Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan: Guest post: An analysis of all the new public agencies proposed in the MIDP

I won’t start posting about the actual MIDP for a couple of days (so much background reading…), but to whet your appetite, please enjoy this comprehensive guest post from Dr. Natasha Tusikov of York University. – bh

Previous Master Innovation and Development Plan liveblog entries available here

Sidewalk Labs, the Google sister company, outlines its plans for the proposed smart city on Toronto’s eastern waterfront in its Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP), released June 24, 2019. As part of its ambitious 1,500-page MIDP, Sidewalk Labs proposes the creation of five so-called “management entities” falling under a public administrator that would be responsible for managing the IDEA District on Toronto’s eastern waterfront. The new public administrator would involve creating a public body, amending an existing government department, or, possibly considerably augmenting Waterfront Toronto’s authority. As envisioned by Sidewalk Labs, the new public administrator would be a governmental body with relevant departments from the City of Toronto as stakeholders.

The public administrator would manage and oversee the Waterfront Transportation Management Association (WTMA), focused on mobility, and the Waterfront Sustainability Association (WSA), focused on sustainability. The public administrator would also act as sole trustee for one private body, the Waterfront Housing Trust (WHT), a public-private financing entity.

In addition, the public administrator would help coordinate the management the Open Space Alliance (OSA) and the Urban Data Trust. The OSA, which would focus on managing physical and digital infrastructure in public spaces, would be managed by a public-private body. The Urban Data Trust, which would govern all data collected and used within the IDEA District would exist first as an independent non-profit organization and then, potentially, evolve into a public agency.

Based upon a preliminary analysis of the Master Innovation and Development Plan, the following is intended to provide a concise overview of the five management entities that the public administrator would directly manage or facilitate coordination among public and private stakeholders. Although Sidewalk Labs devotes sections in chapters to each of the management entities, information on these entities and their duties is scattered across the entire MIDP.

This overview describes each proposed entity and also identifies key regulatory adjustments that would be needed to implement its plans. It also highlights the proposed sources of funding because funding will come from new fees (paid by residents or businesses) or by reallocating revenues. People will have to pay for this. Sidewalk Labs lists all its proposed regulatory adjustments and reforms in the Volume 3, Supplemental Tables, pages 224-232.

Expanded Geographical Scope

The original Request for Proposal, released by Waterfront Toronto, the tripartite public agency that issued the bid, pertained only to the 12-acre Quayside region, although there was a possiN post graphic 1bility for the successful vendor to apply for an expansion or for the project to be extended into the wider Eastern Waterfront under certain conditions. In its MIDP, however, Sidewalk Labs proposed plans cover 190 acres of what its terms an “Innovation Development and Economic Acceleration” (IDEA) District. The IDEA District would have seven neighbourhoods (see Sidewalk Labs’ map). Sidewalk Labs argues that its ideas and proposed technologies would be most effective when deployed throughout the larger IDEA district (outlined in the map below in checked line). Villiers Island West is Sidewalk Labs’ proposed site for the new Canadian Google headquarters.

The “management entities”

Waterfront Transportation Management Association (WTMA)

Q: What is the Waterfront Transportation Management Association?

As proposed by Sidewalk Labs, the WTMA would be established as a new public body under the

IDEA District public administrator. The WTMA would be responsible for managing and operating physical and digital infrastructure relating to transportation within the IDEA district, most significantly deploying a real-time data-based mobility management system to coordinate all traffic.

Q: What stated need would the WTMA address?

According to Sidewalk Labs, an innovative approach to mobility and transportation, including its proposal for real-time pricing for parking and passenger drop-off/pick-up, requires the coordination and direction of a single dedicated entity. This single entity does not currently exist within Toronto as many of the functions that Sidewalk Labs proposes for the WTMA are undertaken by separate departments, such as the Transportation Services Division and the Toronto Transit Commission. Sidewalk Labs contends that bringing together these functions under a single entity–the WTMA–and adding additional functions like the mobility management system, will deliver more efficient, sustainable mobility services in the proposed IDEA District.

Q: What are the proposed responsibilities of the WTMA?

The WTMA would be responsible for creating and operating a mobility management system. Working in collaboration with the City of Toronto’s Transportation Services Division and the Toronto Transit Commission, the WTMA would:

  • maintain and replace the proposed modular pavement system, which are hexagonal pavers used to construct streets (including heating or traffic signals);
  • deploy a real-time mobility management system that monitors and coordinates all streets and traffic signals within the IDEA District in real time, gathering data on traffic volume, delays, weather, and emergency vehicles to coordinate traffic and provide real-time information on pricing (e.g., of parking or curbside drop-offs) and route closures;
  • assume control over curbside policy and control over pricing of the use of curbs, areas currently the purview of the City of Toronto;
  • oversee planning, operations, and maintenance of new mobility-related infrastructure, such as dynamic curbs (Note: dynamic curbs use lighted pavement or signs to makes street spaces flexible to provide passenger loading zones during rush hour and public spaces at off-peak times for activities like pop-up street fairs);
  • apply data analytics to employ real-time pricing on parking and curb usage, as well as manage and set those prices;
  • procure and operate new technologies, such as adaptive traffic signals, dynamic pavement, freight and deliveries, and integrate systems with third-party navigation apps;
  • set speed limits on speed-separated streets;
  • undertake (or contract public or third parties to) construct and finance roads or parking facilities, and clear snow and debris; and
  • create a mobility subscription package for IDEA District residents, which would include a TTC monthly pass and travel credits or subsidies across all modes, including bikeshare or ride-hail services.

Q: How would the WTMA be funded?

Sidewalk Labs proposes that the WTMA’s operations be financed by fees in a way that ensures the entity is self-sustaining. In particular, WTMA would collect fees for parking, curbside pick-up/drop-off fees, road user fees for ride-hail vehicles using the project’s specially designed local streets, and charges for mobility services in relation to its operation of dynamic streets and curbs within the IDEA District. Revenue would also come from on-site parking garages and the sale of mobility packages.

Q: What would be required to implement the WTMA?

Sidewalk Labs proposes to create the Waterfront Transportation Management Association as a public body under the proposed IDEA District Public Administrator which would require amending existing or creating new legislation. Certain policymaking and enforcement responsibilities would have to be devolved from Toronto’s Transportation Services Division and Toronto Parking Authority to the WTMA, such as control over parking and curbs.

Q: What challenges does the WTMA raise?

The creation of the WTMA as a new public entity would require amending existing or introducing new legislation. As envisioned, the WTMA would assume control over parking and curbside policymaking, pricing, and enforcement from the City of Toronto and the Toronto Parking Authority. How this devolution of duties and loss of revenue from parking within the IDEA District may affect the Toronto Parking Authority will have to be considered.

While Sidewalk Labs envisions one entity coordinating all transportation and mobility services within the IDEA District with a steering committee with representatives from all three levels of government, it’s unclear how the WTMA would operate with existing departments within Toronto. Sidewalk Labs states that the WTMA would be largely (or entirely) self-funded through the collection of revenue from parking and curb pricing. However, given the breadth of its proposed duties, the WTMA will likely need ongoing public funding to fulfill its mandate. It’s also unclear whether there is the political and public appetite for creating a new public agency to coordinate transportation issues within a single neighbourhood.

A risk that Sidewalk Labs clearly lays out in its master plan is that the WTMA would yield greater benefits at the scale of the River District and even more so at the IDEA District, which could not effectively be realized if it were deployed only in the smaller Quayside district. Waterfront Toronto’s original Request for Proposal was for Quayside only, not for the much larger IDEA District proposed by Sidewalk Labs. Another significant challenge to the proposed WTMA entity is that if the transportation management system were restricted to Quayside instead of being extended across the IDEA District, according to Sidewalk Labs, the effects “would be limited, as there are simply not enough intersections to balance safety, congestion and trip choices” (2019, Ch. 1, p. 95). Sidewalk Labs clearly states that it wants to apply its proposals throughout the IDEA District instead of the much-smaller Quayside area that was the subject of the public consultations.

 Key regulatory adjustments:

In order to implement its dynamic curb and real-time pricing plans, and to set its own speed limits within the IDEA District, amendments would be needed to the Ontario Highway Traffic Act, City of Toronto Act, City of Toronto Municipal Code, the City of Toronto Zoning Bylaw, and the City of Toronto Complete Streets Guidelines. While these amendments may deliver useful services, permitting the IDEA District to have carte blanche to change rules on parking, speed limits, and street and curb usage could create an unhelpful patchwork of rules and regulatory bodies across Toronto.

Waterfront Sustainability Association (WSA)

Q: What is the Waterfront Sustainability Association?

Sidewalk Labs proposes that the Waterfront Sustainability Association be established as a new public body under the IDEA District public administrator with the responsibility for administering private entities responsible for environmental sustainability, including energy and waste water.

Q: What stated need would the WSA address?

In Waterfront Toronto’s Request for Proposal, it set a goal of making the waterfront area a climate-positive community. In response, Sidewalk Labs proposed the WSA to focus on environmental sustainability, including in regards to waste-water and storm-water management, and an advanced power grid.

Q: What are the proposed responsibilities of the WSA?

The Waterfront Sustainability Association would be responsible for operating and overseeing four advanced sustainability systems in the IDEA District: the thermal grid, waste management system, advanced power grid, and storm-water management system. This includes:

  • issuing and overseeing operating contracts as needed;
  • monitoring compliance with and enforcing service contracts with private third-party operators, including contractual rates;
  • establishing a mechanism to hold operators accountable and fairly representing the interests of users in the district for systems that are not currently subject to public regulation; and
  • compiling and reviewing key operator performance metrics, including in relation to sustainability objectives.

Q: How would the WSA be funded?

Each system operator (e.g., thermal energy) would be responsible for paying certain fees, such as covering the costs for the Waterfront Sustainability Association to maintain operational oversight. System operators would also pay fees to the lead developer for advanced systems (initially Sidewalk Labs and later the public administrator). Participating operators would fund the WSA through fees prorated based on each operator’s revenue.

Q: What challenges does the WSA raise?

The creation of the Waterfront Sustainability Association as a new public entity, similar to the WTMA, would require amending existing or introducing new legislation. As with the WTMA, it’s unclear whether there is the political and public appetite for creating a new public agency to coordinate sustainability-related issues within a single neighbourhood. A risk is that the Waterfront Sustainability Organization would not be self-financing through the collection of fees from system operators, but would require an ongoing source of public funding to fulfill its responsibilities.

Key regulatory adjustments:

In order to implement its plans for sustainable storm-water management, permissions would be needed to the City of Toronto Act, Ontario Energy Board, Ontario Water Resources Act, and the City of Toronto Wet Weather Management Guidelines. For its thermal grid extensions, the plans would require permissions from Toronto District Heating Corporation Act, Public Utilities Act, and the City of Toronto Act.

Open Space Alliance

Q: What is the Open Space Alliance (OSA)?

As proposed by Sidewalk Labs, the Open Space Alliance would be a non-profit, non-governmental organization that would enter into public-private partnerships with the City of Toronto and private third-party entities (land owners/developers) to manage and coordinate various physical and digital infrastructure in public spaces in the Quayside, the River District, and the IDEA District.

Q: What stated need would the Open Space Alliance address?

Sidewalk Labs says the Public Realm Advisory Working Group urged it to consider “an innovative governance model for public space” and to work with the City of Toronto’s Parks, Forestry, and Recreation department to “structure a sustainable management and funding plan that would ensure public ownership of parks while allowing for innovation in programming, operations, and maintenance” (Sidewalk Labs 2019, Ch. 2, p. 197).

Q: What are the proposed responsibilities of the Open Space Alliance?

Sidewalk Labs proposes an ambitious range of roles that include maintenance of physical infrastructure, arts and cultural programing, piloting new technologies, and serving as a steward for open spaces across the IDEA District. In particular, the MIDP proposes that the OSA:

  • be responsible for the ongoing maintenance and management of green storm-water infrastructure in the River District;
  • play a central coordination function across programming, operations, and maintenance to maximize access and enjoyment of shared open spaces, including in former vehicular rights-of-ways;
  • administer physical and digital infrastructure that could help people shape and program shared spaces involving, for example, civic technologists running pilots in open public spaces;
  • work with building owners to install and manage prototypical architectural designs in outdoor spaces, particularly Sidewalk Labs’ proposed building raincoats that shelter sidewalks, fanshells that cover open spaces, and lantern forests that block pedestrians from wind between buildings;
  • fund the procurement of technology services that could help improve programming, operations, and maintenance;
  • fund and support technology-enabled arts and cultural programing, such as artist residencies and design competitions;
  • coordinate, administer and oversee the proposed innovative systems, such as district-wide green infrastructure, digital and physical infrastructure for public artworks and film shoots, weather mitigation, digital maintenance technologies, and new tools for community programming;
  • and, importantly, manage the physical and digital infrastructure delivered by Sidewalk Labs.

Q: How would the Open Space Alliance be funded?

Sidewalk Labs proposes the Open Space Alliance would be jointly financed and managed by public (e.g. Parks, Forestry & Recreation Division) and private stakeholders (e.g. land owners, local businesses) in partnership with the City of Toronto. Funding from the City of Toronto would be diverted from traditional city parks funding. Landlords and tenants in the IDEA District would fund OSA’s operational and capital expenses. Specifically, developers would pay the Open Space Alliance an “upfront green infrastructure fee” and a monthly maintenance fee for the construction and maintenance of water management infrastructure within the developers’ sites. In addition, the Open Space Alliance would receive revenue from sponsored events, special elements, and concessions.

Q: What would be required to implement the Open Space Alliance?

The Open Space Alliance would be created a non-profit organization. As proposed by Sidewalk Labs, it would be jointly governed and financed by the City of Toronto and private third parties, and the IDEA District community would also have input on the OSA’s operations. A portion of municipal park funding would be directed toward the OSA, and likely funding from other public sources would be required to ensure its ongoing viability. The OSA is proposed to replace certain roles currently undertaken by the City of Toronto Parks, Forestry & Recreation Division, including operations and maintenance of public spaces.

Q: What challenges does the Open Space Alliance raise?

As proposed, the Open Space Alliance would be responsible for a broad array of services, from maintenance of storm-water infrastructure, and the operation of public spaces and outdoor architectural features across the IDEA District to the operation and coordination of physical and digital technologies created by Sidewalk Labs, and supporting cultural and community programing. This diversity of services would be a challenging workload for any department, even when carried out across a relatively small area such as the IDEA District. In addition, Sidewalk Labs’ proposal that the OSA manage the physical and digital infrastructure delivered by Sidewalk Labs would appear to unfairly privilege one company over others.

The Parks, Forestry & Recreation Division at the City of Toronto would be affected as a portion of its funding would be diverted toward the OSA. This Division would also be affected as some of its roles and functions, such as the maintenance of public spaces, would be undertaken by the OSA within the IDEA District. The OSA would likely require an ongoing source of public funding in addition to the fees collected from developers and land owners. What’s unknown is the OSA’s governance structure, its legal authority, the specifics of its funding, and its relationship to existing non-governmental and governmental bodies working in public spaces, cultural programing and digital infrastructure.

Key regulatory adjustments:

In order to implement its plans for the outdoor comfort system using building raincoats, fanshells, and forest lanterns, amendments would be needed to the City of Toronto Municipal Code.

 Urban Data Trust

Q: What is the Urban Data Trust?

As proposed by Sidewalk Labs, the Urban Data Trust would be an independent non-profit entity that would govern the collection and use of what Sidewalk Labs terms “urban data” in the IDEA District. Urban data refers to data collected from the physical environment, such as parks, and it includes both personal information from identifiable individuals and non-identifiable data. Although Sidewalk Labs uses the term “data trust,” the company argues that it is not “a ‘trust’ in the legal sense” (Sidewalk Labs 2019, Ch. 5, p. 423). Instead this trust is a “legal structure that provides for independent stewardship of data,” a definition of a data trust from the Open Data Institute, a U.K. non-profit (Open Data Institute 2019, p. 2).

Q: What stated need would the Urban Data Trust address?

Sidewalk Labs says that an important theme it heard during the public consultation was the public’s concern with the ownership and stewardship of urban data. In response, Sidewalk Labs contends that the trust would create an accountable, transparent process to manage and approve the collection and use of urban data.

Q: What are the proposed responsibilities of the Urban Data Trust?

Generally, the trust would govern the collection, use, disclosure, and storage of urban data within the IDEA District. Applicants for data collection or use would make submissions to the trust to review and approval. This would involve reviewing the data to verify the applicant’s compliance with all applicable laws and an assessment that weighs the activities’ proposed benefits and the potential harms. The trust is also responsible for managing the access of publicly available data through data sharing agreements. The trust would have the authority to audit applicants as required and order the removal of data collection devices in the event of a violation.

Q: How would the Urban Data Trust be funded?

Applicants seeking to collect or use data in the IDEA District would pay a data collection and use-administration fee to cover the trust’s costs. However, it would be likely that the trust would require ongoing funds from government to maintain its operations. Sidewalk Labs proposes that the trust evolve into a public or quasi-public agency in the long term, and such an agency would most likely rely upon, at least in part, public funding.

Q: What would be required to implement the Urban Data Trust?

In the short term, Sidewalk Labs proposes that the trust be created as an independent, non-profit, non-governmental agency. This entity would operate by establishing legal agreements with all applicants who seek to collect or use data pertaining to the IDEA District. Those agreements, together with a set of legally binding rules drafted by the trust in consultation with its public and private stakeholders, would govern how data is collected, stored, used, and commercialized, would monitor compliance with its rules, and would take legal action against non-compliance. In this phase, Sidewalk Labs proposes that the trust’s focus in this phase would be Sidewalk Labs’ own data collection projects.

In the longer term, should the trust be transformed into a public-sector agency or a quasi-public agency, legislation would need to be amended or introduced and an ongoing source of public funding secured.

The trust, in consultation with relevant stakeholders and regulatory bodies, including the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, would need to determine where the publicly accessible data would be stored, unless the trust would also act as the data repository.

Q: What challenges does the Urban Data Trust raise?

How this trust would operate, its structure and regulatory powers, the source and scope of its legal authority, its possible sources of public funding, and its relation to other regulatory bodies and governmental departments within the city of Toronto and province remain unclear, as does the political and public appetite for creating a new public agency.

Another challenge in relation to the proposed data trust are the trustee’s roles in creating and enforcing rules regarding data collection, storage, protection, and use, including commercialization. Depending on how the regulatory body is structured and its legal authority, the data trustees, whether public or private actors, could have considerable regulatory power.

While understandable, it’s rather self-interested for Sidewalk Labs to submit that its projects should be first in line for consideration by a neophyte regulator that it proposed. More problematically, if the data trust goes ahead, Sidewalk Labs’ involvement with the trust in the first phase would likely shape discussions of how (or even if) the temporary trust should involve into something more permanent, perhaps in ways that serve Sidewalk Labs’ interests at the expense of other interested parties.

Waterfront Housing Trust

Q: What is the Waterfront Housing Trust?

Sidewalk Labs proposes that the Waterfront Housing Trust be established as a private trust that would act as a public-private financing entity to administer below-market housing program in the IDEA District. The IDEA Public Administrator would serve as the Trust’s sole trustee.

Q: What stated need would the Waterfront Housing Trust address?

The City of Toronto is facing a serious shortage of affordable housing and one of Waterfront Toronto’s priorities is housing affordability. In response, Sidewalk Labs proposes the creation of the Waterfront Housing Trust as a new financial vehicle to collect and distribute funding from a variety of sources, including a condo resale fee proposed for the IDEA District. The trust is intended to incubate alternative funding sources, including low-cost loans to reduce lending costs and improve funding predictability for developers of affordable housing.

Q: How would the Waterfront Housing Trust be funded?

Individuals selling condos within the IDEA District would pay a percentage of the sales price to support affordable housing. Sidewalk Labs contends that the Waterfront Housing Trust would collect these funds and pair them with existing funding sources, and use the combined funds for an affordable housing strategy for the IDEA District

Q: What challenges does the Waterfront Housing Trust raise?

As proposed, the Waterfront Housing Trust would aggregate funding from existing sources for affordable housing and pair this revenue with its new tax on condo resellers. Formal approval may need to be obtained from the entity currently responsible for distributing affordable housing funding.

 Key regulatory adjustments

The Waterfront Housing Trust would have to seek authorization to build units smaller than indicated in the Affordable Rental Housing Guidelines of the City of Toronto Affordable Housing Office. Approval would be needed from the City of Toronto Affordable Rental Housing Guidelines and Ontario Building Code. Sidewalk Labs notes that the Waterfront Housing Trust would also need approval from the federal government and City of Toronto in order to receive funding for a portfolio of properties, rather than development by development.

Assumptions and concerns

There are a number of unproven and unstated assumptions underlying Sidewalk Labs’ proposal of five management entities and a super-Public Administrator for the IDEA District.

  • Most seriously, there’s an assumption that the current distribution of services and responsibilities among multiple government departments is necessarily inefficient. It’s assumed that bringing together diverse responsibilities under one department will improve efficiency and responsiveness, especially when aided (somehow) with technology.
  • There’s also a risky assumption that user fees will be able to solely or largely support the creation and ongoing operation of these entities. However, there is no associated costing showing the estimated revenue from user fees or the projected costs of creating the new management entities.

Where more bureaucracy equals innovation?

Sidewalk Labs’ plan come with a heavy public bureaucratic burden, an odd thing to propose given that over the past several decades the move has been away from over-governance. It’s hard to see, for example, the current Ontario government and small-c conservative mayor of Toronto, embracing five new “management entities” a super-Public Administrator to govern a relatively small area of Toronto’s eastern waterfront.

For a plan that was supposed to provide “innovative” solutions to mobility and data governance, among other issues, there is a strong–and highly problematic–reliance upon traditional top-down governance mechanisms and public funding.

The issues discussed in this post should raise serious alarm bells for policymakers at the municipal, provincial and even federal levels of government, as well as among the general public, and force a reconsideration of this project.


Open Data Institute. (2019). Data Trusts.

Sidewalk Labs. (2019). Master Innovation and Development Report. Chapter 5: Digital Innovation.

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