Sidewalk Toronto — We’re Consulting on What, Exactly?

Governance. It’s Still a Problematic Governance Situation.

Sidewalk Toronto recently released its public engagement plan, stating that public consultation for the project will begin in March. Still missing from the engagement plan is any clarity on exactly what Sidewalk Toronto is doing.

Four months of relative silence from both Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs has done nothing good for the work. Torontonians, and people around the world, have poured their hopes, concerns, demands, and suggestions into the quiet. Whether intentional or not, Sidewalk Toronto is now exceedingly well positioned to reframe its narrative, adjusting to address every critique that’s been shared, and co-opting the community’s language to do so.

In an ideal world, the policies and laws that govern data and digital infrastructure, IP, privacy, government tech, and procurement would be current, informed by democratic process, and ready to guide this deal. But they aren’t. So these issues and conversations about governance, how we run our cities, including fundamental human rights and freedoms — these issues have slid into a product feature backlog, to be designed on the fly with a vendor.

This consultation — led by an unelected agency and a future vendor — will be informing public policy and regulatory impacts. It’s right there on page one of the engagement plan, stated as a normalized introductory fact. This is bold. The abdication of formal democratic process, independent of enterprise, is neither normal nor sound in a public sector deal as complex as Sidewalk Toronto. This is a slow-motion governance debacle and must be called such at every turn — never normalized. A corporation co-authoring our public policies. Is this what they’re buying? Or more importantly, is this what we’re selling?

Beyond this, there is an implicit and incorrect assumption running through the project’s language — that a lack of data is the problem in our cities. Lack of data is not the problem when it comes to addressing congestion, affordability, and climate change. Dressing these themes up in data then having that digital consensus go unchallenged is a narrative fiasco. Turning complex social and policy challenges into markets for tech companies won’t solve these problems. We aren’t lacking knowledge about what our cities should be doing on all three fronts. We’re lacking the political will to make it happen.

Less About the Neighbourhood, More About the Products

There is little to debate about whether Toronto residents want an affordable, sustainable, resilient city. Of course we do. But how do we want to get there?

The first round of public consultation should be centred on making clear connections to how Sidewalk Toronto’s business models will achieve these ends. We don’t need a grand all-ages inclusive tour of global urban planning approaches. What we need right now is clarity on the anatomy of this deal.

If that clarity means Sidewalk Toronto throwing its hands up and saying: “we have no idea what we’re doing, it’s exploratory,” well, ok. Though I struggle to imagine that’s the business strategy behind closed doors. Be straight up. Since day one, this failure to be direct about how this project works has been destroying goodwill, something Waterfront Toronto has a large local stock of. We can’t consult on something when we don’t know what it is. And yet here we are.

As discussed during an executive committee meeting on January 24th, 2018, the four named lines of business being explored in Toronto are: technology, infrastructure, venture capital, and real estate. Knowing this, the things we should be talking about at the consultation should be tied to each of these four business lines.

I’ll skip real estate and venture capital for now, not my lane. But suffice it to say that there are looming questions about how this deal connects to decades of resident engagement on plans for the waterfront. How business development and venture capital might be designed is another huge policy track entirely.

Take the remaining two, technology and infrastructure. In normal circumstances the government would be in charge of designing smart city policy to manage these business areas, instead of waving from the sidelines and saying “see you at the vote.” The scope of the smart city consultation we should be having would be blown wide open to include the following types of conversations, issues being raised by residents, academics, journalists, and politicians for months now:

Do we understand the behavioural impacts of applying technology to urban spaces? Do we want to buy software to support or supplant public service delivery? Or do we want government to build it? Do we want to collect this data at all? Maybe environmental data is fine but human data is not? Do we want our data to be used to develop proprietary products that will be sold to other cities? How will our data and those products be valued and priced? Do we want to get a cut of those license fees? Are we going to be happy with the cut Waterfront Toronto has negotiated for us? Do we want that type of business done in our names, with our data, at all? What of the legitimacy and social impact of the product offerings expected to come out of this investment? Ethics. We’re driving right over ethics in the name of innovation.

Roads, Paving, Intentions

Everyone on this project may have the best intentions at heart. This guarantees nothing. Having a team that comes from government means a team that understands both the challenges of government, and the vulnerabilities to exploit for profit. Look around at the public policy nightmares trailing in the wake of technology companies. There is nothing edgy about rushing into technology that is seeking to disrupt public service delivery. Unintended consequences are the hallmark of the last few years of the technology sector.

This is where the closed contract continues to grate. Waterfront Toronto says both the Framework Agreement and the Plan Development Agreement will be made public this Spring. After the public engagement begins.

The more, and sooner, we understand what’s going on with this project, such as how that $50 million is being spent, the more we can genuinely weigh in on this consultation. There is time between now and March to prepare engagement materials that lay the plan absolutely bare. I hope to see them on the table, along with crystal clear language about what we can decide and what has already been decided. The history of public sector technology procurement is an unmitigated disaster. Both sides are culpable. Whether it’s negligence or malice is besides the point.