Quay to the City

The Sidewalk Labs project needs to build trust, not robots or self-driving cars, to win the hearts of Torontonians

Blueprints for Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside project from its response to Waterfront Toronto’s RFP demonstrate lots of potentially game-changing innovations, but raise even more questions.

Enthusiasm for city-building projects can be a fickle thing. One moment there is a swell of optimism and enthusiasm for a new idea. But in an instant that excitement can give way to the weight of skepticism and doubt. The pendulum of public sentiment may swing back eventually, but how far and after how long is hard to tell.

Toronto’s Quayside Project — the joint effort between Waterfront Toronto and Alphabet’s (Google) Sidewalk Labs in Toronto’s undeveloped Port Lands — may currently be at a low within this cycle.

Earlier this spring I attended several of their public consultations, ostensibly to get feedback from the community on the project. While excitement was in the air, so was a palatable anxiety, as earlier that week the Cambridge Analytica story had crashed like a tidal wave onto the front pages across the globe. Concerns around how the new project would store and use the data it gathered were suddenly at the fore and Sidewalk’s “wait and see” approach simply wasn’t going to cut it.

Since then, things haven’t improved much. As chronicled by Bianca Wylie — an open government advocate and co-founder of Tech Reset Canada — the project’s approach to data remains opaque, while other concerns around business model, governance, or even equity and inclusion persist. Earlier this month, Sidewalk Labs announced they would be extending the consultation process — a welcome move for those concerns around governance, but also a clear sign that something in the approach isn’t yet working.

Some of the highlights from my recent tour of Sidewalk Lab’s facility. Throughout its public consultation process the feedback for the Project has been pointed — focused particularly on concerns around transparency.

The Quayside project is an important issue for Ward 21 in this upcoming election. Not only is the experimental district located within the south east corner of the ward, but its successes — and failures — will inform many aspects of how development happens in the other as-yet untapped areas within the ward (such as the Canary District, or the rest of Harbourfront).

I continue to be supportive of the concept behind the project, as the scale of the challenges we face will need the kind of innovation Quayside could bring. But this support is not without serious reservations. The current approach is flawed and needs clear revisions if it is to continue. Leaning on my experience working with some of the world’s largest organizations on issues related to technology and innovation, there are four areas in particular where I will be a vocal advocate to create greater transparency, build trust, and ensure Ward 21 and Toronto at-large gets the most out of the partnership:

  1. Clarify the Business Model — despite the public sector nature of the work, Sidewalk Labs is ultimately a for-profit enterprise. Yet in all of the consultations I have intended the concern has not be if Sidewalk Labs will make money, but instead how. While the public can speculate as to what these are, clarifying how the model is envisioned to work will allow us as citizens to determine what elements of our public life or infrastructure is appropriate to be commercialized.
  2. Consult Us About Data — many of these concerns around how money is made ultimately stem from growing concerns about our data. We as a society are asking more questions about how our data is being used and, as the Cambridge Analytica saga shows, are not liking the answers. For the Quayside Project, tough conversations about data need to be moved to the forefront — not questions to be avoided in the Q&A. It may sound counter-intuitive that an organization can build greater trust by focusing discussions on a topic that people trust them with the least, but in this case, every sign points to it being true.
  3. Make Equity a Priority — while Sidewalk Labs’ two hundred page RFP response paints a compelling picture of a futuristic urban life, the question remains: who will this community be built for? The RFP describes how cost of things key services like transit will decrease — but fails to recognize that for the lowest income earners in our city, many of these services are immaterial relative to the costs of rent that would otherwise be unchanged (at best). And what of the cost for new automation and technology as part of development? Even if the model envisions developers being the ones to pay, in a hot real estate market like Toronto these are often passed on to the end consumer (renter) — further reducing affordability. Sidewalk Labs needs to look at every innovation and technology through the lens of whether it makes Quayside more equitable — not just more convenient.
  4. Realign Incentives— Marc De Pape wrote an excellent piece on his experience interviewing for a position with Sidewalk Labs, expressing many of the concerns I have listed above. But one of the most compelling ideas he put forward was how Waterfront Toronto needs to think of its role as not just one to grease the wheels of government bureaucracy. Instead, it should look at itself as an investor in the initiative: sharing in its upside but also, more importantly, pushing for greater openness to ensure other innovators — not just Alphabet’s — are part of the solution. In some of the recent Open Sidewalk sessions I have attended, it was clear that this is not the model in place today.

Clearly, the arms-length nature of Waterfront Toronto — our city’s horse in the race — will create its own challenges for how City Council exerts influence over any decisions made by the project. But at minimum, if the next City Council is to have any chance of exerting the appropriate pressure on initiatives such as these it needs members who are fluent in technology, understand how to make innovation happen, but ultimately know that the processes that work in the private sector must be adapted to the public realm.

The Quayside Project may be the most visible example to date of why these skills is important, but it will certainly not be the last.


UPDATE: Last week Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs reached a $40MM deal to enter the next phase of the project. In a positive development for the transparency, at the same time they released publicly the full text of the deal — contrasting with their previous reluctance to do so. I will be reviewing the arrangement before the next public consultation (August 14th-15th) but early indications are that is an improvement from the unreleased version from the fall, ceding less control to the Google entity over how exactly Quayside is built and run. Whether it begins to address other concerns around data, privacy, and other challenges facing the connected city, well, stay tuned…


All comments, questions, or additions are welcome. For more information on Will Meneray’s campaign for City Councillor in Ward 21, please contact us or visit us at our website.