed from the agenda and pushed to a future date. Before the meeting continued, there was some back and forth from panel members, with many pointed questions from Andrew Clement, on issues with the confidentiality agreement.
Let’s go back to the beginning on this process. Back in January, the alarm was rung by Denzil Minnan-Wong about the contract signed between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto — first at the Waterfront Toronto board, then at the City of Toronto’s Executive Committee. A summary was released but the contract was still kept closed. A FOI request to release the clause in the contract about why it was confidential, not even the full contract, was rejected. Remember, Waterfront Toronto is not subject to FOI legislation. Now nothing will be made public until the next phase of the contract, the Plan Development Agreement, is signed.
So this digital strategy advisory panel is being asked to sign a confidentiality agreement. In May, on CBC’s The Current, Helen Burstyn, chair of Waterfront Toronto’s board, defended the decision to keep negotiations confidential because they are always confidential for real estate deals. Ok (not really here, but let’s run with it). This panel is not advising on the real estate transaction. So what gives with the confidentiality?
The plausible answer was hinted at in this panel meeting — that this isn’t a “real estate/infrastructure/tech in separate deals” deal — this is entrenching all of those ideas into one play. And here we have a governance mess. An agreement that will seek to pull off all three at once, or the conditions for all three at once, is complex. The idea that keeping this deal closed is a good idea for Waterfront Toronto is getting increasingly hard to believe. It feels as though Waterfront Toronto is driving their risk, and our risk as residents, way up by going at this complexity alone. The issue with technology is that it thrives in a policy vacuum, which is exactly what we’re in. When the contract finally appears in public, what isn’t there will require as much analysis as what is.
Midway through the meeting Teresa Scassa intervened with a question that set the tone for the remainder of the meeting: “When you say “we” in this meeting, who is “we”?” Her question came up when Sidewalk Labs was presenting. The question highlights a glaring problem with this “partnership” — half of this partnership has one mandate — maximize their profit. The other half of this partnership has another one — maximize public good for Toronto residents. As the two work together, one corporate, one agency — they are mixing themselves up into a shared identity when they fundamentally cannot, by definition, have one. Will these two parties that are getting ever more entangled in each other really go down the road as partners as they negotiate, then reject each other at the last stage? The relationship dynamic that this procurement has created continues to be a big red flag.
The company speaks about Toronto as a lab for global urban planning product development. We lack public accounting of how the much celebrated $50M dollar US investment is being spent. There are references being made by the company to a “large-scale” and “district” lab that are at odds with the Quayside boundaries. As Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs said in this recent Freakonomics podcast: “Our mission is really to use technology to redefine urban life in the 21st century, and we want to do it by literally building a city, or a district of a city. And we have chosen Toronto to do that.”
So Doctoroff has walked back his early days statement that this “was primarily a real estate play”. But the real estate play for Quayside can’t be minimized. At this panel meeting Sidewalk said it wasn’t a data play. Tangible and specific details can’t arrive soon enough. Malice or negligence — it doesn’t matter, we’re well into the realm of disrespectful public engagement, the supposed core of this process, something both parties to this deal now have to wear.
Unconfirmed but Possible Good News on the Project Timeline
Sidewalk Labs talked about needing to move from the abstract to the tangible in the process, but that work was on pace. Kristina Verner, VP of Innovation, Sustainability & Prosperity at Waterfront Toronto, said the process would be extended. When contacted for clarification, Waterfront Toronto would only say that yes, the timeline would be extended.
Waterfront Toronto would not confirm whether this meant additional public meetings or simply more time to do the existing plan. Additional meetings have to be added, as does time to make use of public input. The first two public meetings have not provided any useful specific details about the work. If they add more meetings, as well as a good chunk of time, they can basically start the process from the beginning again. Beyond legitimacy for the process, there is public education that needs to happen too. This all takes time. And perhaps a totally different approach should be considered or borrowed from? Blayne Haggart and Natasha Tusikov recently wrote a great piece on how Brazil approached a national conversation on digital governance. It took the complexity of the issues at stake seriously and created process legitimacy through its consultation.
Another reason to extend the process is to make the most of this panel that Waterfront Toronto has to help them. Members of the panel were providing helpful and critical feedback from so many different angles. At this, the first meeting. Seven months into a year-long process.
There was extensive feedback provided from the panel on data ownership, current privacy laws and precedents, data standards, data monopolies, inclusion and accessibility, digital infrastructure, options to consider with data use, how to build a good structure for innovation with data, and more. There are no notes from the meeting yet, I’m not sure what that process will be. I will post an update when I find out where they are/how they will be shared.
The next scheduled public meeting is in July. The calendar on the Sidewalk Toronto website says July 11th but the presentation at the last public meeting said late July. Regardless, based on the news at this panel meeting, the date for the third meeting may move. The intention of the next meeting is to show tangible plans for Quayside. It’s well past time. I’ll share an update as I hear anything on timing as well as things to consider heading into that next meeting.