Sidewalk Toronto: delays and NDAs

Sidewalk Toronto, a technophile re-imagining of freshwater urbanity, has got itself into a bit of a twist since we last reported on the project back in May.

For those of you who missed our previous posts, Sidewalk Toronto is a joint effort between Waterfront Toronto and Alphabet-owned Sidewalk Labs. The project aims to eventually re-develop a 12 acre portion, known as Quayside, of the city's 800 acre waterfront, one of North America's largest chunks of undeveloped real estate.

The Port Lands is currently owned by Waterfront Toronto, a government funded corporation set up in 2001 to revitalize the Canadian city's shoreline.

It is in the midst of a year-long consultation period that is focusing on:

...extensive community and stakeholder consultation and long-range planning ... [focusing] on improving infrastructure and transportation systems, creating new models of affordable housing and flexible retail uses, and establishing clear governance policies related to data protection and privacy.

All with the aim of presenting a “Master Innovation and Development Plan” (MIDP) to the great Torontonian public in October.

Well, that was the plan originally.

Late on Tuesday evening, Sidewalk Toronto announced it had delayed the release of the draft document until early 2019, with the final version to follow in the spring. From the press release:

From the start, we have recognized that we are taking a different approach. Rather than bringing forward a comprehensive proposal and site plan, we are exploring virtually every aspect of how the city works and how Toronto residents think it could work better. Over the past six months, you have provided indispensable insights and perspectives that have shaped our thinking as we begin to formulate our Master Innovation and Development Plan.

You have also told us to take the time to get this right — and we have heard you. That is why we are extending the planning process so that we have the time to work together to create something that we can all be proud of.

An earlier draft of the plan will also be released in November, which will include “proposed site plans”, among other tidbits.

It's fair to say Sidewalk Toronto has faced some difficulties so far, not least in the form of vocal Torontonians worried about a data-ensnaring tech makeover of a public space. So a delay to re-think and provide further clarity might help win critics over. Whether an elongated timetable will suffice under the current consultation approach is another matter.

The process to date feels like more a public relations campaign than a transparent consultation, as Blayne Haggart and Natasha Tusikov of SmartCitiesWorld recently noted.

Sidewalk Toronto has been enthusiastically wooing the community with futuristic concept art, a YMCA summer camp and a fellowship program for young Torontonians. It has seemed less enthusiastic in soliciting public and expert input, clarifying its business model and providing transparent records of meetings and agreements, most notably choosing to withhold the full Framework Agreement from the public.

The joint project has a lot more work to do to convince the public that the project is in their interests if the views of Bianca Wylie, co-founder of Tech Reset Canada, are anything to go by. She told us on the phone on Wednesday:

This isn't about scientific research to better urban conditions, this is about using Toronto's residents as inputs and test specimens for Alphabet's global product development plans.

Haggart and Tusikov did find hope for the beginnings of a more transparent consultation process in Waterfront Toronto's recently announced Digital Strategy Advisory Panel.

The group of 15 industry and academic experts has been appointed to provide:

An arms-length body intended to help guide Waterfront Toronto on how best to incorporate data privacy, digital systems, and the safe and ethical use of new technologies in the next phase of waterfront revitalization. The Panel will initially advise Waterfront Toronto on policies and strategies related to the Quayside project that was launched in Fall 2017.

Although theoretically advising on other Waterfront Toronto projects, the panel's formation was a tacit sign that the muddled dialogue of the consultation's first six months required distillation.

Imagine the surprise then, when the panel was reportedly presented with a non-disclosure agreement before the hour-long closed portion of the first meeting began. Via The Logic:

A draft of the agreement obtained by The Logic instructs panel members not to disclose any information marked confidential or presented during closed meeting portions, and not to reveal that any such information was ever made available to them. Multiple sources privy to the panel’s operations told The Logic that at least five members voiced opposition to the draft agreement, including at a closed-door session on June 7.

One source told The Logic they had never seen a non-disclosure agreement for a volunteer committee as stringent as the one presented by Waterfront Toronto.

Ignoring the disconcerting fact that one source had seen any non-disclosure agreements on a volunteer committee before, this isn't what you'd expect for a government body involved in a project already under scrutiny for its opaqueness.

While signing an NDA is common practice in the clandestine work culture of Silicon Valley, where proprietary secrets are open to competitive exploitation, it's not as obviously applicable when asking an expert to advise on a public space.

This isn't even the strangest news related to the project, however. In early June the Toronto Star ran an article suggesting the partnership is “not a done deal”.

The story is as follows: before work can begin in earnest on the MIDP, Sidewalk Labs have to settle on an initial Plan Development Agreement with Waterfront Toronto as outlined in Stage 1 in the summary of the yet-to-be-disclosed Framework Agreement.

As of three weeks ago, this plan has yet to be signed off on by either party. In stark contrast to the triumphant rhetoric of Sidewalk Toronto's website, which suggests the partnership is in place up until the MIDP is delivered, there is a chance a 15-month process to pick a partner to help develop the city's Quayside may have gone to waste.

Torontonians are right to feel puzzled by these developments. There are obvious costs to the delays, and not only in terms of the cash sunk into the process so far.

For instance, the opportunity cost of leaving the waterfront site undeveloped until Google-fication is rolled out en masse theoretically totals billions of Canadian dollars, given a flood protection project for the area is budgeted at CAD $1.25bn. Local planning and construction businesses could have easily accrued some of the capital outlay sooner if development of the waterfront had taken a straighter route.

While we're not ones to decry speculative innovation, it's surprising Alphabet even chose a public space to begin its smart city experiment. With Waymo, Alphabet's self-driving car unit, the search conglomerate tested its capabilities in a 91 acre private space before moving into the extensive regulatory frameworks of public roads.

Though, to be fair, the initial consultation process is just a plan, and therefore doesn't involve introducing or testing tech-enabled infrastructure. So we'll have to wait and see how Sidewalk Toronto intends to implement its ideas when we get our hands on the draft copy of the MIDP, due for release in early 2019.

There is also a good chance that Sidewalk Labs won't be the only provider of technology for the project. On a call Micah Lasher, Head of Policy and Communications at Sidewalk Labs, and former Chief of Staff at the Office of the New York State Attorney General, told us:

Sidewalk Labs sees our role in large part in this process as an enabler of others to innovate and build in Toronto, over many years to come. We anticipate that much of the technology that is used to solve problems on the Eastern Waterfront will be created by others. And where there are gaps in the marketplace, we would likely step in to provide solutions.

This may also explain the reticence to commit to a clear business model, as it's difficult to envision a business solution if Sidewalk Toronto is still working out which urban planning problems they'll be seeking to address.

Assuming the planned development agreement is signed, there will be further news in mid-August at the next public roundtable. Perhaps some of the fog will have lifted by then.

Related Links:
Google-fication, continued - FT Alphaville
Google-fication, an update
- FT Alphaville
Embracing waterfront Google-fication in Toronto
- FT Alphaville

The node to serfdom - FT Alphaville

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