Sidewalk Toronto: The Recklessness of Novelty

Bianca Wylie
Feb 9 · 5 min read

Louisville, Toronto, and Patient Capital

Yesterday, Google Fiber, one of Alphabet Inc’s “Other bets” lines of business (Sidewalk Labs is one of these too) posted this tweet about their decision to pull out of the fibre provision business in Louisville Kentucky:

“Over the years, we’ve said a lot of hellos. Today, we’re saying goodbye to one of our Fiber cities.

Louisville, we’re going to miss you! Please head to the Google Fiber blog for more information.”

Toronto, please set aside fifteen minutes and review the replies to their tweet from Louisville residents.

This is one of the impacts of a company, Alphabet, that is making “other bets” on industries, in cities. Alphabet is seeking to diversify its product line away from advertising revenue, especially as the threat of anti-trust regulation grows.

Sidewalk Labs has said, since the first public roundtable here in Toronto, that Alphabet has given them “a long leash”, that they have “patient capital” and that they are definitely interested in infrastructure as part of their business model.

As John Michael McGrath wrote about last month, Sidewalk’s green energy infrastructure ideas may be worth considering, though they are far from the only ones on that track — but aside from that, how do the finances of such an infrastructure system play out? What are the lessons from Louisville and Susan Crawford’s work?

Too Much Talk About Who, Not Enough Talk about What?

In the past week, a colleague I have immense amounts of professional respect for suggested that the discourse around Sidewalk Toronto has focused too much on the actor, Alphabet, and too little on the content of the proposal. Another oft-repeated version of this critique is that this is a good project, as it’s bringing policy discourse into urgent focus. That this (whatever this is?) needs to get sorted no matter what.

I respectfully, and heavily, disagree with this assessment. A piece of the Sidewalk Toronto problem that data governance policy experts generally fail to give adequate space to is how the project might impact the relationship between local government and residents. The discourse around this project has been under-doing it on local democratic process and control. All to Sidewalk Labs’ benefit too. The privacy red herring. Privacy is an issue, but one issue of many. Some of the worst parts of this process have already happened and are all about governance, having nothing to do with data. The RFP. The public engagement charade. And somehow it trundles on.

Dealing with a company like Alphabet has thrown a heady mix of risk on multiple planes into a city that has so many bigger things going on. This is the octopus problem. There is not one track of governance to think on. There are at least eight.

The data governance policy community sees itself at the centre of the conversation, but this community often thinks at the national level, about systems of laws and trade. But Sidewalk Labs is largely about cities, money, power, accountability, and democracy. In both the digital and physical realms, and how they intersect - it’s not an either/or (the octopus problem). This is also why the space is not regulated properly yet and why calls to wait for municipal assessment fall short.

There are very few companies in the world with the power to take a project like this and exert subtle influence across so many government domains concurrently. They are talking about everything from health care to labour, they are talking about transportation and electricity, infrastructure and venture capital. One of the ways this project was marketed is economic development. But we should be talking about an economic development plan from the City of Toronto, not Alphabet Inc.

Sure, they were asked to do this work by Waterfront Toronto, which is why it remains incumbent on Waterfront Toronto to acknowledge the over-reach and stop the project. Why were they offered this much room to operate? That’s a question former Waterfront Toronto CEO Will Fleissig never really properly answered (see John Lorinc’s piece on this) and current acting Waterfront Toronto CEO Michael Nobrega continues to stay quiet on.

Local Trust That Exists is Trust Not to Be Broken

There are a lot of concurrent conversations to have about this process. But one that applies to Toronto as well as smart cities writ large calls on the idea of trust. Numerous studies show that trust in local governments is consistently higher than provincial/state or national governments. This is a vital factor to surface in discussions of both data governance and risks to democratic participation.

While reading a new piece by Sara Bannerman, which highlights the outcomes of her recent study on smart cities, I came across this finding: “Some smart-city projects are led by municipalities, whereas others are led by businesses. We found that Canadians object more strongly to private and for-profit uses of their personal information.”

This is interesting, because in all my debates with residents and civil liberties and privacy and other activists, disdain for the state and mistrust of the state loom large if not largest. This includes, for good reason, how state data management intersects with police and border authorities. But this is often because the thinking ties to national governments, though police and transportation authorities are exceptions.

There is a lot of nuance here to be sure. But in recent times, it is cities that have been rising up on behalf of residents to keep them safe if they can — safe in sanctuary today if necessary, safer tomorrow in the future of climate change accords.

There has never been a more critical juncture to protect and build, not erode, trust in local government. And power. Local government and how and why it does data work can be the safest space of governance policy to start with. It cannot be framed or influenced by US capital. It’s reprehensible. It’s an opportunity that will be difficult to reclaim if lost.

The only thing to do is to stop the project. Let cities and their people lead on a range of fronts that matter to cities. Let the funding problems of cities be worked out democratically. It’s an uphill and a long term approach but there is nothing smart about having the future of neighbourhoods be built around proprietary notions of progress.

Think about the social position of everyone that is overtly supportive of this project. The hubris and joy associated with experimentation and fun is fun because it has no consequences to those with security if it goes wrong. And before anyone starts in with the next chorus of “it will all be approved by the City so don’t worry.” No. I have immense faith and confidence in the public service, but they can’t deal with problems that don’t have regulations yet. This is the policy vacuum. I have a post coming up soon on that problem.

There is a local approach to Quayside supportive of global innovation and respectful of Toronto knowledge. And, most importantly, as Shannon Mattern writes, about maintenance over disruption, the work of already here places and people. In her words, “What we really need to study is how the world gets put back together.”

no.