Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 10: The MIDP Overview I: Format and first impressions

Previous Master Innovation and Development Plan liveblog entries and relevant documents available here

And so we get … finally … to the main event. As you’d expect from an overview of a three-volume report, there’s a lot to cover in the Overview, far more than would  comfortably fit in a single post. It’s also, as I note below, heavily back-loaded, so it also doesn’t make sense just to do a straightforward, page-by-page analysis.

As a result, I’m going to highlight a few key points of interest over several posts. First, some comments on the Overview’s overall format and some general impressions.

Not designed to be easily read

As a former parliamentary committee staffer, I’ve written my fair share of reports. As an academic I’ve read even more. Good reports lead with a summary of purpose and findings. If they’re built on consultations, they include an appendix listing every relevant meeting. The report is divided into discrete sections, with recommendations (if needed) serving as their logical endpoint. Recommendations are summarized in a separate section.

These kinds of reports are, in short, designed to be read and understood.

Based on my experience, I’m fairly confident that the Overview of Sidewalk Labs’ long-awaited, and long-delayed, Master Innovation and Development Plan, was not designed to be read, but to overwhelm.

200 pages of preamble, 39 pages of substance

The Overview starts off with a 201-page public-relations preamble designed to bedazzle with the possibilities of a Smart City; in other words, much of it is a recapitulation of Sidewalk Labs’ original Project Vision with a few substantive additions sprinkled throughout.

These two hundred pages are followed by 39 pages in which they get down to business. At the end of the day, Sidewalk Labs’ ask is extensive but pretty straightforward, and they do an able job of summarizing it in those 39 pages at the end of the Overview. Anyone wanting to understand exactly what Sidewalk Labs is proposing – and, more importantly, what it is asking for – should start on page 203, and maybe dip into the previous pages as needed.

Not designed for easy analysis

On format, this is a 254-page document released online initially on June 24 only as a 127-page pdf, which meant lots of zooming and moving the document around the screen. On July 15, Sidewalk Labs released a “printer friendly version” of the whole report, although only in separate files. So, those of you who waited before diving in, congratulations – your reading experience will be better than mine was.

There are no hyperlinks within the document, meaning that endnotes (always more difficult to consult that footnotes) and references to other places in the document or the report rely on written prompts. As a result, this document, from a subsidiary of the world’s leading online company, is less technologically advanced than your typical Lonely Planet guidebook.

There is no executive summary. There’s not even an overarching table of contents for the entire report (in one place, I mean), let alone an index. There is no master pdf, to allow for easy comparisons between chapters. (I may not have access to Google’s resources, but I’ve put one together. It comes out to 1,496 pages, but there are a lot of blank and photo-only pages in there. Substantively, it’s much shorter, but you have to wade through the sales rhetoric to find the substance. If I have time later, I’ll see how long it actually is once its many superfluous design elements are eliminated.)

That’s not to say there aren’t some telling points in those first two hundred pages, but you have to wade through a lot of vapourware to find them.

In reviewing this document, I’m going to try to ignore the platitudes and starry-eyed “coulds” (this aspirational term appearing 101 times in the Overview) to focus on exactly what Sidewalk Labs is proposing.

First impressions

  • Although the Plan Development Agreement, as I noted in Entry 9, stated that the MIDP was supposed to be a jointly undertaken exercise, the MIDP is branded solely as a Sidewalk Labs’ production.
  • In the Foreword, Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel L. Doctoroff claims that the MIDP “reflects 18 months of input from more than 21,000 Torontonians; all levels of government; dozens of meetings with local experts, non-profits, and community stakeholders; and the research, engineering, and design work of more than 100 local firms” (p. 13). No list of meetings is provided. No complete breakdown of participants by activity is provided. Nor, for example, are we provided with the names of Sidewalk Labs’ Resident Reference Panelists. All we get, in Part 2 of the project Background (pp. 54-65), is a high-level overview of aggregate numbers.
  • Sidewalk Labs seems to have deviated very little from its original Project Vision or from the priorities laid out in the Plan Development Agreement, finding that the public sentiment is largely in accord with its vision.
  • The most significant change to its plans, other than its explicitly Quayside-plus focus, seems to be a commitment not to monetize Quayside (etc.) data or provide it to Google “without explicit consent,” a timber skyscraper-sized loophole. However, it is also demanding to be paid for this qualified act of generosity, or what it refers to as making “a number of constraining unilateral commitments with regard to the commercialization of data.” It has, we are informed, “structured the business model, in response to feedback from a range of stakeholders, in ways that limit its opportunity for upside elsewhere – by forgoing revenue streams that might be less directly connected to the public interest or sought by more conventional companies.” As a result, it argues that it should be compensated with supplemental performance payments (p. 238).
  • While the MIDP Overview is much more direct in everything from its plan for remuneration (also: Sidewalk Labs finally reveals how it plans to make money from Quayside!) to exactly how much land they want to develop (tl;dr: Quayside isn’t enough for us to stay interested), it still overemphasizes, via those first 200 pages, all the cool things they “could” develop.
  • Sidewalk Labs is proposing a best-case scenario that almost certainly won’t come to pass. Some of this tech is not going to work out because that’s the nature of innovation. That’s why it would be a mistake to base one’s analysis of their proposal on what their proposed technologies (most of which don’t yet exist) could do, and not on the governance aspects of this proposal, and on Sidewalk Labs’ suitability as either a partner or co-regulator. At the very least, Sidewalk Labs should cost alternative scenarios in the other volumes; if they don’t, an independent body needs to do this.
  • Along those lines, the claimed benefits for this project assume that everything works perfectly. What I want to know: To what extent will Sidewalk Labs’ assumed economic, social and environmental gains be compromised if, for example:
    • Timber skyscrapers don’t work or aren’t approved?
    • automated cars don’t work out?
    • the City balks at prioritizing waterfront light rail?
  • Absent cost-benefit calculations: The Overview does not provide a cost-benefit analysis of many of the technologies they are proposing. For example, delivery trucks may be a real bummer, but what is the relative cost compared to Sidewalk Labs’ proposed underground tunnels, or even to, say, smaller delivery trucks of the kind I saw everywhere during my year in Germany? The absence of this systematic analysis necessarily leads to an overstatement of the touted technological benefits of its proposal.
  • IDEA District or bust: Sidewalk Labs won’t play ball if this project isn’t expanded beyond Quayside, and most of its touted benefits are based on them getting everything they’re asking for.
  • Sidewalk Labs really, really, really wants light rail to be extended to the Eastern Waterfront, and they’re willing to, um, loan the city money to do it.
  • Truly, the era of smaller government is over: Sidewalk Labs sure is proposing a lot of new government oversight mechanisms (read: bureaucracies), including the restructuring or replacement of Waterfront Toronto. I believe the kids call that a “power move.”
  • Sidewalk Labs underplays the role of standards-setting in this document. There’s a lot of power and influence to be had in creating, say, the standards for automated shipping and delivery containers and systems that will only work efficiently if deployed on a scale much larger than the Eastern Waterfront.
  • Huge scope expansion: The Plan Development Agreement and RFP were pretty clear that it would be Quayside first, and then, possibly (probably?) other parts of the Eastern Waterfront. Sidewalk Labs seems to be treating their Innovative Design and Economic Acceleration (or IDEA, because of course it is) District as a single package. Basically, they’re reframing the deal by renaming the land to fit their preferred geography. None of Waterfront Toronto’s previous related documents, as far as I know, have referred to “The River District.”
  • Sidewalk Labs’ pretty obvious effort to reframe the scope of the project to cover far more than Quayside has created a situation in which it is asking (or demanding) more than Waterfront Toronto can provide on its own.
    • However, one can discern a strategy at play. As the Auditor General of Ontario remarks, Waterfront Toronto’s original goal with the RFP, seems to have been to leverage its control over Quayside into more-direct control over the entire Eastern Waterfront (in order to develop it).
    • Sidewalk Labs’ plan fulfills this objective, although maybe not in a way that Waterfront Toronto foresaw.
    • This type of takeover was always going to be bureaucratically messy, but my reading of the original RFP leads me to think that Waterfront Toronto intended to have its private-sector partner help to ease the way for Waterfront Toronto’s consolidation of control over the Eastern Waterfront — again, in order to develop it, which is its mission, after all. In this sense, Sidewalk Labs’ proposal might be seen as a huge win for Waterfront Toronto.
    • The MIDP may or may not be a good plan. While this distinction is hugely consequential for residents, from Waterfront Toronto’s perspective, the fact that this plan exists may be all that matters to them.
  • A centrally planned community: “The innovations are designed to work together to create diverse, thriving, mixed-income neighbourhoods” (p. 37). If these innovations are designed to work together, what happens if one or more innovations (e.g., self-driving cars) turn out to be infeasible?

That’s enough for now. More tomorrow.

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