Sidewalk Toronto: What Really Happened on Oct 31, 2019. And Now What?

The TL:DR of the “Toronto Reins in Big Tech” Fib

I’m halfway through the video from the November 19 public update from Waterfront Toronto. I wrote more about it, then deleted it, because this project is a massive confusion, and the confusion is how we’re staying in trouble.

Step one: let’s get a handle on what is going on. Here’s a summary of “the Big Win” that Waterfront Toronto secured from Sidewalk Labs.

The “Resolution” of Ten Issues.

  1. The project is not 190 acres. It’s 12 acres. But then it can expand.
  2. Sidewalk Labs won’t invent new public bodies.
  3. Sidewalk Labs won’t force Waterfront Toronto to make transit appear.
  4. Sidewalk Labs won’t skip competitive procurement.
  5. Sidewalk Toronto won’t do anything illegal regarding digital.
  6. Waterfront Toronto will lead traditional infrastructure. Sidewalk Labs will lead “advanced” (here be dragons) infrastructure.
  7. Waterfront Toronto always does fair market valuation of land when they do a deal. They will do it again.
  8. Waterfront Toronto will partner with Sidewalk Labs on the business plan for the Urban Innovation Institute on the waterfront. The venture capital fund will have more local direction.
  9. Canadian firms will not get in trouble for infringing on global Sidewalk patents (before it was Canadian Sidewalk patents). Any IP created in Quayside testbed, WT will get revenue share rather than profit share (percentage and time period TBD).
  10. WT is still doing affordability, sustainability, and innovation. So WT isn’t changing their mandate.

Consider how problematic the RFP, and two subsequent legal agreements are, for any of this to be considered a success.

All of it should have been secured in the RFP. Much of it should never have been allowed to slide out as a possibility into the public relations machine that is driving the story. We all would have been having different, and more useful, conversations for two years. And the public wouldn’t be in a terrible negotiating position. Which it is.

Managing spin from *any* smart city vendor was always going to be an issue. Now we know we have the same problem with Waterfront Toronto. As an organization, they have an economic development mandate. They have shown that this is making them vested in making this deal happen as priority one. This isn’t to blame them for anything, it’s their mandate, and a reflection of what they think it means to be a public steward. It’s also why government process is where I’m spending most of my time from here on out.

Ok, So What is the Public Supposed to Be Looking At?

Step two: get a handle on what is being evaluated. The MIDP is still somewhat in play. Here’s what:

Volume One (physical design): the Quayside section is getting evaluated.

Volume Two (innovations): The way the innovations apply to the Quayside geography and restated digital innovations from the new appendix are getting evaluated.

Volume Three (partnership): Mostly not relevant — except for VC fund and Urban Innovation Institute. More on commercial terms coming from WT.

Additional materials being evaluated: Digital Innovation Appendix and Public Consultation Report.

Evaluation from Here Out

Currently WT is doing a technical evaluation with independent subject matter experts of the pieces identified above. It was at this point in the presentation I was watching that things stopped making sense to me, so I’m going to pick up on the evaluation in a second post.

One thing I heard raised was a government task force getting involved in the assessment of the proposal. Allow me to leave this summary of New York City’s recent tech task force here. You’ll note the thing that caused a lot of trouble was City transparency. Or a lack of it. I’m not going to get started on transparency with this project but I think it’s safe to say it’s not one of its best features. Then consider that we’re dealing with time pressure. And finally, and most importantly, that there is no existing democratically informed framework for proper assessment of this project.

There will never be a crash or a bang with this thing. The fact that the public can’t say no is subtle and slow, paper cut by paper cut (legal agreements). The crash and bang happened in 2017 when “no” was designed out of the process. When our governments allowed an organization with an economic development mandate to get itself mixed up in public governance well beyond its remit. More soon.

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