Sidewalk Toronto: The Poverty of Our Civic Institutions

Hello mothers and fathers of the City of Toronto — where are you? The brazen Google propaganda and public relations machine is picking up speed and your voices are more needed on this project than ever.

Google/Sidewalk Labs/whatever may have the very best intentions in its work here in Toronto. But again, and all together now — who cares? Who cares what Larry Page, Google’s co-founder, thinks about cities? And modular housing and paving? Look at his Wikipedia page. He’s done incredible work. On algorithms. But why does anyone care what Larry Page thinks about cities? A recent article shows how badly Sidewalk Labs’ leadership wants us to see their connection to Larry Page, one of Google’s co-founders:

“Doctoroff, the Sidewalk Labs CEO, disputes this characterization [that Page is absent from Alphabet’s operations] and says Page is “intensely involved,” citing their weekly video chats and a surprise Page visit to Sidewalk’s Toronto project in July. Although Page hasn’t visited Sidewalk’s New York headquarters in months, Doctoroff says he’s constantly discussing ideas as varied as “dynamic pavement” and “cross-laminated timber.”

Our cities are not a realm for those with power and money to conquer and shape. They’re not a sales vertical. I don’t care how many well-intentioned people are working on this effort — it comes down to a fundamental choice we need to make about our public institutions.

You know who I care about when it comes to cities? The people that live in them and the public service that knows them inside and out. Them. They matter most and first. And I thought more of our civic institutions had a handle on this. Evidently not.

Government things

I spoke to an influential urbanist about this project that told me the government is broken, the bureaucracy is too slow, and it’s not keeping up with new ways of doing things.

To which I say — fix it. Power is hard to get back once you cede it.

If we need to evolve our local government to support better and more innovative urban planning then let’s do it. I refuse to buy into a privatized work-around if our core system needs fixing. We within the policy community continue to do the work, with residents, to make sure that it doesn’t matter which company is selling smart city products in Canada. This is slow work to engage people in because we have no idea about data and digital rights and technology, generally speaking, as a society.

We want to make sure that all of our cities are in good shape from a policy perspective and a digital rights perspective, that way any vendor, from a small Canadian one to a large US monopoly, can bid on municipal projects and it won’t matter because we’ll have the rules set up. We’re not there yet but we’re working on it.

And that work will continue.

But in the interim Google is leveraging the confusion it’s creating by borrowing Waterfront Toronto’s brand to do its business here. At this point, I’d like to call on Sidewalk Labs to proactively disclose the way it is spending its $50 million USD with regards to procurement. Simple disclosure such as a) who they are paying and for what b) whether or not the people under contract signed an NDA and c) (optional) how much the contracts are worth.

I wouldn’t be curious for this type of disclosure if Sidewalk Labs were simply a company doing business here. But they’re not. They’ve borrowed Waterfront Toronto’s brand and have everyone confused. So given that context, a little extra disclosure would be helpful to get a handle on the local landscape.

Sidewalk Labs has over 11 million USD in its budget for communications for this project. Part of this is for “ Stakeholder engagement: “including private sector engagement, [which] will seek to ensure support (emphasis mine) for the Master Innovation and Development Plan among key constituents in Toronto.”

Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google from 2001–2015 and current Chairman of Alphabet appeared last week in Toronto. And he met with Toronto’s mayor along with Sidewalk’s CEO. Mayor Tory then went and shared his notes from that meeting on Twitter:

“ Great meeting today with @Google’s @ericschmidt and @SidewalkLabs@DanDoctoroff following their visit to #ElevateTechFest. Good discussion about Toronto’s success story when it comes to tech and innovation and how it must continue.”

So this deal must continue regardless of the fact that we don’t know what it is, how it will work, and how residents’ lives will be impacted. The business of the deal has completely eclipsed the democratic implications of the deal.

Not a good look.

The deal has not come near City Council and residents in any form that we can understand, save for plenty of lobbying.

Also, a quick note on civic institutions. I know times are tough for our universities, I really do. But our universities are now lining up to lend their credibility to Sidewalk Labs. For tiny grants that are enabling Sidewalk Labs to ignore all the existing academic work regarding communities in cities. What have we done to our academic institutions to put them is this position where they would sign on and lend their reputation to this mess for measly 10–15K grants? And can we see how this demand that they do “practical real-world” work leads to conflicts and newer bigger problems such as this?

This is a co-optation of the very institutions that should be immensely skeptical of this type of venture given the power dynamics at play, the lack of resident input regarding digital rights and policy, the lack of clarity about this project, the complete deficit in public understanding of data (count me in there) and global confusion about how to manage data. Embarrassing. Again.

Sidewalk Labs is using these old powerful institutional brands to support their Master Innovation and Development Plan and assign credibility to something that no one can explain. When the end of this project comes and this plan is announced, do these institutions not know how much it means to see their university named as part of the work? How much weight that carries with a public that is already not getting any straight information and no public education from our government? Everyone can walk away from their contract with Sidewalk Labs — no matter how big or how small. Now would be a good time to think a bit harder about that option.

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