Democracy Demands Critical Public Discourse - Sidewalk Toronto Needs More Of It, Not Less

Consensus is a myth. This idea was introduced to me by public consultation professionals years ago. In the case of Sidewalk Toronto, hearing a range of wildly different perspectives about the project is not only expected but should be encouraged. To this end, I was glad to see Marcus Gee, The Globe and Mail’s Toronto columnist, turn up with a piece on the project: “Let’s not go sour so soon on the Sidewalk Labs’ urban-improvement project in Toronto.” Gee’s piece is summarized well by these paragraphs:

“The high didn’t last long. In the months since [the announcement of Sidewalk Toronto], skeptics have been pouring buckets of cold water on the idea. Some fear that Sidewalk’s parent, Alphabet Inc., owner of Google, is out to filch all of our personal data. Others seem to think that Sidewalk will turn its waterfront innovation zone into a technological gated-community where the city government’s writ barely runs. Still others suspect it of scheming to take over the Port Lands, the huge, barely developed stretch of real estate on the east side of harbour.

Sidewalk chief Dan Doctoroff has been forced to fend off insinuations that his firm is a kind of modern-day carpetbagger, trying to pull something over on pure, innocent Toronto. It’s a wonder he hasn’t run screaming back to New York. Toronto isn’t just looking this gift horse in the mouth. It is giving the nag a root canal.”

In other words, stop asking questions of Sidewalk Labs, it might scare them off. Be happy that they chose Toronto for their urban innovation product development adventure. Or be quiet.

Gee’s piece provides an opportunity to share a counter-intuitive truth with anyone that supports this project. Sidewalk Toronto *requires* a rigorous and challenging public engagement process to succeed. Critics need to turn it up right now, not down. And the people that understand this more than anyone are working at Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto.

Doctoroff and Sidewalk Labs don’t need anyone to take up their defence. Quite the opposite — it was Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto that asked for these conversations to happen. Back in October 2017, Will Fleissig, head of Waterfront Toronto and Dan Doctoroff, head of Sidewalk Labs, ran an op-ed in the Toronto Star. They said: “It is your city. It is your plan. It is our job, beginning on Wednesday evening, to listen.”

Weeks later, in an editorial meeting with the Star, Doctoroff praised the community for creating a list of challenging questions, he was grateful for the effort. Doctoroff worked in government in New York City. Both he and his leadership team at Sidewalk Labs know very well that residents and governments are completely unprepared to buy new data-informed and/or rule-bending innovation products. They get it. They knew they’d be stepping in it.

The way that Toronto residents, and its politicians, respond to this project are part and parcel of Sidewalk’s product development cycle. In the technology business this is called the discovery phase —we are now in the early days of the product development cycle. Sidewalk is learning about the local landscape and context for the products it wants to sell and the investments it may make. They’re spidering our economy and our government. And they’re exploring what we as residents will allow them to do.

Shutting Down Discourse

Characterizing critical discourse as problematic or a risk to this opportunity is completely out of step with recent history on technology and ethics, governance, and procurement. Democratic process requires engagement, engagement requires confidence to speak and learn. Now is not the time to make anyone hesitant to get engaged. This includes making people feel like they are luddites, anti-innovation, anti-business, paranoid, or fearful, for asking questions and sharing concerns.

This is true not only for residents but for civil servants and particularly for politicians. Putting a chill on the numerous debates we’ll need to have about this project is not the way forward. People that work in technology aren’t in agreement on what to do about some of the emerging issues they’re facing around data ethics and data justice, no one is expecting the rest of the world to know either.

Unintended consequences are the order of the day in technology. This isn’t about any one company or person doing anything sinister — it’s about the technology industry and global governance regimes being out of sync.

Canada is home to an immensely talented and thoughtful pool of residents, activists, academics, and business people. Global voices are chiming in on this project as well. People from different backgrounds and with a range of lived experiences are voicing their concerns.

If the concerns and requirements from the community can’t be addressed and met then the project shouldn’t happen. Both Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto have said so from day one. Setting aside the major process flaw that has us considering policy creation with a vendor, the ball is now in Sidewalk Toronto’s court. It’s their move to create the conditions for a meaningful and defensible consultation process. The first public meeting is on March 20th — hope to see you there.