Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 3: Sidewalk Labs CEO Project Vision Open Letter

Previous Master Innovation and Development Plan liveblog entries available here

Before getting to the meat of Sidewalk Labs’ original response to the RFP, it’s worth noting that what they’ve released is accompanied by a letter from Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel L. Doctoroff. In the letter, dated October 17, 2017, Doctoroff includes a pitch that invites public consultation:

We’ve decided to release the vision we laid out in our response, both in the interest of transparency and to start what promises to be a history-making public conversation. We hope all Torontonians—and city-lovers far and wide—will join in. Which urban challenges are most urgent? Where can technology prove useful in finding solutions, and where is it not the right tool? Which of our ideas are great, which are crazy, and what did we miss?

We need your ideas, your aspirations, your critiques, your concerns. We hope you’ll email us, call us, tweet at us, and, if possible, join us in person at a series of public conversations, beginning with a Community Town Hall in early November.

As it happens, it was this initial November 2017 Town Hall meeting that interested both Dr. Natasha Tusikov and me in studying smart cities, data governance and the Quayside project. Smart cities are “smart” because of how they collect data via surveillance. And so we were surprised and a bit alarmed when reps from a Google company and from a  government agency that wanted to set up a smart city spent so much time on fanciful infrastructure projects and so little time on data and surveillance issues, and none that I can recall on intellectual property.

As we livestreamed the meeting, we couldn’t for the life of us square the insistence at the Town Hall that individual privacy would be respected with our understanding that a smart city only works if everything is being observed. Would the price of heated sidewalk be the observation of our every movement?  But even if you didn’t want to go that far, it really did seem like neither Google’s Sidewalk Labs nor Waterfront Toronto wanted to talk about data, emphasizing the physical instead of the virtual.

It turns out that this was a pretty accurate assessment of the situation. The April 2018 creation of the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel was an admission by Waterfront Toronto that they had been caught off-guard by the public interest in the digital and data aspects of what is almost entirely a digital- and data-driven project.

As for the other partner, the August 14, 2018, Toronto Star headline – “Sidewalk Labs unveils plans for timber towers, raincoats for buildings in Quayside, but Torontonians must wait for data details” – perfectly captures how Sidewalk Labs carried itself. Ten months after it was awarded the Quayside contract, Sidewalk Labs didn’t want to talk data.

When you have the world’s foremost data-driven company, subsidiary or no, constantly talking about heated sidewalks and timber skyscrapers, you have a problem. After all, Sidewalk Labs, a company with hardly any track record to speak of, was hired to develop some of the most valuable property in North America because it was a Google company, a data company, not for their prowess with an axe.

Can children vote? Consultations as PR exercise

As for the Quayside consultations, it’s hard not to conclude that they were largely a PR exercise. Consider in particular two elements of the 13-point list of “different ways you can get involved!” according to Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto:

  1. Send your child, ages 9-12, to a free YMCA-Sidewalk Toronto Summer Kids Camp to learn about the waterfront and explore ideas for its future.

  2. Apply for our Sidewalk Toronto Fellows Program for Torontonians, ages 19-24.

Granted, touting a “weeklong Summer Kids Camp” in which “campers will have the opportunity to learn, play, and explore as they develop their own ideas” as a serious form of community consultation on a multi-million-dollar urban planning megaproject may be exactly the kind of innovative thinking only a Google company could come up with. Or maybe it’s just as much of an absurd and condescendingly patronizing feint as it seems.

As for the Sidewalk Toronto Fellows Program for young adults, these twelve selected fellows will “travel with us to three international cities over six months to explore the future of cities and technology and prepare a public report.”

Let’s quickly unpack this program, since (spoiler alert) it’ll become important when we get to the actual Master Innovation and Development Plan. To put the ages of these young adults into perspective, if these fellows are in university, they would be second-to-fourth-year undergraduates, MA students and, at the top end, recent MA graduates. Now, I have known and worked with many bright undergrad and Masters students, but the key word here is students. They’re still learning about how the world works. In a few years they might be experts, but not yet.

Also, taking a dozen students to three international cities on Sidewalk Labs’ dime isn’t a consultation; it’s a field trip, complete with a heaping side dish of conflict of interest. That Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs would try to pass off these initiatives as anything other than cheap PR stunts is, frankly, insulting. And it’s certainly not a consultation.

Analog consultations for a digital project

One final thing. Google is one of the world’s leading online companies, a world-dominating tech behemoth. It knows the internet. Sidewalk Labs, a Google company, was hired because of its ability to think digital, to build a city “from the internet up,” to take an oft-repeated phrase from their Project Vision document (up tomorrow).

So where were the online consultations? Where was the innovative use of Google tech, to allow Torontonians to discuss amongst themselves and with Sidewalk Labs/Waterfront Toronto what kind of smart city they wanted? Here is the world’s greatest online company pitching a new form of digital smart city, willing to talk about the innovative use of every physical building material imaginable. The only place where they didn’t talk innovation was in designing these consultations. Instead, physical roundtables, with the agendas tightly controlled by Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, dominated their consultation process.

The digital aspect of consultations for what is intended to be the world’s greatest digital city, by a subsidiary of the world’s greatest digital company, consisted only of an invitation to “Go online to learn about Sidewalk Toronto, watch our videos, review documents, and complete surveys.” And livestream events.

Contrast this with the Brazilian government’s two-phase online consultations leading to its 2014 Marco Civil internet governance law. As Dr. Tusikov and I describe it elsewhere:

The first stage solicited public input, which responded to clearly stated topics set by subject experts, designed to be partly educational. Crucially, this was not just a one-way street: They used an online platform to allow for collaboration among contributors.

In the second stage, the public responded to a draft legal text, which they could compare to the first-stage discussions.

Even better, they did so using WordPress pages, and participants were able to interact with each other online, sharing ideas. And it was incredibly successful, creating legitimacy and contributing to sound policy in a technically complex area for what was the world’s first Internet Bill of Rights.

This is not rocket science. One wonders if this type of back-and-forth consultation was too outside-the-box for Sidewalk Labs.

Limiting public engagement

That’s not to say that the consultations did not serve a purpose. By limiting public engagement to a few relatively easily controlled public events and by minimizing online engagement, Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto were able to maintain the top-down control over this project that has been present since its inception.

Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel L. Doctoroff may be very fond of invoking Jane Jacobs, but everything about Quayside screams central planning and control. That they have been forced to publicly address pesky questions about who will run Quayside, the scope of the project and how  data and privacy will be governed is a tribute to the community activists who have kept the heat on these two organizations from day one. Any accountability in this process has emerged despite, not because of, the Quayside “consultations.”

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