Will Sidewalk Labs run out of time before Toronto runs out of patience?

ANALYSIS: An expert panel has identified nearly 100 pages’ worth of issues with the company’s “smart city” proposal. Here’s what that could mean for the project — and the city
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Sep 12, 2019
Toronto's port lands
Until October 31, Waterfront Toronto can walk away from any agreement with Sidewalk Labs to develop the Port Lands. (Andrew Lahodynskyj/CP)

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Sidewalk Labs, the “smart city” corporation that’s a sibling of Google (and child of deep-pocketed parent company Alphabet), wants to build something in Toronto’s Port Lands. The last major update from the New York-based company — the Master Innovation and Development Plan, released earlier this summer — included lots of glossy images but was noticeably short on some important details. This, despite the fact that the original proposal is now nearly two years old.

It’s not just reporters who have unanswered questions: the panel of tech experts commissioned by Waterfront Toronto to evaluate Sidewalk’s digital proposals — the heart of the “smart city” idea involves collecting, sorting, and storing reams of digital data — also isn’t wild about the lack of specifics in Sidewalk’s documents to date. In its preliminary report, released Tuesday, the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel spends nearly 100 pages enumerating various irritations, the most significant of which appears to be Sidewalk’s “frustratingly abstract” approach. (It’s unclear, for example, which elements of Sidwalk’s plan are intended to be deployed only if the company is given the green light to redevelop the entire Port Lands as opposed to the smaller parcel of land called Quayside.)

(An important caveat: not every panel member shares every complaint, and, because it’s a preliminary document, silence on any point doesn’t signify consent.)

One complaint in the report, however, wasn’t about vagueness but about specific elements of Sidewalk’s behaviour and what they suggest about the company’s commitment to public engagement.

“They have used the power of their media machine, depth of their experience, and political connections in Toronto to float new ideas in public to build social license on their own terms while the government partners are hamstrung by regular public process,” one panellist wrote, citing the fact that panellists were made to sign non-disclosure agreements before they were allowed to read the key documents in the proposal, the Master Innovation and Development Plan.

“But for a month leading up to the MIDP’s release,” the panellist continued, “SWL was doing the full court press showing presentations about the MIDP and its ideas to people in philanthropy, community organizations and social enterprises without asking any of them to sign anything but also asking them to support the project publicly. So they got to sell their plan to leading ‘city builders’ who have little background in tech/data and those of us with expertise are muzzled until the proper release. To me that is not good faith public process.”

The NDA requirement has already proved controversial for Sidewalk. As The Logic reported in June 2018, at least five panellists objected to the agreements, calling them overly broad and restrictive in the context of a public-consultation and advisory process.

Sidewalk Labs spokesperson Keerthana Rang denied that outside stakeholders have received any kind of special treatment. In a emailed statement to TVO.org, she wrote, “The Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP) members had unique, advance access to the draft Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP), receiving well in advance the complete text of the MIDP section under the panel’s purview. No stakeholder received a copy or text of the MIDP before it was publicly released. Stakeholders, along with government, received summary briefings, of the kind we have also provided to DSAP.”

The more fundamental question, however, is whether Sidewalk is engaging in good-faith negotiations or whether the consultations are secondary to a well-funded PR campaign aimed at Toronto’s business class. At least one of the DSAP panellists is clearly warning that the latter could be the case.

There’s a deadline looming for both Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, the agency that will have the first crack at saying yes or no to its plan (and whose decision, realistically, will need to be vetted by municipal, provincial, and federal leaders). Until October 31, Waterfront Toronto can simply walk away from any agreement with Sidewalk if important details haven’t been clarified to the agency’s satisfaction.

That may not happen: Sidewalk could mend its relationships with various agencies and governments, including the province. But if it doesn’t — and if the “smart city” evangelists end up having to start over somewhere else — it may want to consider what lessons to take with it from Toronto. An obvious one would seem to be that having wealthy friends in fancy boardrooms isn’t the same as having a welcoming public on your side.

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