Sidewalk Toronto: A Brazen and Ongoing Corporate Hijack of Democratic Process

Bianca Wylie

The Sidewalk Toronto public consultation, promised by the CEOs of both Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs to be the driving force behind this project, has been a fiasco. When Waterfront Toronto set this thing up they went down the path of losing themselves under CEO Will Fleissig’s short era of leadership. Do not let that history be rewritten. This project was a choice, a wicked misreading of local and global sentiment on a few fronts.

As John Lorinc at Spacing reminds us: “It’s important to note that for the entirety of Waterfront Toronto’s existence, the agency had taken a methodical, precinct-by-precinct approach to re-developing the waterfront. The success of this notably unambiguous strategy, developed by former CEO John Campbell, is manifest.”

Instead of caring for and extending this legacy, things took a distinct turn under Fleissig’s leadership. It created the conditions for a year of wasting people’s time with theatre, marketing, public relations, and crisis communications strategies on this project.

Treating people like they’re stupid. Stupid for having questions about data and tech, stupid for not having unquestioning faith. Stupid for connecting the company to Google. Stupid for challenging the pace of the work. Stupid for not seeing how this will somehow do magic innovation things for our country. Stupid for echoing concerns raised globally by people that deeply understand corporate influence on city governance, from day one.

These concerns span a wide set of issues — pretty much all things cities. They are not narrow concerns about privacy, no matter how much Sidewalk Labs wants to run that narrative. Which, again, they’ve been doing since the beginning. It’s a distraction from the real problem.

This project is a power grab to influence how cities operate. And globally, at that. To add an entrenched vendor to the already messy governance picture of cities fighting austerity. Cities living with federal and provincial governments that have completely bought into corporatization, degrading the power of the bureaucracy. Is there a role for the private sector, and the tech sector in particular, in cities? Absolutely. They are there already. But let’s not ramp it up until people in cities have decided how those firms answer to the city’s needs. We have needed to rethink how governments use data and technology for decades. Many of us are waking up a bit more to it now. Thankfully. It’s a space of great opportunity.

Hello Dundas West

And it needs to be done in service of democratic policy. Not instead of. Congestion, affordable housing, transit. All real concerns. All things for governments to establish policy for. All things governments have policies for. If this work lines up with current City policy, the time to have clearly drawn those connections has passed. The City hasn’t emerged yet in any significant way, which is a whole other track of this to be aware of.

Regardless, these are not policies for corporations to be defining — they have a vested interest in inserting their products in the solution. This is a very basic governance line to keep clear — the role of the market and the role of the state.

It doesn’t matter what we’re talking about —data products, wooden buildings, energy systems, transportation — the argument holds. It doesn’t matter what the product is— you don’t define policy with a vendor. You can and should consult them, certainly. But they don’t get to buy that kind of influence. This is a political economy discussion. It’s wild to see local “city builders” so enamoured with the slickness of this project that they are on the brink of taking the stupidest ethos of technology, to “move fast and break things”, and apply it to how they do their work in urban planning and its related governance. We need to shut this approach down, not grow it.

This project has nothing to do with malice. So take a seat before you get into defending yourself, anyone that’s been boosting it or taking money from it. It’s hubris. And it’s ugly, as usual. Hubris is creating certainty within a small powerful group of people. They seem to believe (and act like they know) that this project is a good idea (again, whatever this project is). That they are allowed to keep rolling along without explaining what they are doing. In the name of innovation. It’s the perfect hellscape marriage of urban planning, a project with a history of inaccessibility and nasty power abuses, and technology, an industry that hides behind magic and industrial progress to render democratic and social impacts a sideshow.

At an advanced degree, malice and negligence are indistinguishable. The hubris is creating negligence. A year into this, at a moment when humble and open and honest discourse is the only defensible option, everyone leading it is digging in harder and faster. And in quick step with the co-optation of the academe, Sidewalk Labs has created a new advisory council. The invite to this new advisory council is below in full — scroll to the end. There is nothing on the project website about it, or at least I can’t find it, could be me.

At a time when everyone should be working hard at public education and thinking together in public, discussion of the project is moving the other way — into closed rooms. Sidewalk Labs is completely allowed to do this, of course they are. But the market/state line here is getting fainter when it should be growing stronger. The process should be sharpening up and defining how residents could participate *more* and with impact.

At the beginning of the process at least all the different advisory groups on this project were visible and public, regardless of how poorly documented. This new council situation provides a direct line of sight into this messy and problematic power dynamic. A private corporation has borrowed a public corporation’s brand, as was promised to them in the RFP (pg 18): “Alignment with a trusted agency as an execution and co-creation partner…Waterfront Toronto’s commitment to transparency at every stage of the revitalization has earned great trust with the surrounding community and stakeholder organizations, which will be invaluable to the success of the Project.”

Sidewalk Labs is using Waterfront Toronto’s brand and reputation to engage with people in the context of what should be a democratic conversation and using their advice for product development. This is a corporation that says it’s working on “a vision for the future of the city”. That’s for our city government to do. We’ve got democratically informed policies for that. Not corporate capture. No one wants it. No one asked for it. No thank you.

On Toronto’s “Diverse Population” and “Educated Public”

Perhaps Sidewalk Labs has bought too directly into the motto of the City, “Diversity Our Strength” without fact-checking it a bit more on the ground. Degrading public accountability is not good for racialized people. And as for praising Toronto’s “educated public”, I’m not sure what to do with this one other than say that we are not well educated about tech and data and the impacts they have on our society. I’m not.

This idea that we are somehow ready to deal with this project in any kind of a participatory democratic way continues to be one of the most egregious assumptions. The one all levels of government should be nervous about. This is where they should stop the project to preserve integrity of our democratic institutions. Both parties had a year to mount an amazing public education effort, one that might have enabled a lot more work to happen and trust to be built. They blew it by going for marketing instead.

Let me make this very personal and very clear. I am learning every day about data, tech, innovation, history, law, economics, urban planning, and more. I am changing my mind every month. I am seeing firsthand that residents and economists and human rights activists and technologists and politicians and legal professionals and planners and bureaucrats and (insert every grouping possible here) don’t have a shared language to discuss this project. We’re losing our words or fumbling to find the right ones and it’s hard to describe this sorrow and how it breaks community — what it means for our power.

In most cases, with environmental science or medicine or engineering, the representative professions have adequate license to act on our behalf because they have determined that they truly know what they are doing and how it aligns with social norms. This is not the case for technology. This is why everyone is watching Toronto and wondering why anyone would subject their residents to this experiment, during this time, with all these fires burning.

Process Note

This new council continues the tradition of the confusion of roles and process and the evolution of this grand theatre. As a participant at a recent community event said, this public process is weaponizing ambiguity. And as much as trust in government is low, let it be known that civil society and the academe has been showing all the signs of being co-opted and beaten back from some of their fundamental purposes by corporate interests, in many different ways. It’s a wonderful time, as always, to read a book recommended to me by one of Toronto’s finest, Neville ParkThe Revolution Will Not Be Funded. It walks you through some of the messiest problems with civil society, non-profits, and their role in our lives.

All types of institutions are failing poor people in this city. Full stop. It’s why we have to get engaged directly with our government. It’s why we have to completely understand when people choose not to either. Democracy is a shaky shaky project right now.

Leadership is still an option. Admitting this was too much too fast. Shut it down and re-issue the RFP. We’ve learned a tonne. Let’s stop while we’re ahead and go at this all again in a calm, education-heavy process. Not one that uses power, influence, and adjacency to power to grease the wheels. The waterfront is there, the legacy of how to do this is there, there is so much opportunity and no rush.

Technology accelerates pre-existing power structures. Democracy moves slowly and authoritarianism moves quickly. The technology sector likes to say it moves quickly, but it’s up to us when it comes to our government and our city. We should let technology further into our institutions at whatever speed we are comfortable with and understand. We need to put our energy into organizing that work, not being handmaidens to the corporate capture of democratic process.

Sidewalk Labs Advisory Council — Invite in Full (emphasis mine)

(Note: to be clear, I was not invited to this Council)

Dear XXXXX

I’m writing to invite you to join the Sidewalk Labs Advisory Council, a group of the leading thinkers in Toronto from the private, not-for-profit, and academic sectors that can help advise our Sidewalk Toronto project. Sidewalk Toronto is a joint effort between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto to develop a vision for the future of the city, starting with a proposed redevelopment of a waterfront neighbourhood called Quayside. Our goal is to combine people-first urban design and new digital technology to achieve precedent-setting levels of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity.

As a thought leader in Toronto, your input is essential to helping us as we develop this bold new vision. We believe Quayside and the broader eastern Waterfront can become a global demonstration project for the future of cities, but we also know that first and foremost, it must become a great new Toronto neighbourhood. It should build on Toronto’s biggest civic assets: its diverse population, educated public, animated local leadership, and thriving business community. It also has to address Toronto’s key challenges, from congestion to affordable housing. We know we still have lots to learn about this great city, and if our vision is going to succeed, we need help from those already shaping its future.

For this reason, I’m hoping you will accept my invitation to join the Sidewalk Labs Advisory Council. The Council will convene quarterly for project briefings from Sidewalk Labs leadership. These meetings will be an opportunity for members of the Council to provide advice and input on the plans and discuss specific aspects with our team.

In joining the Advisory Council we would ask you to commit to joining us for three sessions between now and April 2019, when we will release the final Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP):

· October 17, 2018, 12:00 PM-2:00 PM, 307 Lake Shore Boulevard East (lunch will be served). The meeting will include an overview of the Sidewalk Toronto project and a detailed status update on key innovations that will be in our plan.

· January 14, 2019, 12:00 PM — 2:00 PM, 307 Lake Shore Boulevard East (lunch will be served). The meeting will include a briefing on the status of the draft MIDP and provide an avenue for discussion of the ideas we are considering.

· April 16, 2019, 12:00 PM — 2:00 PM, 307 Lake Shore Boulevard East (lunch will be served). The meeting will include discussion on the proposed innovations that may be contained in our final MIDP.

To RSVP or for more information regarding this initiative please contact:

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Our vision is to create a new type of place that combines the best in urban design with the latest in digital technology to address some of the biggest challenges facing cities, including energy use, housing affordability, and transportation.

I hope you will join me to help us shape this vision for Toronto’s future.

Dan

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade