Stale Cities. Why Waterfront Toronto is the Perfect Partner for Sidewalk Labs

Waterfront Toronto’s Economic Development Mandate Rules the Day

Smart cities have always been a corporate product. And though it’s painful to see the decade old zombie of an idea live on in my hometown, with both parties denying it’s a smart city, no one should be surprised. The allure of the economic development narrative of the technology industry has been running roughshod over society for the last twenty years. It was naive, and frankly wrong, I’ll own that, to think Waterfront Toronto would be the right organization to begin to address this problem. Quite the opposite — they’re the perfect partner for Sidewalk Labs. And how this partnership will now gel is laid out in crystal clear terms in Sidewalk Labs’ recently released Digital Innovation Appendix. This narrative framing of the technology systems by Sidewalk Labs is a great example:

“60% subsystems do not generate personal information. Any subsystems that do generate personal information do so in order for the service to enable a Waterfront Toronto Priority Outcome” (pg 43).

And fair enough. This was always the point of the request for proposal, and what Waterfront Toronto asked for. It remains a problem that they didn’t ask Toronto residents first.

A Slight Delay, But It’s All Still in Play

What happened at the end of October was just a small setback, in terms of time, for both Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs to get on with this deal. After reading the first 50 pages of the almost 500 page Digital Innovation Appendix, now is the time, in case you had any other hopes, to stop expecting Waterfront Toronto to do anything other than enable the project. They have built an assessment that is circular to their mandate. Neither party is stupid, they’ll put forward ideas that will get approved. But what neither party has as their primary mandate is democracy and society, so it’s also time to stop looking to both of them for that kind of leadership. It’s so plainly not their first priority, nor to be fair, either party’s core mandate.

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Image for post
CC BY 3.0Sérgio Valle Duarte

As I write this, please understand, the critique is not about Waterfront Toronto. They are simply doing their job, economic development with a side of public stewardship. Many others have challenged whether they’re even doing the economic development part well, and there is much to dig into there, but that’s not my lane so I won’t get into it.

I will say, however, that the agency was not designed to support public stewardship for how extensive this technological project is. This is not the same as having Beanfield provide internet access to residents. And no part-time advisory group or handful of legal advisors is going to change that.

Let me put some more details on that. When you look at the Sidewalk Toronto assessment process, the experts involved are happy to consider it in their narrow scope of expertise — privacy, trade law, patents, etc. But where around the table are the scholars confident enough in their grasp of history and urbanism and political economy to say that the real assessment is about comparisons to funding the related areas properly (transit, housing, etc.) not tweaking and twiddling around with platforms that will turn more of the city into a playground for finance? There are so many other places and ways to support thriving tech sectors. Turning the city into a product is a great option to take a pass on.

Entrenching more of these systems creates a complexity that we again have to fund and manage and service for marginal improvements. Is it pragmatic to enable this, as though it’s better than nothing? That’s a debate to have. I think this is one of those moments in time where one particular set of experts could really do the world a favour and be humble and small, and create confidence in other professions that know about cities, and their pre-existing knowledge.

So much of the technology industry is built on enthusiasm of finance and half-truths and unknowns. All this project really does is incrementally slide us further into urbanism reverse engineered around economic development, which is absolutely nothing new. How has that been working out for society in the last two decades? Do experts and academics in the tech space have it in them to actually step back and surface broader issues of equity and justice in cities and how programs such as Sidewalk Toronto fit into that kind of an analysis?

One of the hard to accept parts of this story is that you can find a whole slew of technologists that know how differently we can be building and designing tech systems for civic and public purpose. Those technologists are not at the heart of the ideas proposed. Those technologists aren’t represented by the board of trade. Nothing is wrong with the board of trade and the businesses they represent but they are not the full voice of the technology community in Toronto, not by a long shot. I am of a generation of technologists than understand how tech can be used for public and civic good, well outside commercial terms. Projects like this continue to erode the space where we can have impact, despite the way Sidewalk Labs and Google use the words open, shared, and other — these are rhetorical gestures. They’re corporations and they have to act as such. Fair game. As always, a seat at the table, yes, but they’re not the table.

To end on a hopeful note — there are proper governmental processes starting, and in Canada we have a great policy window that’s open at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels. We will make good use of those. Not to say governments have historically been much better at putting society and democracy above the technology industry, but at least they have a more direct responsibility to do so.

Bah.. this isn’t even the post I sat down to write — I have some specific thoughts from the Digital Innovation Appendix to share, as well as why this assertion from Waterfront Toronto that the governments are now in charge of digital policy for this project is not true — more soon.

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