Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 4: Sidewalk Labs’ Project Vision

Previous Master Innovation and Development Plan liveblog entries available here

Reading Sidewalk Labs’ Project Vision document – essentially an extended excerpt from its submission to Waterfront Toronto’s Request for Proposals – alongside Waterfront Toronto’s RFP brought to mind several thoughts.

  1. Sidewalk Labs is responding to the questions it was asked.

This doesn’t necessarily make Sidewalk Labs’ plan a good one, but it does demonstrate that its plans did not come out of the blue. To the extent that Sidewalk Labs’ plan is flawed, Waterfront Toronto deserves a significant amount of blame for opening the gate to a proposal like this in the first place.

  1. Sidewalk Labs (and by extension Waterfront Toronto) did not play fair when releasing their Project Vision document.

In the letter that accompanied the release of Sidewalk Labs’ “Project Vision” Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel L. Doctoroff claimed: “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.”

As part of the proposal, Waterfront Toronto required that applicants submit a “Project Vision and Business Implementation Plan,” not to exceed 25 pages. Sidewalk Labs released the first 19 pages of this document, covering the Project Vision part of the document:

A1. Vision

A2. Sustainability & Innovation Submission

A3. Complete Communities Submission

A4. Economic Development & Prosperity Submission Requirements

These sections, as I’ll detail in my next post, mainly amount to a whole bunch of promises centered on cool-sounding vapourware.

Unfortunately, the meat of these proposals, mainly how these cool-sounding projects would be organized and run, was covered in the very next section, A5. Approach to Business Case and Financial Requirements, which is not included.

Here’s some of what’s in that excluded section (quoting from the RFP):

Legal Structure Approach: Describe how you would approach the following:
i. Roles and Responsibilities: Provide an initial proposal of roles and responsibilities for Waterfront Toronto and the Partner, understanding that Waterfront Toronto intends to remain an active partner and investor in this and future phases of the Project through to its completion.
ii. Legal Structures & Documents: Describe required legal structure and documents required to implement the partnership.
iii. Risks & Benefits: Propose how risks and benefits will be shared. How will you create an assessment tool to allocate risks between Waterfront Toronto and the Partner?
iv. Intellectual Property: Provide a preliminary framework for a potential management approach for Intellectual Property introduced to or developed through the Project, and any revenue sharing between Waterfront Toronto and the Partner.
v. “Off-Ramps”: How could the venture be unwound in the event that the Project is not achieving its goals?
vi. “On-Ramps”: How could new partners/participants be included in the Project? Are there any ownership/equity considerations?

As a result, there is almost nothing in the vision statement on the key question of data governance, which makes it impossible for an outsider to evaluate seriously their vision document. Instead it’s all awesome coolness, from a Google company, a company that has a poor record on follow-through on its big projects (hi, Google Fiber!) and killing off socially useful but profit-challenged products (I’m still upset about Google’s euthanasia of late, great Google Reader).

And my handy Preview search function tells me that intellectual property is not mentioned a single time, including in the 172-page appendices (Sidewalk Labs does love to pad its documents).

  1. To get the contract, Sidewalk Labs promised the moon, leaning heavily on its Google connection to make the case that it can deliver, even without any track record.

Seriously, they really promised the (vapourware) moon. They promised so many things that I decided to detail every single promise in their vision statement in my next post. Spoiler: they made a lot of promises.

  1. This whole exercise should’ve been conducted within government and not outsourced to a for-profit corporation.

Sidewalk Labs’ “success metrics” make this point. The most interesting thing about them is their banality. Why did Waterfront Toronto need an outside company to tell it that “cost of living (with 11 subsets around rent, transportation, and more), carbon emissions, walkability, park access, job growth, civic participation, and time saved commuting” (p. 17) should be important measurements? Although “smart cities” and “data” sound intimidating, they’re not rocket science. A city, no matter how “smart,” still involves people living in and using spaces, and moving from Point A to Point B. If a development organization can’t figure these things out, we have a problem.

  1. Scope overreach

While Waterfront Toronto was relatively up-front that the goal was to establish Quayside and then scale up (somehow) to the entire eastern waterfront, Sidewalk Labs’ Vision document seems to make clear that most of their (many, many, many) promises could only come true if they were implemented on the scale of the eastern waterfront. In their defence, Sidewalk Labs has been (relatively) consistent on this point (if you plow through all of these documents). And given that, according to the Ontario Auditor General’s report, Waterfront Toronto has been looking for a way to better involve itself in the wider waterfront development, Sidewalk Labs’ insistence that so much of its awesome stuff could only work at the scale of the waterfront, could be seen as being a means to this end. In other words, what looks to the outside world as problematic scope overreach might be seen by Waterfront Toronto as a feature, not a bug.

  1. Sidewalk Labs’ “standards layer” represents a bid for it to become a central governing body of Quayside (etc.). It also goes far beyond what the RFP asked for.

Among the ocean of promises and hype in this document, Sidewalk Labs’ discussion of how it approaches both regulation and working with relevant government authorities is most illuminating.

In Sidewalk Labs’ version of the smart city, the city – Quayside and the Eastern Waterfront – is the platform. And so, when Sidewalk Labs says it needs to set the “standards level,” “the rules for residents, administrators, and developers using and building atop the platform” (p. 18) it’s effectively asking to co-govern Quayside and the Eastern Waterfront. Sidewalk Labs wants to set the building codes to fit its view on what is best for… all Torontonians? Efficiency? Development? Equity? In Sidewalk Labs’ world, the notion that there could be conflicting and equally legitimate opinions on such issues doesn’t arise. Instead, it’s uncontroversially assumed that Sidewalk Labs will set the rules, and these will objectively be the best ones possible. There are no politics in  the city of Sidewalk Labs’ dreams.

Accomplishing all of this will require a high level of central planning and standardization, no matter the language of flexibility found in this document. Consider modular, “flexible” buildings, a key element of Sidewalk Labs’ plan. For these to work, they require, as Sidewalk Labs recognizes, that all the buildings be “interchangeable.” As a result, “this interchangeability [in buildings] requires a high degree of standardization, including dimensions, basic services provided in each building, and the interior components themselves.” (Appendix, p. 118)

In short, “highly flexible” buildings of the type promised by Sidewalk Labs will only be flexible within the parameters set by Sidewalk Labs. This isn’t Jane Jacobs-style urban innovation: it’s central planning on a Soviet scale.

My completely uninformed prediction: We’re going to end up with ugly same-looking building blocks.

And talk of working with other government authorities brings us to …

  1. Proof, pudding, eating

On situations in which Sidewalk Labs’ plans touch the responsibilities of other governments or agencies: “In all cases, the best strategy is to start conversations early and recognize the perspectives and interests of potential partners. Sidewalk will work with these entities to develop approaches that meet their fundamental needs while also creating the flexibility necessary to innovate.” (p. 26)

I’ll guess we’ll see the extent to which Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP takes into account the “fundamental needs” of other organizations.

Next post, Sidewalk Labs’ promises to Toronto. It’s going to be a long one.

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