Sidewalk Toronto, Procurement Innovation, and Permission to Fail

Bianca Wylie
Apr 27, 2018 · 9 min read

On April 19th I attended the open portion of the Quayside Committee meeting at Waterfront Toronto. The agenda included items about the public engagement strategy and a communications update. Two main thoughts to share:

Process Innovation and Permission to Fail

It was helpful to be in a room where the Waterfront Toronto side of this story was being discussed. One of the biggest challenges in detangling this project is trying to understand how the governance of this joint venture called Sidewalk Toronto works, delineating where the public agency ends and the vendor/investor begins. As Waterfront Toronto reflected on the engagement process to date, a few things emerged. 800 people attended the first public meeting, which is an unusually large number of people. The public consultation on this project is attracting people from well outside the usual geographic area of the waterfront. As such, Waterfront Toronto’s strong reputation and history on public engagement aren’t known to everyone that is attending — many people don’t understand its role and its history as the public steward of the waterfront.

So in this meeting on April 19th, Waterfront Toronto reviewed its public engagement principles, committed to maintaining their track record on good public engagement process, and noted — importantly — that as the public steward of the waterfront, they must be the lead on policy development. It is important that they are held to these words. One of the critical problems with this situation is that the project entails so many unknowns, issues people are trying to figure out globally. We shouldn’t be making policy with a vendor, and particularly not when the regulatory landscape is as unstable as it is today.

Waterfront Toronto acknowledged that this project was presenting two new approaches to their work — first, and most obvious, is the intent to create a fully sensor-laden neighbourhood. This is new for them. But the second new part of this project is the procurement process. The way they set up this RFP and the year-long product development term to build the Master Innovation and Development plan is an innovation unto itself. The process is new, something they are trying, and it’s unknown ground. It would be helpful to hear more about how this idea came to be, and to follow the history of this RFP back well before it was issued. The agency could share insights on process innovation with other government and government agencies, it’s a global topic of much interest. And as someone that follows procurement and government technology purchasing, I’ve been thinking about what this process innovation means for us as residents and for the agency and for future projects.

First, Waterfront Toronto is trying something new. And for that, simply for the intention and willingness to try something new, it’s worth a pause to laud the intention. Too often government and government agencies repeat faulty processes because they are the only way anyone knows how to do things and they follow processes completely unfit for technology purchasing. So it’s important not to lose sight of this intention and to keep space to try new things in procurement.

Secondly, part of innovation and trying new things is shutting them down if and when they are a bad idea. This is a cultural nightmare within government and government agencies. However, writing about and normalizing failure within government is vital to creating permission to fail. Failing, somewhat counter-intuitively, is exactly how one creates more permission to try new things. Trying new things means failure will have to happen. Failure is also, strangely, a sign of success. It means a culture shift and a maturity, a space where new things can be tried and shelved if they aren’t right.

At this stage in the project many factors are becoming issues around its legitimacy, factors that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but continue to sit unaddressed. No useful details on a business model, issues around the capacity for the public to democratically engage on complex topics, policy and legal vacuums regarding data and tech, and a tight process timeline, to name but a few. There is a lot going on. It could be easily argued that all of this was foreseeable, but setting that aside and embracing the challenge, the next step of maturity for a public agency is to be clear and direct on a related truth— failure is an option.

One of the most important voices in keeping failure on the table as an option is the public. Governments and government agencies fear failure and so it’s up to residents to make space for failure, to say that it’s totally ok to shut this down if it doesn’t feel right, if it’s rushed, if there are too many unknowns. There is no lack of confidence that the waterfront will be beautifully developed with Waterfront Toronto’s oversight and there are lots of other ways to do Quayside. And if technology is to be a big part of that, there are lots of other technology options and vendors to consider as well. Waterfront Toronto will need public license to say no. And support to say no if it gets to that. They will, of course, work hard for the remainder of this process to make this deal work, to work with the public to make it work — of course they will and they should and Toronto residents should engage on good faith. But if Waterfront Toronto needs to say no they will need public support. The very real option to shut this deal down, the one that used to be invoked frequently at the beginning of the process, needs to reappear on project materials and at public meetings. Not the new narrative of shovels in the ground by 2020 and residents in homes by 2022. Not with this many unknowns.

The federal government, the provinces, and the City and other cities across the country are all beginning overdue policy work on how tech and human rights and other issues will be managed in a smart city environment. Infrastructure Canada’s Smart City Challenge will help that policy environment move along in maturity. At the end of 2018 there are two options — Waterfront Toronto’s board approves the Sidewalk Toronto deal or Waterfront Toronto’s board doesn’t approve the deal. If it doesn’t, all the regulatory and other approvals aren’t the plan for 2019. It would then be time to work on a new plan for Quayside, taking learnings from this process, some well summarized here by Blayne Haggert and Zachary Spicer, and head back to the drawing board to iterate on it. That might be what success in innovation looks like in this environment. A government agency that knows its role to work on behalf of the public interest and is empowered to act accordingly.

Notes from Small Table Discussions at Public Meeting #1 Source

Public Meeting Number 2 — Time to Talk Governance, Data Residence and Routing, Intellectual Property, Privacy, and More

Another issue discussed at the committee meeting was the timeline for the public engagement process and the material for the May 3rd public meeting next week. It doesn’t sound like a draft version of the Master Innovation and Development Plan will be available at this meeting, which pushes that deadline to the third meeting on July 11, the last defensible point in time it could be brought forward in draft before being presented in final form on October 3rd (see slide 43 for public engagement schedule).

So what to do without much fresh material? It’s the perfect time to embrace the public education campaign so desperately needed for this project. Firstly, how is Waterfront Toronto currently working with the City and the City’s Waterfront Secretariat? What are the mechanisms it is using to begin to take the lead on policy and to align it with direction from the City regarding processes and protocols around baseline issues such as data ownership and collection and use?

Then, the issue everyone is expecting a confirmation on — data residency and routing. Namely that data collected on this project will stay inside Canada and therefore be subject to Canadian law. A great long-read on this was put out recently by Andrew Clement, and a shorter op-ed from Clement and David Lyon.

Next, the public meeting could include a word about Intellectual Property. A good starting point might be to explain how and why this clause was required in the business case section of the RFP, in terms of issues to sort out in the development of the plan: “Ownership and sharing of intellectual property resulting from the Project.” page 17 of the RFP, and to explain the idea that Waterfront Toronto had when it wrote: “we foresee significant revenue generation and sharing potential from the Intellectual Property (IP) derived from (sic) Project” (page 18).

When this deal is framed as bringing potential revenue to the City, it may take on another level of enthusiastic response. And like all other issues here, this isn’t the only way the City might gain financially from a tech idea. So the fact that Waterfront Toronto or the City might benefit in Intellectual Property terms should not be a runaway reason for excitement. Waterfront Toronto has legal support on the Intellectual Property file, including George S. Takach, a lawyer from McCarthy Tétrault. Perhaps he could help Waterfront Toronto tell this IP story both in terms of its history and its implications. Doctoroff said the IP issue would be sorted in the course of this year long plan development. The clock is ticking on this complexity.

Finally, this meeting is an opportunity to talk about privacy. This could include a dedicated session on privacy led by or informed by input from Chantal Bernier, the former federal privacy commissioner that Waterfront Toronto has retained on this project. Having Chantal Bernier help design some content to share about privacy in the context of public space, and sensors, and big data would be helpful. A starting primer on how data can be shared in aggregate, how de-identification of people in data can be done, the risks associated with sets of data that are anonymous or sets of data based on people’s movements, and many other issues that aren’t well understood nor particularly well-developed at this date. This would also be a good chance to talk about privacy as a public good and the legal frameworks that we have in Canada to oversee privacy — the Privacy Act and PIPEDA. This is really important because privacy is not dead. Yes, commercial entities have a lot of data about people, but this is public space we are talking about. What are the legal ideas to explore regarding whether or not some data should ever be collected? What if we want to be un-trackable, as a collective? How and where do we manage those issues?

These are just a few starting ideas for content at the next meeting that could help at future sessions. The point is, if there is not a lot of new material about the draft plan to present, the next best thing is some help to prepare residents to weigh in on it when it does appear.

In Closing

There is a tendency in public engagement for interest and attendance to drop after the first meeting, particularly when things feel like they are going a certain way regardless of public input. The endless set of public relations and marketing events being put on across the city under the Sidewalk Toronto banner don’t help anyone stay focused on the real issues here. They aim to create goodwill by borrowing it from others when in fact none has been earned. Talking about Vision Zero and talking about affordable housing have happened and will continue to happen through the City of Toronto. The thing we need to be focused on with this project are the unknowns and the complicated issues related to this very defined 12 acre piece of land on the waterfront. It’s important to stay at the table and to be a part of that public process. It’s the one that gives Waterfront Toronto permission and support to both make best efforts to work through this project and make it a success, but also to step away from it if it’s not working well or democratically informed. Hope to see you on May 3rd for the second public meeting. And here’s the summary report from the first public meeting to get up to speed.

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