Sidewalk Toronto, The City of Toronto, and Our Right To Multiple Futures

Tomorrow is Sidewalk Toronto’s first public meeting. But let’s set aside Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto for a moment. The central thread in this story is the City of Toronto, and other cities around the world.

Smart Cities Are A Workaround

There is no business model that solves affordability, sustainability, housing, and transit. Technology doesn’t reallocate capital. More data might make cities and planning marginally better, but then why not have a data and in-house tech strategy for a city itself to support this approach?

Technology literacy in current circles of power is low. This makes it necessary for the technology community to be vocal about alternatives to this project. There is room in our cities for technology. But let’s go back to the beginning and write those requirements ourselves. If Sidewalk Toronto is truly the best way forward for cities then that case can be made and won. But the only way we can talk about alternatives to Sidewalk Toronto is to understand precisely what is being proposed.

At this public meeting, mind the dominating talk of neighbourhoods and urban planning. Let’s talk about business models. What products and services are at the heart of this deal, how do they work, and do city staff want them? A purchasing path that requires no change on our behalf, as political residents, is the path that leads to yet another entrenched infrastructure vendor, making money from cities that will always have money running through them. This is why we need to talk very definitively and precisely about the products and services related to this deal, not the green spaces and livability.

For all the talk of co-design with residents and ideas for the future people of Quayside, Sidewalk Toronto plays into an insidious narrative. Those running this project and senior staff within the City keep chanting about approvals — that nothing will happen without City, provincial, and federal approvals. I don’t think they realize how much power is already implicit in how this deal has been framed. Or perhaps they do.

Mass Consent and Aggregate Privacy

Some think that tech companies already have everything they need from us to make data products for cities. They don’t. They need our mass consent to exist in public spaces. We have an opportunity to evolve the notion of aggregate privacy. If everyone is keen on having the city operate on a data platform, then which platform? There can be many versions of a platform. If indeed we want a platform at all.

And about the data, our data. Open data sits on a spectrum, a spectrum that considers whether data should be closed, shared, or open. It’s time to consider whether only public servants, those with an ethical commitment to using our data, should be doing so. The public service has an ethical mandate. Vendors do not. Residents do not. In June 2014, Toronto City Council adopted The Toronto Public Service By-law. There are fundamental reasons why the public service is in charge of caring for humans. The legitimacy of this charge is already suffering at all levels of government. Eroding it further in the name of innovation and co-design is a big step and not one to take without expansive and inclusive city-wide conversation.

As someone reading a lot of writing from the privacy and civil liberties communities, I am pushing back on some of their narratives on behalf of the state right now. Yes, governments do harm. Yes, surveillance is happening. But do we want to take back the institution or devolve into an institution-less future where it’s every person for themselves? Data is a willing handmaiden to this future. I’m fighting for a state that is a colonial project, a state that is anti-Black, racist, and violent towards poor people. I know this. And I do it still.

Today, and tomorrow, from my tiny space, I can and will dig in to protect existing institutions from further commercialization. Everyone is playing their position. I see and hear and know leaders holding their ground and new ones rising around me, doing the work they’ve always been doing to push us into a better place as a City and a nation. They will lead and I will follow. In a double election year, there is work. But more important is the work we can do now and in between elections to iterate our government and force it to be better. Always better. Always more ours, not less.

The way government operates is slowly evolving, as always. In the technological sense, if we concurrently embed corporations where we should be building up our own capacity we’re going to tank the opportunity for reform. If our cities are held back by government, which is another emerging smart city narrative around bureaucratic constraints and lack of imagination, then we need to evolve our democratically-informed governance.

A few further small asides are below. If the main thoughts above are 100, these are barely a one. See you tomorrow. There’s no shortage of background to consider and if you have a moment please take a read of our document of community questions and add your thoughts. We’ll do our best to keep on top of answers as we receive them.

A Few Small Things to Consider

Advisory Groups

At this public meeting consider the governance structures emerging. Six advisory groups that report to a joint venture with zero democratic legitimacy. They don’t report to Waterfront Toronto. There should be another announcement coming shortly, with a commitment to an advisory group or groups that advise the agency directly. I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t come. Waterfront Toronto knows good process.

And about the six advisory groups. There should be two. One urban planning group and one technology group. Making the technology seem like it’s 1/6 of the conversation is no small framing feat.

Sidewalk isn’t Google

Sidewalk isn’t Google. Look no further than Nest to know that a company that existed as an Alphabet subsidiary for three years was recently folded back into Google, to better compete with Amazon and Apple.

Sidewalk Labs Jobs

In terms of how the business models for this project might work, there is more clarity in the job postings than in the vision document. Take a look.

Pilot Projects

At Executive Committee in January, Councillor Ana Bailão asked whether any pilot projects will take place before the Master Innovation and Development Plan (the final deliverable) is in place and comes to Council — see the video, it’s queued up.

Deputy City Manager John Livey says no. But the RFP says it’s part of the project, from page 15 — "Contribute appropriate financial resources and/or solution components to support building and district level solutions for the eastern waterfront including pilot projects that demonstrate innovative, emerging technologies.”

The staff report on the framework agreement also made mention of pilot projects, but note the suggestion but not requirement on how they might work — from the report, emphasis mine:

“An important component of the Sidewalk Labs response to Waterfront Toronto’s Request for Proposals is the proposal to pursue pilot projects in Quayside. City staff are supportive of this idea, and are of the view that pilot projects could be undertaken in other parts of the City as well. Pilot projects should be characterized by a commitment to open data. Also, pilot projects should build on, and not duplicate, relevant City initiatives. The evaluation of any successful pilots would include evaluation of opportunities to implement at scale. Given that City has no contractual relationship with Sidewalk Labs, and given that the City must be fair to other potential partners/vendors, City staff prefer that pilot projects be implemented on a non-exclusive basis, meaning that these pilots would not preclude any other technology company from pursuing a pilot”

They City of Toronto has no contract with Sidewalk Labs, and one would assume any pilots would impact City residents. Perhaps a new procurement would occur to manage these issues but whatever the story is, it’s not clear.

Who Chose Who?

October seems like a long time ago, but when we speak of the process to getting here, and its legitimacy, it’s worth remembering the language used when this project was launched, and pushing back against this “we have no idea what we’re doing experiment experiment experiment” language.

From the Toronto Star last October: “Schmidt described the choice of Toronto as the result of years of discussions with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and a visit with Trudeau where the Prime Minister pitched his vision of Canada as a “Silicon Valley, plus everything else Canada is.”

“This is not some random activity from our perspective,” Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt said at the time. “This is the culmination, from our side, of almost 10 years of thinking about how technology can improve people’s lives.”