Rethinking the world

Some useful suggestions from Aisha Ahmad on how academics should work in these unprecedented times, none more helpful than her advice to use the current moment to question our assumptions about how the world works:

In the spirit of distraction, and in addition to my never-ending series of Quayside posts, I’m going to try to use this blog to highlight interesting articles that get me thinking about everything that’s happening. I’m doing this primarily for my own education, but hopefully some of you will find it interesting or useful and not too banal or obvious.

If these entries don’t do it for you, I recommend my old university friend Giles’ blog, One-Way Mirror, where he mostly reviews science fiction and fantasy books and films. He’s a great writer.

First up is Branko Miloanovic: The Real Pandemic Danger Is Social Collapse:

“The world faces the prospect of a profound shift: a return to natural—which is to say, self-sufficient—economy. That shift is the very opposite of globalization. While globalization entails a division of labor among disparate economies, a return to natural economy means that nations would move toward self-sufficiency.”

We were already seeing moves in this direction: a renewed focus on national industrial policy, particularly as it relates to artificial intelligence and digital policy more generally (what I’ve been calling digital economic nationalism), the increasing tendency to identify tech companies by their country of origin, and the China-US cold war over tech policy and 5G. Then there’s the question of climate change, which you’d think will eventually have an effect on the viability of air transportation and international cargo shipments.

Add to that the declining relative power of the United States, the indispensable country in global governance, and you have a recipe for a shrinking world even without the novel coronavirus.

Societal collapse, warns Milanovic, is not an impossibility in the U.S., or elsewhere:

The movement to natural economy would be driven not by ordinary economic pressures but by much more fundamental concerns, namely, epidemic disease and the fear of death. Therefore, standard economic measures can only be palliative in nature: they can (and should) provide protection to people who lose their jobs and have nothing to fall back on and who frequently lack even health insurance. As such people become unable to pay their bills, they will create cascading shocks, from housing evictions to banking crises.

Even so, the human toll of the disease will be the most important cost and the one that could lead to societal disintegration. Those who are left hopeless, jobless, and without assets could easily turn against those who are better off. Already, some 30 percent of Americans have zero or negative wealth. If more people emerge from the current crisis with neither money, nor jobs, nor access to health care, and if these people become desperate and angry, such scenes as the recent escape of prisoners in Italy or the looting that followed Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 might become commonplace. If governments have to resort to using paramilitary or military forces to quell, for example, riots or attacks on property, societies could begin to disintegrate.

Canada’s position in such a world: a small country in the North American region whose world will shrink largely to the continent we share with a superpower that is working through a lot of issues at the moment. There’s a good chance that we’re about to enter a new era in Canada-US relations, if we haven’t done so already.

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Making the most of your visiting fellowship, or What I did in February in Berlin

I’m writing this from Berlin, where I’m just about to conclude a monthlong visiting fellowship at the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society. It’s been an all-around fantastic experience – thanks to everyone at the Institute for being such generous hosts. Since it’s the end of my time here – I’m heading back to Canada on Sunday, assuming that the coronavirus doesn’t sweep Berlin in the next 48 hours – I thought I’d share a few thoughts about why I think it worked out so well.

Warning: This post contains some humblebrags, mainly because I’m very happy with how much I got accomplished.

  1. The importance of preparing for your fellowship

I took this fellowship as part of my half-year sabbatical. Sabbaticals are supposed to be a time to regroup, change directions or engage in the intensive research and/or writing that’s hard to do when you’re teaching and carrying out departmental administrative duties. (For the non-academics out there: it’s not a vacation; it’s actually a chance to do more research-focused work.)

Of course, one’s obligations don’t just evaporate once your sabbatical starts. My strategy was to start the fellowship a month into my sabbatical. I used that first month to take care of some remaining teaching obligations as well as some smaller projects so I could devote myself full-time to the project that was bringing me to Berlin.

I’m happy to report that this deck-cleaning allowed me to concentrate on my main project, a manuscript that really needs to be written now. So, that was good.

  1. Choosing the right institute

The advice here is straightforward: go to an institute where the people are interested in you and your work. This seems like a no-brainer, but if the match isn’t great, you won’t get much out of the experience. These types of things are supposed to be mutually beneficial: a chance for you to learn from others, and they from you.

That’s exactly what I got from the Weizenbaum Institute, which has a great interdisciplinary cohort of researchers – mostly other research fellows and doctoral students, which is also great since doctoral students as deep in the work and the literature as any tenured professor (perhaps moreso). Most importantly, we were all studying variations on internet governance, data and intellectual property, but from a lot of different perspectives. As a result, I’ve received really valuable feedback from so many people here.

Beyond the informal chats, the Institute generously hosted a workshop to discuss some of my manuscript-in-progress (co-authored by Dr. Natasha Tusikov), as well as a lecture, where I presented a paper on global platform governance (a previous version of which is available here).

It also helps that everyone here is incredibly friendly and open. Also, they have absolutely the quietest open-concept office I’ve ever been in. Very conducive to getting lots of distraction-free work done. If you’re interested in digital/internet issues from a societal perspective and want to do some work/research out of Berlin, drop them a line.

  1. Travel is good

As a Canadian, one of the other benefits of working at the Weizenbaum Institute is that it’s far away from my North American comfort zone. If you can swing it, travelling to another country is a nice way to see how the rest of the world thinks, and to help you identify your own biases. For example, a lot of my recent research is focused on increasing government involvement in the economy. While this is a worldwide trend, it looks differently in Europe, where industrial policy never fully fell out of style, than in Canada, where we haven’t really thought in those terms in over 30 years. As a German-Canadian former colleague at the Library of Parliament once remarked, “Neoliberalism in Europe means something different than neoliberalism in Canada.”

  1. A distraction-free, disciplined work schedule

One of the benefits of a visiting fellowship is that you get rid of the distractions and obligations of your everyday routine. It is, in other words, a chance to get a lot of work done, so take advantage of that.

My main goal at the Weizenbaum Institute was to rework significantly a book proposal and three chapters. I also have several papers and chapters that need attending to, as well as a forthcoming volume I’m co-editing on internet governance. So, I’m not lacking for things to do, but the book is the priority.

My strategy was to work weekdays from 9-12 on the book project, break for lunch (there’s a cohort at the Institute that gets lunch every day, and lots of good restaurants around), then back to the book from 1-4. From 4-6 I work on my other projects. While not every day went according to this schedule, most did.

And it worked! In the past month I was able to: complete the book proposal and totally rework my three chapters; finalize a journal article for submission; prepare and present two in-town seminars (and another in London just before I arrived in Berlin); hold a (very useful) manuscript workshop; begin preparations for a chapter for another project; edit some chapters for the aforementioned edited volume; prepare a submission for the Quayside evaluation; and come up with a pitch for a long-form oped I’m considering.

Yeah, it’s been a good month, work-wise.

  1. Have a project, and focus only on that

While I got a lot accomplished during my previous fellowship, it was a lot of little things – finishing an edited volume, some interviews, a whole slew of conference papers. This time, I arrived with one project – write the damn book – and stuck to it.

That said, I also made sure to schedule a few presentations over my time here (which all went very well), as well as attending a few talks. It’s all about that academic exchange.

  1. Get to see the city

Travel for a fellowship isn’t just a chance to work in a different (and hopefully inspiring) environment; it’s an opportunity to see a different part of the world. So you should do that, no matter where you go. Here’s what I got up to when I wasn’t writing.

  • Eisbären hockey: I got to four Eisbären Berlin hockey games, and they were great fun. The hockey itself isn’t NHL calibre, but it’s professional hockey played at a high level. There’s less contact than in the NHL, which I actually like. And in the final game there were around four fights(!). From where I sat, the lack of contact meant that the fights felt more meaningful, rather than just an extension of the more brutal side of NHL hockey.

While the hockey may be a step below the NHL, as an entertainment product German hockey is actually more enjoyable to watch live than an NHL game. There are no TV timeouts to interrupt the flow of the game, the cheer section behind the home goal keeps the energy up (even if it’s weird that their cheering rarely mirrors what’s actually happening on the ice), and the players all shake hands at the end of the game (something the NHL should institute to make the game seem less macho and self-serious). Plus at the beginning of each game, the mascot or a kid uses an upright bear-shaped sled to deliver the puck to the referee. It’s adorable.

And 46 euro gets you a seat at centre ice.

I’m just disappointed I didn’t get a chance to see Berlin play my favourite team, the Kölner Haie.

  • Weekend road trip!: As a Canadian the best thing about Europe is that it’s Just. So. Tiny. Last year, my home base was 4 hours from Paris, 90 minutes from Amsterdam and 4 hours from Berlin. Berlin, meanwhile, is only four hours from Prague, which, as you’d expect, is quite charming. Beyond the usual sights, I also got to see US punk-gospel heroes Algiers (a fantastic live band), and my first-ever opera, La Bohème, at the stunningly ornate Prague State Opera House.

So, opera is basically the Latin Mass of theatre, right? Also, Act 1, Scene 2 of La Bohème felt like a hangout comedy that I could’ve watched forever. Anyway, I enjoyed the hell out of it all. Which is why yesterday, here in Berlin, I attended my second-ever opera, The Barber of Seville (adapted from an old Bugs Bunny cartoon, I believe). And I’ll be going to my third-ever opera, Carmen, tomorrow night. If you’re on a continent known for opera, might as well do the opera thing while you have the chance.

  • Art galleries. Got to see a whole lot of great art in Berlin and Prague. Highlights included the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg’s collection of surrealist art (Berlin), the National Gallery Prague’s Trade Fair Palace location, whose permanent collection of modern art is something else, and Berlin’s Hauburger Bahnhof’s exhibit of the finalists for Preis der Nationalgalerie 2019 – some exceptionally cool stuff there. Also, art in a bunker!
  • What else? Saw a couple of concerts – Yacht and Poliça – in Berlin. Very enjoyable. Oh, and while it happened in the pre-Berlin week I spent in London, I finally saw Hamilton! For the past five years I’d gone out of my way to avoid hearing any of the music (with the exception of “Cabinet Battle #1”) or reading anything about it, so I had no real idea about what it would be like, other than it was supposedly a “hip hop musical.”

The delayed gratification was more than worth it. Hamilton has to be one of the most remarkable works of art in any medium that I’ve ever had the privilege to experience. It really is a monumental artistic achievement, although hopefully it won’t represent the pinnacle of American society. We’ll see how the election goes.

In particular, I wasn’t prepared for how well Lin-Manuel Miranda captured the spirit of being in your early twenties and looking to make your mark on the world, and the importance of the friendships that you make at that time of your life. For a musical about such monumental historical events and people, it’s a very human-sized play. Definitely worth the wait. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack nonstop for the past month.

  1. Ditch social media

One thing that I think really contributed both to my productivity and my general sense of well-being in Berlin was getting off Twitter almost completely (I did come back on a bit in the last week or so related to the Waterfront Toronto-Sidewalk Labs consultations). Staying off Twitter helped me focus on the long-form writing that’s our bread and butter. I wasn’t distracted by hot takes or or the groupthink panics of the moment: Turns out, if it’s important, it’ll probably filter into the newspapers.

It was also refreshing to step away from the relentless snark and negativity that defines Twitter. The staccato one-liner is not a healthy form of conversation for anybody but stand-up comedians.

And staying away from Twitter helped me focus on my work, rather than wallowing in pointless comparisons with how everyone else in my field is doing. That’s never a good idea, because somebody’s always doing better than you.

Here’s the thing: Being an academic is the best job on the planet. I get paid very well to read and write all day, every day. I get paid to teach interesting things to students at the beginning of their life’s journeys. It’s great to be surrounded by all the enthusiasm and hope that comes with that. And I think I’m pretty good at my job. All of these things are independent from what other people are doing.

And I’m writing this from Berlin! One of the world’s great cities. When I was a kid, I never thought of travelling farther than Toronto. Since then, my job has taken me all over the world. I mean, I was a visiting researcher for eight months in Australia – literally the other side of the planet. And now, Berlin. I still sometimes stop and laugh at how improbable all of this is.

  1. Get a nice apartment

Finally, I made sure to rent a (furnished) apartment that felt comfortable enough to hang out in. For me, the most important part (besides a comfortable bed) was a decent kitchen and a large living room. The upside was that I looked forward to coming back to the apartment at the end of the day and didn’t feel a constant need to escape.

Although I didn’t plan it this way, the apartment’s lack of a TV turned out to be an extra bonus. I still streamed Star Trek Picard (which is just getting better as it approaches its endgame) and revelled in the Edmonton Oilers’ playoff push, but I also got a fair bit of recreational reading done: a few Beckett novels, Clive James’ hilarious Unreliable Memoirs, about growing up in Sydney, Australia, and Between the Woods and the Water, in which Patrick Leigh Fermor recounts his mid-1930s journey across Europe by foot (a recommendation from my friend, Michael Forbes).

This reading list really has nothing to do with planning a successful fellowship – I’m mostly noting it because it’s the most sustained non-work-related “serious” reading I’ve done in years.

Like I said, a good month.

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No Longer Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP, Entry 47: My Submission to the Round 2 Consultation

Back in more innocent times, August 30, 2019, to be precise, I praised the work of the analysts at Waterfront Toronto for their honest attempt to summarize the Master Innovation and Development Plan, a document whose design (as I’ve noted on so, so many occasions) actively discourages its analysis. Whatever other monkeyshines Waterfront Toronto is up to with Quayside, it was clear that this document was designed to help people understand this super-complex abomination of an report.

As someone who used to write reports for a living, professionally I’m a bit sad (if not surprised) to report that Waterfront Toronto’s Discussion Guide for its Round 2 of Quayside consultations (Round 1 being the rushed July meet-ups held before anyone had had a chance to read, let alone digest, the whole MIDP) is as vacuous and useless as the first Note to Reader was helpful. The guide, plus attachments, are 54 pages of lists of approved technologies, statements of principles, and repeated assertions that Waterfront Toronto totally definitely did a thorough analysis of the MIDP.

What’s missing? The actual analysis. You know, the one thing that the public actually needs to read in order to make sense of the 160 “solutions” Waterfront Toronto says it identified in the MIDP.

This analysis isn’t just needed to help interested but non-expert residents understand what’s on offer, but to check Waterfront Toronto’s work. Even if Waterfront Toronto hadn’t consistently over the last three years raised questions about its trustworthiness and capacity to understand and evaluate these issues (see about 60% of my Quayside posts), you would want to check their arguments. That’s how accountable organizations operate.

For the record, I’ve also read the 10-page Quayside Evaluation Committee Report. But just like the discussion guide, it too expects to be able to skate by merely summarizing its findings. It reads as little more than the minutes to a meeting. To get a sense of how incomplete these public documents are, consider the following statement, on “Housing Affordability Feedback” (p. 5):

Although major alignment issues were identified, the consensus of the Committee was that the Housing Affordability proposal provided a worthwhile foundation upon which to engage governments and pursue additional and amended affordability solutions.

So, what were the “major alignment issues”? Did the committee make the right call that these issues weren’t important enough to hold up the project? I don’t know, and neither do you, because Waterfront Toronto hasn’t provided us with the information we need to make that decision.

Show, don’t tell

Instead of providing us with a way to independently evaluate their work and this project, we are supposed to reassured that they evaluated the MIDP by “reading every page of the MIDP, identifying all the solutions it contained, and ultimately aggregating one master list of solutions to be evaluated.” If you’re looking for kudos for actually having read the report that you commissioned, then I don’t know what to tell you.

But that’s about par for the course for this document: They tell us about all the hard work they’ve done (like, uh, reading) without showing us their work. In the movies they say, “Show, don’t tell.” The same goes for reports.

Anyway, here’s my actual submission…

Submission by Dr. Blayne Haggart
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Brock University
St. Catharines, Ontario

These notes are based on an evaluation of the provided Quayside Discussion Guide, as well as my thorough reading of the Master Innovation and Development Plan and related documents. In terms of qualifications, I hold a PhD in Political Science from Carleton University and an MA in Economics from the University of Toronto. I am an Associate Professor of Political Science at Brock University, where my research focuses on the governance and regulation of intellectual property, data and the internet. I have also published extensively in these areas. I am currently writing a book on knowledge regulation and smart cities.

Previously, I worked as an economist and researcher with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service, providing non-partisan research and drafting reports for the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, the House Subcommittee on International Trade, Trade Disputes and Investment, and the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, among others. My analysis draws on this professional and academic experience.

I would like to highlight five points in particular.

1. Insufficient analysis. Waterfront Toronto has, once again, failed to provide sufficient information to help the public form an informed opinion about the Quayside project. The Discussion Paper is merely a list of which technologies Waterfront Toronto liked and didn’t like in the Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP). It provides no justification for its choices beyond assertions that Waterfront Toronto did the analysis, and these are the technologies that passed and failed their tests. There is nothing in here to allow Torontonians to assess for themselves either the quality of Waterfront Toronto’s arguments or the appropriateness of the proposed technologies.

Since Waterfront Toronto reached its October 31, 2019, agreement with Sidewalk Labs, it has failed utterly to keep the public informed of its plans in any meaningful way. The October 31 agreement made reference to an amended MIDP, whose amended text was never released, while also noting that the MIDP remains the basis of the Quayside planning process. The MIDP, including its economic analysis, covered a Quayside-plus area (the so-called IDEA District). Given its setup, it is impossible to simply pick-and-choose the tech “solutions” that applies to Quayside, as this discussion guide claims. Sidewalk Labs must make its case based on a Quayside-only rationale; it has not done that publicly. Following that, Sidewalk Labs released a Digital Innovation Appendix (emphasis added) to an amended report that has not been released. This Appendix was analyzed by Waterfront Toronto’s volunteer, part-time Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, which admitted that it lacked the time and resources to evaluate it fully.

This arbitrary pick-and-choose approach to the MIDP, combined with the never-released “amended” MIDP and an Appendix to a report that nobody has seen, means that Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs have effectively created a shadow report lacking any grounding in a Quayside-only analysis.

There are also strong reasons to doubt that Waterfront Toronto has conducted a thorough assessment of this project, beyond the fact that it has not released the technical evaluation. To take only one example, “Mass timber construction” (Attachment 1, p. 5) is touted as an innovation that can work at the Quayside level. However, in the MIDP, it is claimed that a development on the level of the “River District” would be required to make it feasible. In the MIDP’s own words:

These benefits only become possible at the scale of the River District. … While Quayside’s size — it consists of only 10 buildings — is too small to support a re-conception of the entire construction supply chain, the River District would provide the developable area to achieve the full power of this approach. Sidewalk Labs estimates that roughly 6 million square feet of development are needed to justify an investment in the factory-based production of mass timber, as well as for such a factory to hit peak efficiency in producing sustainable building components on a predictable timeline that developers can trust (Vol. 1, p. 382).

Waterfront Toronto needs to explain why they believe that this policy is feasible on Quayside’s much smaller scale, and why Sidewalk Labs was wrong in their assessment. Otherwise, the overwhelming suspicion is that one (or both) of these policies have no basis in any objective, empirical analysis.

It is a fundamental principle of open government that citizens should be able to review a report that they are being asked to comment on. If Waterfront Toronto were serious about soliciting informed public comments, they would have released a revised version of the MIDP immediately after reaching the October 31 agreement with Sidewalk Labs. Instead, this Discussion Guide is a discussion guide to a report that has not been released to the public, with Waterfront Toronto asking the public to trust, sight unseen, that it actually conducted a thorough assessment.

These problems are in addition to the general lack of substantive public consultations, post-MIDP. The rushed July 2019 consultations were effectively rendered moot when Waterfront Toronto telegraphed its primary concerns with the MIDP through its Note to Reader prior to the consultations. Then, on August 1, 2019, it effectively announced negotiations with Sidewalk Labs to deal with these concerns. The result was the October 31 agreement, on which the public-consultations seem to have had a minimal effect. There seems to be little reason to expect two 3.5-hour public meetings on a Saturday and just over a month of online openness to submissions will be treated any differently.

2. Lack of digital/data governance expertise. Although Waterfront Toronto claims that it “has been working for years to create the enabling conditions to establish a testbed for emerging technologies in areas related to sustainability and urban innovation,” it has not shown that it has done anything to build its capacity to serve as a data regulator. Relying on a part-time advisory panel comprised of academics and businesspeople (the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel) is no substitute for in-house data-governance capacity-building. The DSAP’s ability to fulfill a substantive role in Waterfront Toronto digital governance has been called into question by its own members, in the 2018 Ontario Auditor General’s report into Waterfront Toronto. Not only have panelists repeatedly complained that they lack the time to evaluate the various plans, several of them have raised this expertise issue in their latest report.

In the absence of such capacity building – and putting aside whether it’s a good idea for a local land-development agency to become a de facto data-standards setter for the entire country – Waterfront Toronto’s commitment to “be responsible for leading all aspects of data governance and privacy for the project, including related discussions with the appropriate governmental authorities” (p. 1) is largely meaningless. An agency without the capacity to understand what it’s regulating is an agency that will be captured by the interests it seeks to regulate.

3. No opt-out principle. Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Principles (p. 10) do not include the right to opt out of Quayside surveillance.

4. Lashing Canadian data and innovation policy to Google’s mast. The fundamental premise of the Quayside project is flawed. It is not designed to encourage innovation; it is designed to test Google products and standards (see page 11 of the Discussion Guide). This will cause enormous problems, not only for Toronto but for Canadian technology and innovation policy going forward. By linking Quayside to a single company’s technological standards, Waterfront Toronto (and by extension the Governments of Canada and Ontario) are betting that Google’s standards will be best-of-breed, and will actually emerge as the global standards. As a result, the federal and Ontario governments will face enormous pressure to accommodate Google’s interests and standards in the making of innovation and data policy. And if Google’s tech doesn’t become the standard, Quayside will become a white elephant. This possibility should not be discounted; Google is a late entrant into the multi-billion-dollar smart-city market, and Sidewalk Labs has no track record in urban development.

It should also be highlighted that Quayside’s status as Canada’s urban development national champion renders Waterfront Toronto’s much-lauded forbidding of Sidewalk Labs from lobbying governments on data policy completely meaningless. Governments won’t need to be directly lobbied in order to ensure that Sidewalk Labs is kept happy and Quayside running as Sidewalk Labs wants it to run.

5. Indefensible human rights assessment. Waterfront Toronto’s human rights assessment (p. 3) is being conducted by a for-profit tech company, Element AI, which conceivably could be either a competitor or supplier to Sidewalk Labs, rather than an NGO with actual expertise in human rights.

Recommendation: The Quayside project should be abandoned and Waterfront Toronto’s relationship with Sidewalk Labs ended.

Waterfront Toronto’s take on the MIDP lacks a discernible analysis; the Discussion Paper is basically just a list – it doesn’t include enough information (i.e., analysis or context) to allow residents to evaluate it. As suggested by members of its own Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, Waterfront Toronto continues to lack the capacity to act as a guardian of Canadians’ digital and data rights, nor should it be allowed to act as such. Its commitment to public consultations, let alone listening to the public, is highly questionable, as if it is just going through the motions of pretending to listen to the public. Its choice of Element AI rather than an actual human-rights organization to evaluate the human-rights implication of whatever it is proposing is absurd on its face.

This train wreck of a process has been ongoing for almost three years. The need to save face is the worst possible reason to undertake a policy. Yet it is impossible to conclude that Quayside is being driven by anything but. Sidewalk Labs needs Quayside to put it in the smart-city game, while Waterfront Toronto is counting on the Quayside plan to ensure its survival beyond its current time-limited mandate (as well as providing a possible independent revenue source). This whole project should be ended, the sooner the better.

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No Longer Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP, Entry 48: The Digital Strategy Advisory Panel Supplementary Report on the Sidewalk Labs Digital Innovation Appendix

Just a few notes on the DSAP’s latest, on Sidewalk Labs’ Digital Innovation Appendix. There’s lots of good individual critiques, but I’ll focus on the big picture stuff.

  • Calling it “a significant improvement over the MIDP” is the very definition of damning with faint praise.
  • The DSAP is right on the money to highlight the lack of a “fully realized digital governance framework and the need for expedited public sector leadership.” And that’s the problem with trying even to review the DIA: in the absence of an agreed-upon framework within which these technologies would be deployed, it’s all just so ephemeral.
  • And speaking of digital governance frameworks, Waterfront Toronto’s response is a howler that should be incorporated into the repertoire of all spin doctors, everywhere: “We accept the benefit of an enhanced governance framework, but we believe we currently do not have a policy void, but rather an evolving policy frontier.”

No, it’s a void, and it should’ve been filled before you set out on this cursed three-year voyage. If Waterfront Toronto had had a digital governance framework in place, none of this would be happening right now.

  • The DSAP wisely acknowledges its limits:

Given the timeframe provided for review and comment (and noting, in particular, that DSAP is a volunteer body), there was insufficient time for the Panel to carefully review all relevant aspects of the available materials, deliberate as a body and draft a report which reflected a shared assessment of Sidewalk Labs’ proposals to date. … As with the Preliminary Commentary, this report is by necessity partial.

As much as the DSAP members might be aware of the limits of their own capacity as a panel, and as aware as they are of how their work can’t substitute for a complete technical analysis, it seems like Waterfront Toronto is treating them as their digital-policy arm. From the Quayside Evaluation Committee Report (p. 7):

Overall, these concepts and solutions are well-aligned with Waterfront Toronto’s Objectives and will ultimately be subject to the Waterfront Toronto Intelligent Community Guidelines, Digital Principles, and review by the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel.

This sounds like a very central role for the DSAP.

Capacity problem? What capacity problem?

  • The big question that should be at the front of everyone’s mind is, does Waterfront Toronto have the capacity to deal with these digital issues? From my own research it’s clear that most policymakers who don’t deal directly with data, surveillance and intellectual property do not fully understand how their increasing centrality is transforming basic issues of economics and governance. The skill set you need to build a park is not the same one you need to understand the ins and outs of, say, open data (hint: despite the word “open,” it has its risks).

Anyway, it’s certainly a DSAP concern:

Capacity, in particular, was frequently raised as an on-going challenge for digital governance. One Panelist noted that while DSAP can provide high-level guidance and commentary, the “level of effort [to review digital solutions at each phase of development] is far beyond that which a quasi-volunteer part-time group such as DSAP could possibly provide”, and that “DSAP review will not substitute for the additional technical review that is required.”

One more:

A Panelist suggested that Waterfront Toronto will have to bring on additional resources – and potentially even review its organizational structure – if it opted to play a lead role in digital governance for Quayside (and – given the breadth of application of the proposed Intelligent Community Guidelines – the Designated Waterfront Area as a whole, as well as serve as a model for ‘smart city’ initiatives well beyond Toronto). Concern was also expressed that “a lot is being thrown back to Waterfront Toronto and the City of Toronto [and] I’m not convinced they are fully ready to grapple with these issues.”

Again, this makes a whole lot of sense. If you’re going to regulate data, hire people who know how to regulate data.

Waterfront Toronto’s response should drive anyone who cares about good governance, and sound digital policymaking, to despair. Basically, everything is fine! The past three years to the contrary. Waterfront Toronto has this:

In the course of the evaluation process, based on the work completed by Waterfront Toronto and its expert team, the Evaluation Committee has made clear that they feel Waterfront Toronto is properly equipped to evaluate and negotiate with a party like Sidewalk Labs. As Sheldon Levy said, “To the questions that were put to us – is Waterfront Toronto prepared for negotiations, does Waterfront Toronto fully understand the issues, and does Waterfront Toronto understand the relative importance of the issues – in my opinion, the answer to all three is yes.” This was support by all six Evaluation Committee members.

As we continue to explore the potential for a project on Quayside with Sidewalk Labs, we would welcome recommendations from the panel regarding specific additional expertise or resources that they feel would improve our ability to perform our work should we move into an implementation phase.

It’s also telling that while the Quayside Evaluation Committee Report does not raise the issue of building Waterfront Toronto’s capacity to deal with digital innovations (p. 7, section J), but rather that: “The Committee agreed that Waterfront Toronto staff demonstrated a strong awareness of the key issues and was thoughtfully assessing mitigation strategies.”

So there you go: Waterfront Toronto has this all under control.

  • Here’s where we get to the … Faustian bargain may be too strong a term, but it gets us in the ballpark … if you’re a DSAP member. You’re highlighting important issues with the Quayside project. It’s a bit unclear how seriously Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs are taking you substantively, as opposed to stylistically (I mean, look at the DIA. Sidewalk Labs certainly seems to have taken on my comments about a lack of executive summaries, tables of contents and hyperlinks. The substantive issues? Not so much).

But you know that you can’t give this project the thorough analysis it deserves. And it really seems like Waterfront Toronto is using you as the digital policy review team rather than as an external check. Worse, they think they already have the resources to deal with these issues. (The Ontario Auditor General said they didn’t in 2018. How much hiring have they done since then? How have they changed their organizational structure?) Which means that they’re counting on the reports that you know are only partial to legitimize their work.

And Waterfront Toronto’s work on Quayside? Nothing in this project makes sense, from the publication of an appendix to an amended report, for which the actual amendments were not ever published, to the publication of a list of technologies that Waterfront Toronto says are great, but without providing the technical analysis behind this judgment, to the still-confused lines of accountability between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto.

Where’s your line between being helpful and being used?

 

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No Longer Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP, Addendum #3: The flaw at the heart of Waterfront Toronto’s innovation plan

Reposting this from Twitter. Also, everyone should read Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything. It’s an incredibly insightful consideration of, among other things, how innovation actually happens in the global economy:

Am reading @MazzucatoM’s excellent The Value of Everything and thinking about the Quayside #smartcities project. Her chapter on innovation hammers home for me how misguided @WaterfrontTO’s project is. Specifically, the betting on one company — Google — to deliver “innovation.”

The point of Quayside from the very beginning was to seek an innovation partner to help catalyze Toronto’s urban tech sector. That’s a bit of a simplification, but let’s run with it.

The problem is — and this can’t be stressed enough — most innovations fail. That’s the nature of the beast. Tech doesn’t work out. Tastes change. Funding or interest dries up.

Through Sidewalk Labs, Google is proposing a smart city based on Google-friendly technology and (more importantly) Google-friendly ideas about what a smart city should be (max surveillance, minimal privacy, Google tech standards). The result will be a tech monoculture.

Far from encouraging an innovative ecosystem, @WaterfrontTO is in the midst of betting the farm on the hope that Google’s technological and regulatory vision will carry the day.

To put it another way, @WaterfrontTO, on behalf of Canadians, has gotten into the business of picking winners, of deciding whose development vision (Google’s) they’re going to throw Canada’s weight behind.

What could possibly go wrong? Well…

Recall, Waterfront Toronto is an organization that issued an RFP without having the faintest idea that data and IP were the very foundations of a smart city. They had to cobble together a part-time, volunteer digital advisory panel to cover their total inexperience.

And recall that Sidewalk Labs has never built *anything*. And Google has *no experience* in urban development. In a field where its competitors like IBM have actually done things. Instead, they have slogans that they change every few months when people start asking questions.

RIP “from the internet up”
RIP “urban data trust”

If WT were truly interested in supporting a tech testbed, they’d be working to ensure that as many different approaches to addressing and meeting actual community needs and approaches could be worked on.

But that’s not what’s on offer, and a SL-WT deal is incapable of doing this. That’s because it’s favouring one company and its vision over all alternatives.

The Quayside #smartcities project was born in ignorance (and according to the Ontario Auditor General, some suspicious monkeyshines). It is is propelled by bureaucratic inertia: its consummation is literally an existential question for the two organizations.
If Canada’s three levels of government were forward-looking on these issues, they would not let the existential fears of a local development agency create a fact on the ground that will warp Canadian data and innovation policy going forward.

They would also see the transformation of @WaterfrontTO from a land-development agency into a de facto data-regulation agency with an independent revenue source as the truly terrible idea that it is.

tl;dr: This is not going to end well.

Just to show what @WaterfrontTO’s turning its back on, check out @doctorow’s great article imagining a smart city that’s not based on Google-esque surveillance.

Which one’s better? I have my views, but the point is that an org that was interested in innovation would want to spread their net far and wide, and not bet only on one company, on one approach. They’d want to test whether Doctorow or Google had the better vision.

Finally, to bring it back to @MazzucatoM, as she points out, governments have a key role to play in sparking & shaping innovation. It’s what they do, supporting projects that are too risky for for-profit companies. This is the exact opposite of what’s on offer with Quayside.

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