Sidewalk Toronto, Social License, and the Limits of a Borrowed Reputation

This project has provided a steep learning curve for all involved, from Toronto residents to Sidewalk Labs to Waterfront Toronto. Perhaps the most important lesson that’s emerged so far is that Sidewalk Toronto may not be able to attain the social license required to pursue this project. Social license has been defined as: “existing when a project has the ongoing approval within the local community and other stakeholders, ongoing approval or broad social acceptance and, most frequently, as ongoing acceptance.”

A few of the major issues considered in this post are the limits of a borrowed reputation, changes to the project narrative, and confusion over what co-design means. A few others to think on as the project continues include the real estate play, community benefits and venture capital, pushing the consultation process out past the plan delivery date, and one of the biggest unknowns to date — the City of Toronto. Another post on those coming soon.

The Limits of a Borrowed Reputation

In the Request for Proposals (RFP) for this project, on page 18 under “Potential Benefits to the Partner”, Waterfront Toronto listed: “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.”

As was recently discussed at a committee meeting at Waterfront Toronto, there are many Toronto residents engaging on this project that have zero understanding of Waterfront Toronto’s history and reputation. It has been frustrating to watch Sidewalk Labs aggressively leading on communications, on narrative, on public consultation, on public-facing efforts, and tripping over their lack of local cultural knowledge. They are doing themselves no favours but frankly they are dragging Waterfront Toronto’s reputation down too. A reputation that Waterfront Toronto took years to build and build well through extensive and difficult conversations about how to develop the Port Lands.

The bottom line on social license is this: Sidewalk Labs doesn’t have any in Toronto. There is no reason to look at a new firm that is connected to a big tech firm (regardlessly of how endlessly it works to distance itself) and to say “yes, please, come and help influence this major urban project — you don’t know your business model? No problem — you seem to mean well!”. There was a time to address this lack of social license head on by being straight up, straightforward, and direct with everyone. That time has passed. The entire project team should be grateful for more of people’s time, if they have the patience, to continue this conversation.

Issues with lack of social license are a big deal and pretending this process has been normal or going according to plan is a mistake. The sooner Waterfront Toronto can take the microphone, come clean, and explain exactly what is going on the better for everyone involved, Sidewalk Labs included. Talk about the real estate negotiations that have been going on behind closed doors in some way that makes sense to the public, even if the contract won’t be released. Extend the consultation to Spring 2019 because Waterfront Toronto is the public steward and the process legitimacy lands on them. If everyone wants social license for this project, the pathway is through Waterfront Toronto.

Changing the Narrative, Blatant Dishonesty, Strategic Communications, or All Three at Once?

It’s always felt as though this project and its lack of details created its own experiment or R&D in messaging. On one hand, one of the most persistent phrases used by Sidewalk Labs has been that this neighbourhood would be built “from the Internet Up”, that it will have a “digital layer” and talk of “the city as an operating system”, “sensor-laden”, “data-rich”, and more. All of these phrases cause an immediate, and expected, connection to data collection. Launching this project with Ann Cavoukian as a paid advisor to Sidewalk Labs also spoke to the narrative of data collection and privacy.

Now, months into a dust-up over lack of clarity about data ownership, data residency, data use, and even what the data is for, laid out here by Chris Rattan at NOW Magazine, the short history of the project could be read a few ways. This project has always contained elements of “let’s see what we’re allowed to do and figure out the business model afterwards.” This is the experimentation/product development/lab angle, and this is standard fare for a tech company. This makes no sense, however, from an urban planning perspective, which is a discipline Sidewalk Labs claims to know too. It makes even less sense when you need to attain social license.

So regardless of how data collection and use and issues land at the end, count it a success that so many people showed up with questions to make sure the data part of the work would get the necessary scrutiny, that it wasn’t an assumed ok to set up sensor-town without sorting through a tonne of those details. Now, strategically speaking, from a communication angle, after this little public relations adventure regarding Torontonians’ attitudes toward data collection, privacy, and sovereignty, there is an opportunity for the project to switch gears into enviro-mode.

There might be a move now to constantly lead with different language — the green, resilient, sustainable city language. Granted, this was always there and I don’t blame Sidewalk Labs for the press honing in on privacy either, but I’m talking about an intentional move to talk green and move it up to talking points 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Stay on green message. Explain how data supports green. This might lay the groundwork for a happy reveal at the end of the plan, or maybe even the next public meeting: “we were always here to do great and non-nefarious things, now check out all this cool tech and be as happy as you should have always been!”

There was a minor show of this turn to green language in a recent Sidewalk Labs newsletter, in regards to the green energy project being explored for the neighbourhood. Some possible details on this project were finally brought to light. Important to note that they emerged through the dogged efforts of John Lorinc at Spacing, not the project team sharing this information at the last public meeting. From Aaron Barter of Waterfront Toronto about the green energy project: “There is no clear example of what we’re trying to do here. That’s the whole point of Sidewalk Toronto: to pilot and prove out new urban innovations that can scale elsewhere and, over time, help cities around the world protect our planet.”

The interesting point about any green energy plan is that it would need to extend outside Quayside, which means contending with a whole range of players in the real estate development industry and the City of Toronto, and others. More on that soon.

From Public Meeting #2 presentation — the three main topics for conversation.

Co-Design and Consultation

I’ve written on how this public engagement process has a legitimacy problem. The project should move the deadline for its plan completion to Spring 2019 to be able to add two or three more rounds of public meetings and to line up with Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge process. But the one communications line that will likely begin to be used on this front is something like: “Consultations won’t end with the plan — we’ll continue them well after the plan is approved.” New drum to bang from here on out: no. The answer to this from Toronto should be no. Get all the details out on the table before Sidewalk Labs is given any keys to the development of that piece of land and do not mistake consultation now, where we can all literally walk away, to consultation after the plan is approved, which changes the impact of community input.

Co-design does not mean you don’t know what you are doing and every residents sits at a table for two hours with the same role as the firm doing this work. It means bringing very tangible specific details out and hiving off where the public can influence how they work or if they are a good idea at all.

Here’s how it could have looked with this green energy idea. The first public meeting could have been used, in part, to help Toronto residents learn about the Port Lands Energy Plan, created by the City of Toronto. Public meeting #2 could have gone a bit further into that topic, exploring things that no-one knows yet, but in the context of things we do know — like that we have a green energy plan for the Port Lands. We could have talked about Sidewalk Toronto’s ideas on this work, some issues and opportunities, and what that would mean for the city as a whole, to have Sidewalk perhaps operating as part of a utility. Is this one of the projects where shared intellectual property is on the table? What does that look like? As Lorinc’s piece points out, this energy play was always sitting around as a known part of the project work, it helped Sidewalk win the bid. Worse, it’s something Waterfront Toronto could also have taken a lead on talking about but didn’t.

A related piece to consider in this whole psychological game of “we don’t know what we’re doing/actually yes we do” is this piece from Marc De Pape. It’s an excellent read on his process interviewing for the Director of Resident Engagement role at Sidewalk Labs. It also includes a process approach this project could still follow, to some degree, to get back on track. At the heart of the interview was a very detailed range of questions about features and approaches to use technology for residents of this neighbourhood.

The point here is that there is yet another track of thinking going on about what it might mean to live or work in this space, versus what it would mean to be in the public space as a Toronto resident or a visitor. And while yes, condo buildings and gated communities do this already, the reinvention of how a resident may engage with, say, local government, is not a topic for cavalier adventures in civic planning. I’ll end this piece with a large quote from Marc’s piece. I hope you’ll read it in full. And I’ll share part two of this post soon with a few considerations for where to go with this all. Below in italics from Marc De Pape, from his piece, A Vision for Sidewalk Toronto:

Civics as a service

The final question I was asked in my interview was about imagining a fully-realized Eastern Waterfront and how voting might be different in the future. I have a lot to say about the mechanisms of voting, but I’ll save it for another time. Although I was shocked and offended by the question as a Canadian (how blindly-ambitious do you have to be as a private American company to even imply that our public voting systems are within your mandate?), it was not until after the interview that I realized I was not interviewing for a Sidewalk Toronto position. I was interviewing with Sidewalk Labs. I was talking to a company that aspired to export a complete platform for cities, and civics, using Toronto as an incubator.

What this interview question demonstrated to me was the true scale of ambition of Sidewalk Labs and their City Services department. It is not enough that they want to apply new and emerging technologies to the built environment, sustainability, affordability and mobility problems — problems that are relatively culturally and regionally agnostic, with the potential for measurable outcomes — but they also want to apply it to social problems. If the aspiration is to build a platform for other cities, not just Toronto, solutions to social problems are notoriously difficult to scale because local culture becomes intrinsic to the solution. Compromises will need to be made in order to ensure the ability to scale.