Sidewalk Toronto: An Open Letter to the New Sidewalk Labs Advisory Council

Bianca Wylie

Hi Sidewalk Labs Advisory Council,

I live in Parkdale, in the west end of Toronto. I try my best to participate in civic engagement opportunities when I can, so I completely understand why you’re showing up to this council that Sidewalk Labs’ CEO Dan Doctoroff has invited you to. But this project is all a bit confusing to be honest, so as someone that has been following the process very closely, I feel compelled to share a few things with you before you head into your first meeting of three tomorrow, Wednesday October 17th.

You are being invited by a corporation, and a corporation alone, to participate as an advisor. On what? That will be interesting to hear more about. In any case, this means that you are part of a focus group, or product development process, one that seeks to benefit the company called Sidewalk Labs, not the public corporation known as Waterfront Toronto. If you’d like to get an idea about the real estate and global product development plans that Sidewalk Labs has for its Toronto “testbed” this interview with Dan Doctoroff is a good place to start. This is you and that company tomorrow.

As Waterfront Toronto told me: “Waterfront Toronto continues to benefit from the advice and feedback from our Board of Directors, the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel and the Design Review Panel, as well as through engaging with the community and government stakeholders. We were aware that Sidewalk Labs was organizing this group although we are not a participant.”

Next, it may be obvious to you, but regardless, it’s important for you to know that your name and reputation are being used as part of something called “an influencer strategy”. This is a marketing strategy to borrow your name/reputation/credentials and lend them to this process and project. And those of your community.

Photo courtesy of Brian Solis: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

To that end, given what Sidewalk Labs is getting from you in a time where it’s reacting to negative press and public pressure on the project, it would be worth asking what you and your community are getting from them.

Of their $50 million USD budget, a full $11M USD is being allocated to communications/engagement/and public relations. As is stated in the most recent contract, in appendix C: “Stakeholder engagement, including private sector engagement, will seek to ensure support for the Master Innovation and Development Plan (that’s the plan they are creating) among key constituents in Toronto.”

This note about your council from Sidewalk Labs drove the point home again: “We’re hopeful that at the end of the process, members of the Advisory Council — along with those who have engaged in other contexts and venues — feel that what we’re proposing should move forward, though that certainly is not a condition of participation.”

Privacy expert Ann Cavoukian and urban planner Ken Greenberg are paid advisors to Sidewalk Labs on this project. UPDATE: Ann Cavoukian has now resigned from Sidewalk Labs, effective October 18th, from this role. She is no longer a paid advisor. The difference between you and them is that you might not be given space or media time to comment on this work, but your name will likely be used to endorse it.

If you are reading this and are surprised to learn that you are not engaging with the body that has a responsibility to the public, not to worry. That body is Waterfront Toronto and they have a set of strategies designed to engage you. This is not your only chance to participate in this project. Again, to some of you this is super clear, to others perhaps not. I have no idea who is joining this panel, but if it’s 20 or so people from across a range of sectors it’s totally possible that Waterfront Toronto isn’t really well known to you.

A few more things to keep in mind as you learn more about the Quayside/Sidewalk Toronto project.

Sidewalk Labs says again and again that it’s a company committed to good urbanism. But take a read of this recent article in the New York Times about Intersection, of which Dan Doctoroff is also the chairman, in Westminster UK, and learn how they are installing infrastructure in full defiance of good urban realm design to support more advertising in public space.

There is also a smokescreen discussion going on about data and technology while a massively valuable real estate deal is floating around in the background. As are discussions about infrastructure and core civic systems, systems that have labour implications, maintenance implications, and more. And if you think these are exciting, that’s fine of course — but also know we could be doing most of them already.

Lastly, I’ll share a little summary of one version of a situation I’ve been working through with them regarding our data here. After a full year of this kind of behaviour they show no signs of slowing down or changing. People around the world warned of this governance takeover from the time it was announced.

I think how you do business matters, and I think that would probably matter to your communities as well, so I wanted to share these things before you got involved with the first meeting. If you’d like to share your thoughts on any of this and engage about your experience at your first meeting please do. If you have questions feel free to get in touch. We have just set up a new little group called the Toronto Open Smart Cities Forum, you can find out more about us here and join our mailing list too if you want.

Thanks for reading and talk soon maybe,

Bianca

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