A Vision for Sidewalk Toronto
In January, I was referred to, interviewed for, and withdrew my candidacy from the Sidewalk Labs Director of Resident Experience position. The posting - which is now down and I assume filled - originally listed the location as Toronto, though later evolved to also include New York.
This change, combined with my interview experience and observations from the first roundtable, prompted me to write this. In response to all of the “we cannot do this alone” calls for help, I am also sharing the vision for the Eastern Waterfront that I put together for my interview. I do so as a citizen, because I increasingly believe Sidewalk Labs has a deficit of local subject matter expertise. A deficit they are filling primarily with lobbyist and advisory groups who can only make recommendations.
I believe for the partnership to be successful, Toronto talent should collaborate directly with the team Sidewalk Labs are building in New York to ensure the final plan adopts and responds to the consultation process. Citizens need to materially shape the final vision or we risk wasting this opportunity.
Quantitative and qualitative modeling
Given I was, and still am very happy in my current role, why did I interview? Mostly curiosity. And a nagging itch.
In 2013, during my Master’s of Design in Digital Futures at OCADU, I began to explore the emerging ideas around how networked technologies could change the way we lived in cities. My thesis project — The Chime — was an instrument that used sensors to translate the invisible flows of activity of the city into music, like a wind-chime translates wind into sound. My position was that technologies of quantitative measurement and modeling could also be used to express the qualitative. I still believe this. The rush to make the city more efficient and predictable through modelling does not guarantee that the unpredictable and unmeasurable qualities that make cities desirable places to live will be retained.
The job title and parts of the job description resonated with this belief. So when the referral came through, I was immediately taken back to my studies and thought this was a unique opportunity worth at least exploring. In fact, upon graduating, I believed that I needed to leave Toronto to be able to do this kind of work. Instead, I stayed, and bet on the potential of Toronto. The irony is that I would have had to leave to do this work. The subtle addition of New York to the job description reveals the reality of Sidewalk Labs: Sidewalk Toronto is but a project. Their ambition is greater than a single district. It is the total re-imagining of the city, one district at a time. This is more than district redevelopment. This is product development for scaling and export.
This is why “platform” was referenced so often in the response to Waterfront’s RFP, and why Sidewalk Labs include its City Services ambitions in the scope of its vision. The role I interviewed for was part of their City Services department. At the time of my interview there was also a job posting for Director of Health and Human Services, and I was told in the interview that they also had heads of Education, Economic Development, and other city functions. If you looked at a typical City Hall and its organizational structure, you would find a mirror image at Sidewalk Labs.
Ambition is a form of scope creep
The original RFP from Waterfront Toronto put forward four objectives: Sustainability, Resiliency and Urban Innovation, Complete Communities, Economic Development and Prosperity, and Partnership and Investment. I want to examine the Complete Communities ask because it is here where Sidewalk Lab’s City Services come into play.
Here is how Waterfront Toronto defined the Complete Communities objective:
Establish a complete community that emphasizes quality of place, and provides a range of housing types for families of all sizes and income levels within a robust mix of uses, including public open space, culture, recreation, vibrant retail, education-related activities and offices.
The only reference in the document to “school” comes in a description of Waterfront Toronto initiatives that are already underway. Nowhere does the word “clinic” or “hospital” appear. The only use to the word “health” comes in the following header:
Sustainability and resiliency are about more than just delivering a progressive environmental agenda; they are also about ensuring social and economic diversity, health and well-being, and future proofing our communities.
The use above is as an attribute describing one of the qualities of resilience and sustainability, not a request for an actual service. This, to me, is where the local knowledge deficit is most pronounced and the cross-border biases reveal themselves. We know that the American model for both Education and Health services skews private. Just look at Sidewalk Lab’s recent acquisition of the company CityBlock, who aspires to deliver health services to under-served areas. This is great from an outcomes perspective, but the for-profit operating model is incompatible with Canadian values in this space.
The relationship to Alphabet makes Sidewalk Labs a lobbyist for owned and sister companies. Many of these companies are operating in emerging spaces where no dominant player has yet to emerge. Miovision, a Canadian start-up, competes with the Sidewalk Labs’ Flow product in the traffic modeling and optimization space. The question becomes, is the City Services team tasked with delivering the best outcomes for residents, or for Sidewalk Labs? Are Sidewalk Labs willing to recognize that CityBlock is not a fit for the Toronto context and leave it out of their master plan? Hard to imagine given their investment.
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.
Identity management platform
So what might this platform look like if it were to include City Services? This is an important question because it interrogates the value we put in public institutions as administrators of services. If my interview offered any hints, it is that identity management would likely be the starting point. I can only say that the conversation was characterized by a belief that if only a comprehensive record could follow you around, the pains of dealing with the bureaucracy would disappear. The conversation became a debate around my suggestion that seamlessness was not something cities should aspire to because of its fundamental illegibility. If you cannot see the seams, how can you understand how a system operates and where you are in it?
The hypothetical example we debated was the pains of waiting in line only to find out that a document was missing and thus, the service could not be rendered. The underlying problem here is not an operational one — which is what the promise of seamlessness targets — whereby efficiency and throughput are the measures of success, but one of effectiveness. Was the product that the resident was in line to obtain the right one for them to make progress towards their goals?
No one sets out with the goal of obtaining a library card. The library card is a product that the city offers to residents who wish to have access to books. There are a lot of ways of solving this problem, including buying books from a retailer. An identity management system is not going to make the books at the library more attractive to residents, even if that card might be easier to obtain. There is a huge risk that a focus on reducing transactional friction in existing services through the application of new technologies without considering the intended outcomes citizens aspire to will ossify existing bureaucratic processes. We don’t want the card. We want the books, and what they afford.
It was this debate that revealed the deep philosophical difference between my approach and that of the City Services team. This difference sealed the decision to withdraw my candidacy. What I observed was a requirements driven approach that skewed heavily towards administration focused solutions, as opposed to starting with the rigour of defining problems and outcomes through research before suggesting any concrete solutions — though when you have sister companies that conveniently have solutions ready it does makes business sense to start there.
As material to help me prepare my vision document, I was given a spreadsheet that listed over a hundred functions — complete with bullet point requirements — that the Director of Resident Experience would be responsible for administering. The list lacked any evidence to support their need, nor any description of what they hoped each would accomplish. This is not how modern technology driven products and services are created. This is how procurement operates in most cities today. Solution first. This not what I expected to see from a company that hopes to re-imagine the future of cities, especially one with an affiliation to Google. It certainly makes clear why an identity management solution had such urgency; it is the assumed transaction mechanism for this massive backlog of administrative functions.
So, hypothetically, if comprehensive identity management were to be deployed at scale, what might that product look like? How would it operate? A good place to look is at Ben Thompson’s Aggregation Theory, which he frequently writes about on his Stratechery blog. Aggregation Theory looks at how successful companies of the Internet era have managed to achieve massive scale. It suggests that platforms who manage to aggregate demand in one place for a specific category (movie fans for Netflix, travelers for AirBnB, friends for Facebook) have unprecedented power because they effectively control access to the consumer. His analysis of the recently announced Amazon Health initiative is particularly insightful:
Once an aggregator has gained some number of end users, suppliers will come onto the aggregator’s platform on the aggregator’s terms, effectively commoditizing and modularizing themselves. Those additional suppliers then make the aggregator more attractive to more users, which in turn draws more suppliers, in a virtuous cycle.
In the case of Sidewalk Labs, an identity management system effectively creates an aggregated set of users that services can access if they are built on their platform. Except that new users are not consumers, but cities full of citizens who have no choice but to become users. The scary thing about Aggregation Theory when applied to cities is that citizens cannot easily opt-out of, or change service providers without moving. Having a job, a home, friends, family, and community is the ultimate lock-in for a platform when it is the sole provisioner for a city.
Which gets to the ownership part of the equation. It’s all well and good that we’re advocating for privacy. But do we really want to allow a private company to control the kind of data that will ultimately determine a resident’s ability to access public services? The data could be collected adhering to Privacy by Design principles, and be located on servers in Canada, and conform to open standards, and we would still be left with questions about this demand choke point that ultimately provides access to services and residents.
Aspire to more than consultation
Now, I believe our civic services can be improved. I put forward a set of governing principles and strategies for doing so. I believe Toronto has the talent and expertise to deliver better outcomes for its citizens. I was interested in the job because I thought it would give me the opportunity to work with Torontonians (people and companies) to develop those products and services. That does not appear to be the case. If this project were structured using a RACI model, we would not be responsible, nor accountable, we would be consulted and informed at best. That is not the opportunity I hoped for when I first heard of the Sidewalk Toronto partnership.
If City Services are to be a part of the scope — even if they aren’t — then in the spirit of community feedback and consultation, let me put forward some recommendations:
- Waterfront Toronto should think of themselves as seed-investors and seek equity. As I said, this isn’t just land redevelopment. This is product development. And Sidewalk Labs is a start-up without many actual products or proof-points in market. Toronto is taking a risk as beta-testers of these proposed physical and digital services. Because of the physical infrastructure commitments, the marginal cost of new customer acquisition for this proposed platform is not near-zero, as with most contemporary software products. However, Toronto is making a huge dent in lowering the cost of investment for onboarding the next city and should benefit from being a partner interested in sharing and scaling the final solution. Sidewalk Labs are not going to build a new city in the desert, and Alphabet can have the deepest of pockets and a willingness to spend, but money cannot buy the asset that Waterfront Toronto is providing. Entire districts are just not for sale. Thus with the land should come a share.
- Specifically, Waterfront Toronto should seek equity in the platform, as a unique entity. Consider it a new joint venture with Sidewalk Labs. The strategic goal here is to avoid putting Sidewalk Labs on that path to becoming a single fully-vertical and fully-horizontal platform monopoly, and thus Sidewalk Toronto’s sole provisioner for all services. The role Waterfront Toronto would play in owning a stake in the platform is that of steward of public interest. This means promoting competition throughout the stack. As cities come on board, they gain equity through promoting diversification of service offerings, increasing competition and public interest in the platform, while reducing the risk of monopoly. If a city prefers to use Miovision for their traffic modeling, as opposed to Sidewalk Labs’ Flow, they should be allowed to choose them to service that part of the stack. Without distributing public interest in the platform across multiple cities, what will stop Sidewalk Labs from buying competitors and promising start-ups — like Miovision — to secure their dominant market position? One of the most frequently cited policy measures that could curb the dangerous growth of the Internet’s monopolies is to forbid them to acquire. Public ownership of the platform would be to ensure it operates as a true market for innovation, not a walled-garden of false-choice and wealth concentration. Think of it like a digital Yonge Street: a publicly owned urban platform — complete with city services — that spawns multiple private businesses on top. Why wait for the promised platform before investing in an urban innovation hub? The platform should be the hub, and should be a public utility. Invest in it accordingly. This project is too big for one vendor. And their ambition too big to be effective at it all.
- If Waterfront Toronto owns part of the platform, it is only wise to treat it as a venture firm would. Make multiple start-up investments in each solution category in order to diversify the portfolio and incubate adoption of the platform. Distribute the risk. For every recommendation provided by Sidewalk Labs or their sister companies, commission a local firm or start-up (at the end of my document I include a list of local logos I imagined I might work with in order to realize my vision as I never thought Sidewalk Labs could do it alone) to address the same problem to posit an alternative solution. This will reduce the risk of implementing the wrong solution because only one was provided. And let’s be clear, Sidewalk Labs is not the only game in town. There are many initiatives — from the Federal Smart Cities Challenge to Toronto’s new Civic Innovation Office — happening all over the country around Smart Cities. There are always multiple solutions to every problem. We should be open to integrating them if they are good, no matter where they come from.
- At minimum, Sidewalk Toronto should hire more local talent to collaborate with Sidewalk Labs on the final plan. I do not mean more advisors. I mean actual, experienced, practitioners to advocate for Toronto on the final solution. The Sidewalk Toronto fellows are a step in the right direction, but there’s a difference between providing a recommendations report and doing the hard work of synthesizing all those recommendations into a viable solution. I’m all for input. But I also want Toronto to be a part of the output, because the output will enable the outcomes. And we, as residents, will be living those outcomes. If Sidewalk Labs are importing their practitioners from New York, then they should use a significant amount of the 50 million they have set aside for planning to balance out the team with contracted local experts, as opposed to using the majority of it on a PR campaign running free consultation sessions. Public consultations are great, and necessary, but these problems are complex and nuanced. Pay for the local expertise you need, and allow them to contribute directly to the plan.
In their job description for Director of Product Management (located in New York), it says “you will bring the work of world-class visionaries to life, using technology and other forms of innovation to unlock the true potential of the place.” There is a lot of talent in Toronto. Talent that also has deep subject matter expertise because they are local. We do not need external visionaries to tell us what the future of Toronto could or should be. We need those who are invested in the future of the city to figure it out together. It’s up to Waterfront Toronto to determine the scope of the project, not Sidewalk Labs. We do not have to inherit the totality Sidewalk Labs’ ambition in order to have a meaningful partnership. There is plenty to solve for and innovate on without touching our public services. Let’s start there. But if we do, I hope that Sidewalk Labs, and Sidewalk Toronto, will look one step beyond consultations and seek out true collaborators. Find partners in start-ups, services firms, universities, government agencies, and independent contractors, who are invested in and will actively shape this opportunity to ensure it serves Toronto, Ontario, and Canada.