Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Bonus entry 2: On poorly designed consultations, conflicts of interest, cheating on the test, and getting to know your business partner

Previous Master Innovation and Development Plan liveblog entries available here

A quick follow-up to Tuesday’s post regarding the, shall we say, haphazard consultation process Waterfront Toronto has convened around Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan. Way back then, some 48 hours ago, I was concerned about the ineffectiveness of holding two weeks of consultations in the depths of summer, which would be used to shape some indeterminate Fall consultations.

Such short consultations on such a comprehensive report, which this series will get to eventually (promise!) and which is almost custom-designed not to be read or understood, seems a sure-fire way to ensure that the only responses you’ll get are rushed analyses from people with the ability to invest the week or so needed to ingest the report, or superficial and/or self-interested takes from people who haven’t done their homework.

Ah, those bygone, innocent times.

Now, thanks to James McLeod’s excellent and mind-boggling article in yesterday’s National Post, my initial bafflement and concern has been upgraded to incredulousness. Here’s the current iteration of Waterfront Toronto’s plan– only parts of which, it cannot be emphasized enough, were included in either its webpage or in the pages of its Note to Reader dealing with public consultations, as best as I can figure, but who knows? Waterfront Toronto is either making this up as they go along or not bothering to communicate their plans precisely with the public:

  • July 25: Waterfront Toronto concludes its in-person consultations.
  • July 31: Last chance to submit responses to its online surveys for inclusion in its September report.
  • September: Waterfront Toronto publishes its response to the MIDP “pulling together criticisms and concerns based on public commentary and responses from the various levels of government.”
  • Next step: Sidewalk Labs responds to Waterfront Toronto’s report with a final MIDP
  • Then: Waterfront Toronto holds another round of public consultations.
  • And finally: Waterfront Toronto performs “an assessment on the final document, and make a recommendation to the board of directors.”

If anything, this process is worse than the one briefly set out in the Note to Reader,  even without commenting on the wildly optimistic deadlines of late 2019/early 2020 they’ve set for themselves.

The Note to Reader made it sound like these summer hearings were basically a public temperature-taking, with the more in-depth consultations to be held in the Fall. In that plan, the biggest problem was that Waterfront Toronto would “include a report on the public feedback during Round One” (p. 47).

Now, it turns out that these rushed, wholly inadequate two-week consultations will feed into Waterfront Toronto’s actual response to the MIDP. The Round Two consultations will actually be focused not only yet another version of the MIDP, but will also have to address whether or not Waterfront Toronto’s response to the draft MIDP was adequate. Which means we will have to go through this entire nonsense again, times two.

This process is absolutely bonkers. If one were actually interested in legitimate, informative public consultation, the consultations would begin in September. This would allow both the public and Waterfront Toronto (which admits has not yet had enough time “to work through and consider the Draft MIDP” (Note to Reader, p. 47)) to take enough time out of their holidays to digest this index-deficient one-thousand-five-hundred-page, four-volume report. Consultations would be extensive, with several sub-rounds of meetings on each part of the report.

Only then, based on Waterfront Toronto’s analysis and public input, would Waterfront Toronto issue its report. Sidewalk Labs would then respond, and Waterfront Toronto could hold a brief second round of hearings addressing the specific changes Sidewalk Labs proposed. Then, based on all that, its Board could decide whether or not to proceed.

This is not that complicated.

Instead, we currently have a process that minimizes both the quality and quantity of up-front public input, and that effectively forces those of us who are deeply engaged in the process, most of whom also have lives outside of this bureaucratic rollercoaster, to double the amount of time we’re devoting to a file whose parameters seem to change on a daily basis. After all, why should I waste my time rushing to finish this unreadable monstrosity in the next seven days, and then spend a day filling out Waterfront Toronto’s survey if there is going to be a second round of consultations?

I’ve been spending most of my working days for the past couple of weeks on Sidewalk Labs-related work, and I’m almost certainly not going to be finished by July 31.

Even Bianca Wylie, who has devoted more time than any other non-Sidewalk Labs/Waterfront Toronto person to this project, is still working her way through the report (according to her tweets). If, 12 days from the consultation deadline, this project’s most attentive critic is still working her way through it, what hope do other Torontonians have of being able to come up with a reasoned opinion by the end of the month?

On a personal note, I fear that this project is turning me into Tristram Shandy.

Waterfront Toronto’s secret judgment criteria

As an added bonus, Waterfront Toronto apparently will not be releasing the criteria it will be using to evaluate the MIDP because, in the words of Waterfront Toronto senior vice-president for project delivery Julius Gombos, “it would be giving away the examination papers to the class before we had the test.”

Which makes absolutely no sense, in any way. This isn’t about testing whether Sidewalk Labs has been paying attention in class; it’s about ensuring that they are delivering what Waterfront Toronto, the customer, is ordering. You should want Sidewalk Labs to see the answers.

It’s also about accountability. Beyond Sidewalk Labs, you should want the public to know how you’re evaluating its proposal, so that we can tell if Waterfront Toronto is asking the right questions. And also to ensure that everything is being done on the up-and-up because, to be blunt, Waterfront Toronto does not have a lot of credibility when it comes to this project.

Partner or oversight agency? Waterfront Toronto’s already made its choice

More news from McLeod’s article: If only boneheaded scheduling decisions were the worst of Waterfront Toronto’s missteps. It also faces a fatal legitimacy-challenging conflict of interest:

Originally Waterfront Toronto worked cooperatively with Sidewalk Labs on research and generating ideas for the new neighbourhood, but last year the federal-provincial-municipal agency repositioned itself as an oversight agency, assessing the MIDP.

Here’s the thing. Waterfront Toronto can’t simply “reposition[ ] itself as an oversight agency.” The Plan Development Agreement (which I’ll cover in Monday’s post, so, spoilers), signed by Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs on July 31 of last year, commits the two organizations to deep cooperation, including the joint preparation of the MIDP.

When in the “last year” did Waterfront Toronto make the decision to alter the nature of its relationship with Sidewalk Labs? I’ve been following this story pretty clearly and I don’t recall hearing about it. As far as I know, the Plan Development Agreement – again, which is not even a year old – was never amended or superseded.

And even beyond this legalese, this “close contractual relationship,” as McLeod calls it, emerged from the incredibly tight relationship that was apparent from the moment this project was announced. Recall that Will Fleissig, the former Waterfront Toronto CEO who oversaw the RFP and choice of Sidewalk Labs, was forced out by the Waterfront Toronto Board in July 2018 in part because of “his oversight of a decision to allow Sidewalk Labs personnel to temporarily occupy office space in the Waterfront Toronto headquarters.”

Legally, the two are joined. They have a deep, intertwined history, by design. These conflicts of interest are insoluble, meaning Waterfront Toronto cannot act as an independent arbiter of the MIDP. This relationship was never on the table.

I can’t help but think that some Waterfront Toronto employees know all this, that these consultation contortions are being driven by the realization that the original Request for Proposals, conducted under a previous CEO, was fatally flawed. The RFP has placed Waterfront Toronto in an untenable governance situation, opening a Pandora’s Box that previous leadership perhaps thought they could control. As much as anything else, inertia, rather than basic good governance principles, seems to be driving this very flawed process forward.

Inertia carries the day

In fact, it’s hard to read one final amazing (in a bad way) revelation in McLeod’s article as anything other than an exercise in path-dependent damage control. Apparently Waterfront Toronto is tracking Google’s “corporate conduct.”

(Note: the article refers to Alphabet, which is formally Google and Sidewalk Labs’ parent company, but for all practical purposes, Alphabet is Google.)

Kristina Verner, vice-president of innovation, sustainability and prosperity at Waterfront Toronto, said that the public agency has been keeping tabs on Alphabet’s corporate conduct.

“Certainly, Sidewalk itself is a relatively new company; that being said, it is a child of Alphabet,” Verner said.

“All of the infractions, all of the violations that have been reported over the last few years, and before then, we actually have a tracker where we’ve been documenting all of that, so we have our eyes fully open as well.”

Verner said that tracking Alphabet’s corporate behaviour is important in order to have a clear sense of who they’re dealing with “when we discuss what the partnership looks like, and the ethical underpinning of it.”

To which one can only say, how could Waterfront Toronto not possibly already have “a clear sense” (McLeod’s paraphrasing of Verner) about what type of company Google is? It’s one of the biggest companies on the planet! A quick Yahoo! search reveals this 2012 Wired article, titled “Google is Evil.” Or how about “Top 10 Ways Google Does Evil,” published mere weeks before Sidewalk Labs officially won the RFP?

And that’s just general Google bad behaviour. Much more relevant for Waterfront Toronto is Google’s behaviour toward a couple of other acquisitions. DeepMind Health (a UK health AI company), and Nest (smart appliances) were initially treated as Google sister companies before being absorbed into Google itself, raising privacy and data-governance concerns.

Given everything we know, any responsible analysis has to assume that Sidewalk Labs is Google.

It strains credulity to think that anyone at Waterfront Toronto in 2017 would not have been aware about the type of company Google is.

So, the question for Waterfront Toronto is, given “all of the infractions, all of the violations” that you have been tracking, given all that we know about Google, why do you think that they can be trusted to develop Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront?

It’s a question that should’ve been asked in 2017, but better late than never.

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