Sidewalk Toronto: Debrief on Public Meeting #4 — The Fix is In and the Governments are Complicit

Bianca Wylie
Dec 11, 2018 · 8 min read

This is not a post about Sidewalk Labs’ presentations on transit, urban planning, social infrastructure, data governance, site plans, housing, or the many other things on display at the fourth (of five) Sidewalk Toronto public meeting. If you want to see them, they’re here. Video of the opening session is here.

This is another post about democratic process, control, power, and deception.

We are running out of months for the governments to do the right thing and shut this project down. But it’s increasingly clear they are convinced that this project is the right thing to do, as Michael Nobrega, CEO of Waterfront Toronto has just shared: “he believes a smart-city development is crucial to Toronto’s future.” And as Josh O’Kane also recently reported it’s about potential lawsuits. So yeah, that. More evidence that this process is deeply and fundamentally flawed. We’re trapped.

See below — “this is not the end of this process, but still near the beginning.” Which — helllooooo — makes it clear that they are going to approve the Master Innovation and Development Plan. Otherwise, yeah, we would be near the end. They bring the mildly negative option back in the final point on the slide - it’s a perfect display of their narrative contradictions.

still near the beginning……

Waterfront Toronto Jammed Their Board When Signing This Deal — And Now They’re Jamming the Public Too

The power imbalance that started this deal has continued along with no signs of stopping as we get to the final months of the steamroll.

And now we have five public meetings when there should be six. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want this project to have any more time to buy and borrow any additional influence. But the errors in the public consultation timeline betray the lies about this process. I don’t need to write about how this process should have been done. Waterfront Toronto knows all about that. They forgot about it when they signed this deal.

The only possible reason they would keep screwing up the public consultation so badly is because they are not allowed to do what should be done. This is what happens when you sign yourself up for a joint public relations and government relations approach with a vendor. But the main thing that happens when you do work with other people’s money is that you relinquish control. You cede your power. This lack of control and power was showing up everywhere on Saturday.

The plan — this Master Innovation and Development Plan — is going to be shown to the public at the end of the process. Fait accompli. At the last meeting. Burying the public in hundreds of pages of details, as has been the way so far. Big tech does its business in legal documents.

It was telling to watch Waterfront Toronto talk about more and more public consultation after the plan is done. They did this early on in the process too and I didn’t get why they were doing it then. I do now.

There is no end point for this project because there is no off-ramp. Every step takes us further down a path that not one of us asked to be on.

This is the paternalistic establishment approach hitting full stride. As was explained many months ago, and as Waterfront Toronto well knows — to be accountable to the community, particularly with something this politically charged — they should be bringing the plan forward, getting feedback, then coming back again to explain how feedback was used. They don’t have to do everything we say but they most certainly have to answer to us. And to our questions. Hundreds of which linger. (got some? add yours)

It’s nice when someone rolls up with a big wad of cash to do fun urban planning things. But it’s distracting from the core problem.

The deal is done and is masquerading as choice.

Even if you love what is being presented here, the precedent for democracy is terrifying. It’s saying yes to Dan Doctoroff not having to show his face and speak for his company at the public meeting. But you bet he’ll be back again for his special VIP advisory meeting in January. To talk to the influencers. Because this is how power works when it is allowed to.

We’re Not Getting the Plan When We Should

In the opening plenary I asked a question of Waterfront Toronto, and clearly addressed it to Waterfront Toronto. I asked whether they’d release the draft plan as soon as they received it from Sidewalk Labs. The answer was no.

Waterfront Toronto said they needed to look at it and take it to all levels of government to fix any mistakes and make sure it’s fine to go forward. Then it can be public. Once it’s fixed. This is being done for our own good. So we the public won’t get our hopes up. What an embarrassingly insulting rationale. But the more subtle tell was how Sidewalk Labs couldn’t let Waterfront Toronto just answer the question and leave it at that.

Sidewalk Labs *had* to chime in and insert their spin. That this meeting was basically the plan. Directing public attention away from details, as usual, and towards the watercolours and vagueness. It was subtle, but that need for control was there, and a display that they have that power.

Waterfront Toronto and Our Governments — Both Writing *and* Approving the Plan

In another show of insult to intellect, everyone at Waterfront Toronto is standing around with straight faces saying that they are going to receive this plan and apply some newly invented rigorous checklist to it. While they have been party to and supporting the creation of the plan for over fourteen months.

From the Plan Development Agreement (PDA)page 5:

“In furtherance of their shared goals and vision, the Parties will work together collaboratively, diligently and in good faith to jointly prepare the MIDP in accordance with the MIDP Scope, including the MIDP Targets set out in Schedule B, and all other terms of this Agreement”

Then, this — from page 52 of the PDA

“(e) A jointly developed “rolling” communications plan will form the foundation for all public communications related to the MIDP.”

It was part of the last contract that the project is jointly authored and is being done with joint government and public relations. Think about that.

This is a circle. This is the fix.

Everyone is working on the how of this deal.

No one was ever looking at the if.

The Value of Telling the Truth about Economic Development

Look, if someone would have said to me fourteen months ago — the City is desperate for money and we think this might save us — we’d be having a very different conversation. And a conversation that needs to be had, given that cities need to generate revenue and we need a plan for growth and jobs. (Nevermind that we have one of those but work with me here.) What this project is doing is taking one solution as the right thing to do and completely blocking the space to have discussions about the many different versions of how we might deal with existing challenges.

At best, the most argued point on this whole thing has been that “this is a great chance to deal with a hard data governance issue” Yeah… no. The suspension of belief that this perspective demands, particularly given our bargaining position in this deal, is reckless.

If Sidewalk Labs keeps its tentacles attached to things in this neighbourhood, which of course it will make every effort to do, in seemingly benevolent ways, it has an everlasting input to never-ending product creation. This is why everyone wants to keep kicking the consultation down the road further and further. So long as they are allowed to play here, in any which way, they’ll be happy.

To pretend that others can play on that field with them, with equal access — the naiveté that demands is…something. This is where Toronto’s politicians are undoing their facade of this city being a “tech leader”. It’s the tech community that knows this thing is a fiasco on several fronts and opening us to vulnerabilities on seventeen other fronts for no good reason. It speaks to the incredibly short-sighted worldview that tech, and Alphabet, is both the solution to all our problems or the bet we want to make when it comes to our city’s future prosperity.

Hubris. Arrogance. The usual suspects of institutions that have lost their way.

Narrative Control — Notes from Two Sessions

The day was laid out with one big overarching presentation, 15 minutes for Q&A (yep) and then four different sessions. So you could attend two sessions if you were there for half a day or all four by staying for the full day. I stayed for two — data governance and social infrastructure and housing.

The data governance session was a one-way street. After the presentation we went straight to small table discussion. No chance for us to talk to each other out loud in public or do Q&A. Control. The small table discussion I was part of was great. It was also ten minutes long. You can imagine how much you can do with that.

The social infrastructure and housing session tells a better direct story about narrative control. After a presentation where Sidewalk Labs said it would not “deliver social or health services” I asked about their recent lobbying activity with the Public Health Agency of Canada. Totally reasonable question based on what was said. The Sidewalk Labs rep shut my question down and said no one could answer it and moved along to the next. Funny though, because after the Q&A her Sidewalk colleague did have things to say to me that were somewhat helpful.

This is the control tell. Waterfront Toronto knows that you let that question be asked. And you most certainly look around the room of experts and staff to see if someone can answer. Sidewalk doesn’t know this because they are on a mission to dominate and control the discourse. And Waterfront is powerless to intervene.

To have the privilege to do this work and still show so little understanding for the need to have difficult conversations? I don’t know what to say. Maybe this is cultural. The company continues to do the opposite of what is required to attain the social license they need to operate here. They’re out of time.

They can’t buy and borrow it all. My question was treated as though I asked about something related to, I don’t know, the moon and candy. That’s the gas-lighting too. I did get to to talk to my table and had a good conversation, was able to share what CityBlock was (people at my table had no idea). This is how we educate one another when we show up in places together.

The one thing I’ll bring forward from the housing conversation was the young man who said that none of the conversations made any sense without understanding the real estate play going on. Which, again, and still, no one could give us a straight answer about.

That’s all for now. The next step in 2019 is to find a Councillor willing to try and take this to a yes/no vote at Council and see where we go from there and to advocate for the plan to released immediately upon receipt. Onwards :)