Sidewalk Toronto: Waterfront Toronto’s Words and Deeds on Digital Don’t Align Yet

The fine print and timeline has the story. It’s not the one we want to tell.

Two Years of Process Has Put Us in the Upside-down World

First off, please reflect for a moment on the headlines and op-eds from last week. Yes, the chair of Waterfront Toronto’s board, Stephen Diamond, negotiated the project back to conditions that should have been in the RFP. It’s good the Google office distraction is gone. That’s work that needed to be done and I’m grateful for it. However, “Toronto reigned in big tech?”

We “reigned in” the vendor. That we hired.

And we didn’t totally do that either. Slow your roll.

The story being told is a reflection of how far down the rabbit hole everyone has fallen into enabling behaviour. Sidewalk Labs knows Waterfront Toronto would want to tell the story about how they tamed big tech. But it’s not these interim stages that define the outcome. Congratulations Toronto, welcome to negotiations 101 where one side way overplays their hand to get to the middle.

Digital Governance Process Problem — Out of Order

Secondly, we have a process problem. Again. As ever.

As a condition for the alignment letter of agreement announced on October 31st, Sidewalk Labs was asked to submit additional details on its digital plans to Waterfront Toronto and its Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. Here’s Stephen Diamond’s letter of June 2019: “Sidewalk Labs has initial proposals relating to data collection, data use, and digital governance. We will require additional information to establish whether they are in compliance with applicable laws and respect Waterfront Toronto’s digital governance principles.”

Waterfront Toronto then went ahead into this next phase of planning without that information, on the commitment that they’d get it. These details on digital are due to Waterfront Toronto on November 7th, and will be made public shortly thereafter. Which sets us all up for a repeat occurrence of the MIDP. If Waterfront Toronto doesn’t see the comms play that is about to happen I don’t know what to say.

These 400 pages that are coming from Sidewalk Labs will tell a new marketing story, which will then point people towards mitigating it, managing it, and endorsing it. Probably more gesturing at Barcelona and Amsterdam and support for local firms and digital rights and data for the public good and openness. It will sound fine, good even. And it will play to the crowd. We’ve seen how keen Toronto’s civic institutions were to get behind the MIDP without reading it. There’s no reason to believe we’re not headed for a repeat occurrence.

To be clear, this is not Sidewalk Labs’ fault — they’re doing what they were asked to do a long time ago. Can’t blame them for leveraging timing. But now it’s up to Waterfront Toronto to course correct and bring their recent words into alignment with the next steps in our process. These words, from their letter of October 29th: “The parties acknowledge that Waterfront Toronto will lead all privacy and digital governance matters related to the Project.” If they’re supposed to lead on these matters, they’re going to need to get some processes in place to create an assessment methodology with the public *before* diving into an assessment of Sidewalk’s digital plans.

It’s all quite ambiguous, but what appears to be happening is that the project is reverting to the idea of co-authorship. See this, also from Waterfront Toronto’s letter of October 29th: “Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs will continue to work together in good faith to identify and agree on a priority list of innovations, together with any regulatory modifications required to implement them, as part of the MIDP to be considered by March 31, 2020.”

Sidewalk Labs being a Google-affiliate isn’t nothing, but it’s not everything. In the course of these two years, no one has taken the opportunity to reframe and reset the digital governance narrative, to put the steps back in order. To set the rules then do the assessment. All everyone is asking for is time for residents to create rules and processes to assess Sidewalk’s plans, not to write them while concurrently assessing their ideas.

It’s alway the same with me, I’m happy to be wrong. If there are steps being taken by Waterfront Toronto to clearly address this order of operations problem, I’ll be glad to see them. I’m also happy to be corrected if I’m misreading what’s going on here. Negligence and enabling behaviour give us the same result as nefarious action: mitigating corporate terms for governance rather than making adequate space to define civic ones.

Waterfront Toronto’s economic development mandate appears to be subtly rearing its head in how the organization is acting. It may be that only the City of Toronto and proper democratic governmental processes can do the work that has to happen from here on out. This particular project appears to be designed for approval, not proper independent evaluation. In a time where digital governance is not well-defined or democratically informed this is less than ideal. I realize some people are ok with Sidewalk Labs doing this work for residents. I’m not, and I know I’m not alone. I don’t think this kind of corporate deference should happen in subtle ways that are hard for us to keep on top of due to an incredibly confusing process.

End Game

One thing about Sidewalk Labs, which is not intuitive perhaps, is that they’re part of a conglomerate that is interested in a much bigger and longer game than Quayside. Given their market position, all they need to do right now is create enabling conditions for tech in cities. They don’t need to be in charge of each and every detail or product. I went to look at the Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners company, which was spun out of Sidewalk Labs, and found this summary of their mission:

“Sidewalk Infrastructure seeks to build world-leading platforms by drawing on its unique partnerships and ecosystem to develop conviction around theses in technology-enabled infrastructure.”

They’re explicit about the world they want to see and the role they want to play in it. It’s Waterfront Toronto, and all three levels of government, that don’t seem half as interested in doing the same for the public with the urgency required.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store