Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 15: The MIDP Volume 1: The Plans, Introduction

In which I consider the line between fulfilling the RFP and overreaching it, reflect on the way Sidewalk Labs’ plan mirrors the long-discredited national-development strategies of the 1960s, dig a bit more into Sidewalk Labs’ desired rule-setting powers, and thank Sidewalk Labs for small mercies along the way.

Also: I have questions.

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

One down, three to go

As we move from the Overview to Volume 1, I’ve started to reflect on my decision to blog the entire Master Innovation and Development Plan. I’ve been something of a Negative Nancy when it comes to Sidewalk Labs’ literary style, which can only be described as “dauntingly unapproachable.”

But let no one say that Sidewalk Labs lacks compassion for the cursed souls doomed to read their masterwork from start to finish. Some 244 pages into Volume One, not even at the halfway point but exhausted and demoralized, Sidewalk Labs gave me exactly what my drained psyche needed.

A chapter (Public Engagement) repeated word-for-word from the Overview. The less charitable might whinge that this precise duplication is unnecessary padding designed to make the report seem both comprehensive (read: it’s so long it must be substantive) and unreadable, but I took it for what it obviously was: a quiet mercy for the weary, frustrated and exasperated reader.

I knew that this respite would be short-lived, but for those six pages (and in the many, many other instances of smaller repetitions) I could rest, secure in the knowledge that while these consultations ranged from problematic to laughable, I’d already covered them.

Thank you, Sidewalk Labs.

Introduction (pp. 16-23)

The RFP recognized the potential constraint of Quayside, at just five hectares, including a requirement to “describe your team’s ability and readiness to take the concepts and solutions deployed on Quayside to scale in future phases of waterfront revitalization.” The Plan Development Agreement describes the MIDP as including both plans for the Quayside parcel and “plans at scale.”

Consistent with these calls, Sidewalk Labs believes in a phased approach for testing, refining, and demonstrating the impact of core innovations, beginning with a smaller setting and working up to larger areas along the eastern waterfront as project objectives are achieved. Certain solutions cannot reach their full impact at the size of a small neighbourhood like Quayside while others do not become financially feasible at this smaller scale.

For these reasons, Sidewalk Labs has proposed a geography for the IDEA District that can meet or exceed the ambitious priority outcomes outlined by Waterfront Toronto, and do so in a way that is both financially achievable and replicable in other parts of Canada and around the world. (p. 18)

One’s thoughts on this section and its relationship with the Request for Proposals will determine whether you think that Sidewalk Labs is delivering on the RFP or overreaching it.

In the RFP, as Sidewalk Labs notes, Waterfront Toronto said it was looking for a partner that had thoughts on how to scale up any Quayside projects to the Eastern Waterfront, with the Plan Development Agreement calling for plans for Quayside and for “plans at scale.” (And recalling Waterfront Toronto’s pre-RFP interactions with Sidewalk Labs, as described by the Auditor General of Ontario.)

And Sidewalk Labs formally presents plans for Quayside and an overall “IDEA District.” However, whether or not you’re comfortable with Sidewalk Labs’ IDEA District plan will depend on whether you believe that Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside plans are functionally separate from their wider designs. This includes not only the “River District,” but most importantly “Villiers West,” where it wants to place Google’s Canadian branch headquarters.

For my part, my impression is that Sidewalk Labs in practice sees the IDEA District as being part of a single plan. This differs from what Waterfront Toronto was seeking in the original RFP, which envisioned the partner following Waterfront Toronto into the rest of the Eastern Waterfront, as parcels of land became available (i.e., to Waterfront Toronto), not a comprehensive development for more than Quayside.

That Sidewalk Labs is not presenting a Quayside development that might be expanded into the Eastern Waterfront, but rather a comprehensive plan for development of a huge swath of said waterfront is further reinforced by March 6, 2019, comments by Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel L. Doctoroff. In a Canadian Press interview, Doctoroff indicated that Sidewalk Labs will abandon the entire project if light rail is not extended to the Eastern Waterfront: “At the end of the day, if there is no light rail through the project, then the project is not interesting to us, to be perfectly honest.”

In the MIDP Overview, Sidewalk Labs frames the light rail as part of its Quayside-plus plans to develop at “geographic scale”:

Quayside alone is not large enough to support the financing of the proposed LRT extension, a major, new public work; the density across a larger area is needed to cover the projected cost. (p. 225)

Doctoroff’s comments, combined with Sidewalk Labs’ positioning of light rail in terms of its overall project, make it pretty clear that Sidewalk Labs is not proposing a self-contained Quayside development phase that could be scaled up as land becomes available, but rather a comprehensive Eastern Waterfront development project, of which Quayside is only one district, not a project in and of itself as envisioned in the RFP.

(Another question, which I could ask anywhere in this document: If Sidewalk Labs needs to change everything about these neighbourhoods, including ripping up all existing infrastructure, introducing new government authorities, and changing so many rules, how exportable will their technologies and processes be to cities that aren’t willing to change everything about themselves to satisfy Sidewalk Labs?)

Governance responsibilities: River District (not Quayside and Villiers West) (p. 21)

This part repeats much of what we’ve already seen in the Overview, but they’re worth noting again:

Planning and development: Led by Waterfront Toronto and the City of Toronto “working with various development partners.”

Waterfront Toronto would “lead the urban planning, design, infrastructure delivery, and real estate development associated with broader geographies along the eastern waterfront.” (p. 21) This sentence isn’t particularly clear, but it seems to give Waterfront Toronto responsibility for the non-River District lands (where it already has this authority).

“Revitalization lead for the IDEA District (the whole shebang): a new “public entity to serve – or in the case of Waterfront Toronto, continue to serve”

Sidewalk Labs would be responsible for:

  • Planning, design and implementation, including co-development (with Waterfront Toronto) of the “Innovative Design Guidelines and Standards” that will act as bylaws for the IDEA district. Given the skills mismatch between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, this power would effectively give Sidewalk Labs key governance powers in this district. Unanswered questions: Bylaws are more than just technical standards. How will they be set respecting fundamental principles of democratic accountability?
  • Tech support, deploying their key technologies – which assumes that they will conform to standards (set by Sidewalk Labs), including standardized (proprietary?) mount systems (created by Sidewalk Labs) which third parties would have to adapt.
  • “Optional infrastructure financing”

Applying this innovative planning approach across the full proposed IDEA District could spark a global hub for urban innovation along the eastern waterfront. (p. 21)

Question: How much of the anticipated global hub activity would be sparked by Google’s mere presence as opposed to these technologies? If the answer is Google’s presence is the catalyst, then why the need for such comprehensive regulatory reforms as envisioned by the MIDP?

To ensure that digital innovation aligns with the public interest, all digital proposals — including those by Sidewalk Labs — would be subject to approval from an independent entity tasked with over- seeing a transparent process for resposible data use, which would apply in addition to existing Canadian privacy laws. (p. 22)

Sidewalk Labs’ approach would integrate physical spaces, trusted delivery partners, and digital complements to enable a healthy and engaged community where every- one can grow, thrive, and belong. (p. 23)

Doing so would be an exercise in rule-setting, a governance function: another example of how Sidewalk Labs would privatize a city’s basic governance functions.

Underlying assumptions

urban development efforts have been stymied by the inability to deploy technology at geographic or (coordinated) administrative scale, non-existent technology, and market forces working against their deployment. (p. 22)

Each of these assumptions is open to question. Most generally it smacks of long-outdated 1960s, development theory associated with the late Samuel Huntington, where underdeveloped countries needed technocratic (i.e., dictatorial) governments and big industrial projects to spur a one-size-fits-all development. Spoiler: it didn’t’ work.

The assumption that merging a bunch of bureaucracies into a single entity (the “scale of coordination”) will make things better is also not as commonsensical as it seems. See, for example, Slate’s Fred Kaplan’s dissection of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which was created to try to solve a similar coordination problem for U.S. National Security. It’s been an organizational disaster.

As engineering professor Shoshanna Saxe remarked recently in the New York Times, smart city solutions take a complex problem – how to improve cities – and assume that there is only one possible solution: technology. It’s a utopian solution that ignores the bureaucracies that would be needed to run these centrally run systems, and the existence of lo-tech solutions.

In short, Sidewalk Labs is making a lot of assumptions that don’t hold up to scrutiny once the viewer is no longer dazzled by shiny (vapourware) tech.

Chapter 1: The Quayside Plan (pp. 24-253)

Introduction (pp. 26-45)

In which we are provided with some historical and geographical context for the Eastern Waterfront and Quayside.

This section also introduces the key aspects of their vision. I’m listing the main points below. This would’ve been a nice place to include hyperlinks to the detailed presentations of each section. But, as I’ve previously noted, this document is less technologically sophisticated than a Lonely Planet travel guide.

I’ll probably get into more detail in each, but what stands out about a lot of these proposals is how banal and non-techy they are. Light-rail extension has been on the books for years. Wide sidewalks, multi-purpose open spaces, traffic-flow don’t seem to require any special insights.

In other cases, they’re simply putting an appy sheen on such low-tech concepts as the landlord, multipurpose spaces, and community-centre schedulers.

Mobility (p. 40)

  • A self-financing light rail extension
  • A vast network of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure
  • New mobility services (ride hail, e-scooters, etc.)
  • An integrated mobility subscription (pay for all your transportation in one app)
  • A neighbourhood freight “logistics hub”
  • Mobility management system: including demand-based pricing for curb and parking spaces (read: Uber-style surge pricing)
  • Flexible street spaces called “dynamic” curbs (they’re loading zones! they’re public spaces!)
  • Adaptive traffic signals (“prioritize pedestrians who need more time to cross a street or transit vehicles running behind schedule”) – I’m certain this won’t cause any political headaches or frustrations from other pedestrians/drivers
  • A set of “people-first” street types (or, rather, prioritizing cars on some streets, bikes on others, and pedestrians elsewhere. Not exactly “people-first”)

Public Realm (p. 41)

  • People-first street designs (no curbside parking, wider sidewalks, more trees! Forward e-thinking from Sidewalk Labs)
  • Modular pavement (to allow for easier utility access. Maintenance costs?)
  • A proposed outdoor-comfort system (includes “Lanterns to block wind between buildings.” I will admit that I did not know that this was a problem.)
  • Flexible ground-floor “stoa” spaces: it’s not just retail! It covers “a lively mix of shops, restaurants, cafés, art installations, community gatherings, and maker studios.” Again, having been to actual cities that have exactly these types of mixes, I had no idea that this required a currently non-existent design innovation solution.
  • A leasing platform called Seed Space to book these spaces (Sidewalk Labs invents the monopoly real estate agent platform!)
  • Three primary open spaces … infused with flexibility (“a dynamic water feature and performance space … , barges on Parliament Slip, and multi-sport fields”)
  • Shared programming infrastructure (“would enable the community to program open spaces themselves.” Again, I had no idea that the ability for someone to control a park’s lighting and PA system (rather than a park superintendent) was an issue.
  • A real-time map of public realm assets (for maintenance purposes. Not a bad idea, but again, what’s the cost-benefit compared to the current way cities deal with broken streetlights?)

Buildings (p. 42)

  • the first neighbourhood built entirely of “mass timber” (issues: regulatory – will it be approved? technological: is this tech ready for mass use? overall: what does it mean for Sidewalk Labs’ plans if this technology doesn’t work out?)
  • An Ontario-based mass-timber factory (issue: what happens when other factories come online? Guaranteed production deal? Would such a deal stand up to a World Trade Organization challenge?)
  • A digital coordination system (Sidewalk Digital Fabrication) to coordinate the mass timber supply chain (this is awfully inside baseball; why is it here?)
  • Quayside: adaptable “Loft” spaces to accommodate residential, commercial, light manufacturing (issue: this is more of a regulatory challenge than a technological one. Why is this currently not allowed?)
  • A system of flexible wall panels to allow for easy Loft renovations and adaptations to “market conditions.” This is how office spaces are currently organized.
  • Low-voltage digital power connections (over ethernet cables) to reduce fire risks “and facilitate quicker renovations”
  • Mist-based sprinklers
  • New form of fire protection (Shikkui plaster); “with a fraction of the waste”
  • A proposed “outcome-based” building code system (basically changing the standards used to regulate neighbourhoods). Claim: it can be done “without sacrificing public safety or comfort.” But this assumes that everyone will agree on what these standards should be. Prediction: This type of agreement is a pipe dream. There will always be tradeoffs between public safety and comfort because people honestly don’t agree on how these should be prioritized.

Housing (p. 43)

  • A mixed-income housing program (20% affordable; 25% of this would be for “‘deep’ affordability”; 20% middle-income units)
  • Middle income housing options would include “shared-equity” units (no idea what this is; will return to this)
  • Half of all proposed housing: “‘purpose-built’ rentals”
  • A set of efficient and ultra-efficient units. Read: really, really, ridiculously small apartments
  • This approach of “affordability by design” would enable the creation of 87 more units than in a conventional development. Claim: this will create “$37 million of value that could be applied toward below-market housing.” To look out for: do they claim credit for this supposed savings? How do they account for it in their figures.
  • A set of co-living units. How is this different from a rooming house or a house with roommates? Also: does anyone outside their twenties enjoy having roommates?
  • 40% of housing: two bedrooms or more.

Sustainability (p. 44)

  • Low-energy battery design
  • A proposed suite of energy “schedulers”
  • A district energy system called a thermal grid (no fossil fuels)
  • Advanced power grid (solar energy, battery storage (status of technology?), time-based energy pricing (discounts for lower-income?)
  • Innovative bill structure modeled on mobile phone plans. Because everyone loves and understand their mobile phone plans.
  • A smart disposal chain (“real-time feedback to improve waste sorting and ‘pay-as-you-throw’ chutes to reduce household and business waste.”) Many cities already have per-bag garbage disposal. Waste sorting’s problems aren’t at the community level; the entire system is broken.
  • An underground pneumatic tub system (to help with the waste sorting).
  • An active stormwater system.

Social infrastructure (p. 45)

  • A Care Collective: space for health care and social services (not sure who would run or regulate it)
  • A Civic Assembly: same questions.
  • An elementary school, co-located with a childcare centre
  • A proposed collaboration with the Toronto Public Library, such as “potential pop-up lending services” (aka an eBookmobile).
  • An online resource called Collab could allow community members to decide on public space programming (Sidewalk Labs reinvents the scheduler!)
  • The Sidewalk Labs jobs program

Digital Innovation (p.46)

  • A ubiquitous connectivity network.
  • Standardized physical mounts (proprietary?).
  • Open, published standard to make “properly protected urban data accessible to the community in real time, and make it easy for third parties to build new services or competitive alternatives to existing ones.” (On which much more later, but for now, note the assumption privileging competition and churn over stability in public services. Choice might work for pizza companies, it doesn’t necessarily hold that it works for basic public services.)
  • A best-in-class approach to security and resiliency (although if it’s online, it can be hacked.)
  • Build on existing privacy laws, a proposed independent Urban Data Trust (on which more later) (new bureaucracy)
  • The proposed Urban Data Trust would be tasked with establishing clear Responsible Data Use Guidelines (new rules)
  • A publicly transparent Responsible Data Use Assessment (new rules)

The need for regulatory changes (covered in Volume 3)

Sidewalk Labs also recognizes that these types of changes require significant review and analysis by public agencies at multiple levels and understands how challenging this process can be. (p. 47)

Sidewalk Labs has begun discussions with Waterfront Toronto and government officials and looks forward to working through these complex challenges with the applicable authorities within each order of government.

Suggested Questions

  1. How do these discussions fit with Sidewalk Labs’ and Waterfront Toronto’s timelines, which currently sees approval preceding regulatory changes?
  2. Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs have no power or authority to compel these changes. What happens if some or all of them are denied?
  3. How will they affect Sidewalk Labs’ calculation of project benefits, which currently assume the best possible outcomes?
  4. Which approvals are essential to this project? Which ones are desirable but not essential?

Tomorrow: Volume 1, Part 1: Development Plan. I can hardly wait.

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