Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Bonus entry 6: Review period extended

Yesterday afternoon Waterfront Toronto announced that it and Sidewalk Labs had amended the July 2018 Plan Development Agreement (new version here and on my MIDP page; news release here). The key changes are (quoting from the news release):

  • Extending the review process for the Master Innovation and Development Plan until March 2020 to allow “Waterfront Toronto more time to receive public feedback on the MIDP and to undertake an expert evaluation of it prior to making a recommendation to its Board of Directors.”
  • Terminating the agreement “should certain threshold issues outlined by Waterfront Toronto’s Board Chair not be resolved” by October 31, 2019.

These “threshold issues” mentioned in Chair Stephen Diamond’s open letter are:

  • Geographical over-reach: “Sidewalk Labs proposes the up-front creation of an IDEA District that covers a much larger area than the 12 acres of Quayside. Waterfront Toronto has told Sidewalk Labs that the concept of the IDEA District is premature and that Waterfront Toronto must first see its goals and objectives achieved at Quayside before deciding whether to work together in other areas. Even then, we would only move forward with the full collaboration and support of the City of Toronto, particularly where it pertains to City-owned lands.”
  • Procurement: “Sidewalk Labs proposes to be the lead developer of Quayside. This is not contemplated in the PDA. Should the MIDP go forward, it should be on the basis that Waterfront Toronto lead a competitive, public procurement process for a developer(s) to partner with Sidewalk Labs.”
  • Many issues beyond Waterfront Toronto’s control: “Sidewalk Labs’ proposals require future commitments by our governments to realize project outcomes. This includes the extension of public transit to Quayside prior to development, new roles for public administrators, changes to regulations, and government investment. These proposals raise important implementation concerns. They are also not commitments that Waterfront Toronto can make.”
  • Fundamental digital governance issues: “Sidewalk Labs has initial proposals relating to data collection, data use, and digital governance. We will require additional information to establish whether they are in compliance with applicable laws and respect Waterfront Toronto’s digital governance principles.”

Extending consultations was the right move

Waterfront Toronto has done the right thing in extending the consultations, something that I have argued for several times over the past month. This extension recognizes that it was unrealistic to expect the public, other government agencies and even Waterfront Toronto to conduct a thorough review of this document in a few rushed weeks. This is particularly true since the MIDP was seemingly designed to be as difficult to understand as possible.

This extension is also significant because it overturns Sidewalk Labs’ proposed (and, frankly, unrealistic) timelines. Sidewalk Labs had initially proposed that the initial approvals for Quayside be completed by the first quarter of 2020 (Volume 3, p. 197).  This extension presents Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto with an opportunity to propose realistic deadlines and takes artificial time pressures off the table.

Six months, moreover, actually fits with my back-of-the-envelope thinking about how much time a thorough consultation would require to deal with the MIDP as currently constituted. That said, the extent of the changes Sidewalk Labs would need to make to its MIDP to make it acceptable to Waterfront Toronto (discussed below) means that even this six-month extension may not be long enough.

Now that Waterfront Toronto has reduced the false arbirary-deadline-fuelled urgency around this project, it must now design a reasonable consultation process, one that does not require the public to review a new MIDP every few months. (Also, I want to get back to my life.) We need concrete deadlines.

An obvious progression would be for Sidewalk Labs to deliver a revised MIDP that responds to Waterfront Toronto’s requirements by October 31 (or late November at the latest, if Sidewalk Labs indicates that it is willing and able to make the required changes by October 31). Because the current MIDP is effectively a non-starter, Waterfront Toronto should scrap its Fall public consultations (although of course it should continue its own analysis and discussions with relevant government agencies). Consultations could run from January to March 2020, after Waterfront Toronto has received a revised MIDP and the public has had enough time to process it. Then it can report, and the Board can make its decision.

Waterfront Toronto’s “off ramp”

As David Skok noted on Twitter, the October 31 deadline to resolve the above issues provides Waterfront Toronto with a clear “off ramp” to end its relationship with Sidewalk Labs. The issues identified by Diamond, while not an exhaustive compilation of all of the problems with this report, are fundamental enough to require a complete revision of the entire plan:

  • The MIDP does not only propose some plans beyond Quayside; its fundamental pitch is that Sidewalk Labs would develop the entire “IDEA District” or nothing at all. Quayside is not treated as a viable development project in and of itself.
  • Similarly, as far as I can tell, almost all of the economic development promise of Sidewalk Labs’ plans is based on bringing Google to Villiers West (out of scope of the original RFP) and creating a mass-timber industry (which would only be viable in Sidewalk Labs’ telling at the IDEA District level).
  • The MIDP basically assumes away the enormous and time-consuming issue of getting various levels of government to change laws and regulations. Even when a government wants to make changes, these takes time. And there is almost always opposition to legislative projects, for any number of reasons, not necessarily nefarious.
  • And that’s without pointing out that governments change, they have their own agendas, and they move at their own speed. Neither Waterfront Toronto nor Sidewalk Labs (even backed by Google) necessarily have the pull to impose their wills on governments that have decided they don’t want to play ball.
  • A realistic, revised plan would have to allocate much, much more time to getting these changes, and would have to include contingency plans for situations in which such reviews are not forthcoming.
  • Also, to make this project work, Sidewalk Labs had to invent any number of new agencies. Waterfront Toronto is right to be concerned about these proposals. They are, in a word, undercooked, failing to provide any sense of the resources (human and financial) that would be needed to run them, and completely ignoring the political realities of carving out new bureaucracies out of the existing city to serve a relatively tiny part of said city. Much more in upcoming posts.
  • I was very happy to see Sidewalk Labs’ proposed procurement role be called out. This is not a governance role you want to give to a private company.
  • As for the digital governance issues, yes. The MIDP places so many conditions on Sidewalk Labs’ supposed commitments to privacy, all the while inventing and repurposing terms (“urban data,” “trust”) to suit its own interests, that it’s almost impossible to trust (normal sense of the word) anything the company says about data and surveillance. There’s also the reality that these issues are best dealt with at the provincial and/or federal level, not in the context of a tiny waterfront development. Again, more in later posts.

Next steps

Given these concerns from Waterfront Toronto, it’s hard to see how Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP survives in anything resembling its current form. This means that the most likely outcomes are either the cancellation of the PDA by October 31 or a much-truncated development plan in which Sidewalk Labs rolls out its limited suite of technologies (e.g., smart awnings). In any case, we’re going to learn in Sidewalk Labs was bluffing when CEO Daniel L. Doctoroff said that they wouldn’t be interested in a development project that didn’t include light rail.

That Waterfront Toronto has extended the consultations doesn’t solve everything, of course. As I argued in my submission to Waterfront Toronto, the deal itself is fatally flawed and should be rejected. If Waterfront Toronto wants to undertake smart city-like projects, it needs first to develop the internal expertise to propose and evaluate these programs, not outsource the planning to an outside company.

Furthermore, it remains the case that Waterfront Toronto is isolated from public pressure; while parts of the current MIDP remain out of its control, the decision to accept or reject it rests only with Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto’s (appointed) board.

Quayside should be a federal election issue

Given that much of the initial pressure to do this deal came from Ottawa, and that the federal government appoints four of the board’s 12 directors, the upcoming federal election offers a rare opportunity for Torontonians to make opinions heard.

The election will be on October 21, at the latest. This is 10 days before the October 31 “off ramp,.” Torontonians should insist that local candidates and the leaders of the federal parties commit to replacing its current appointees with members who will commit to severing Waterfront Toronto’s relationship with Sidewalk Labs.

For my part, I’m going to continue blogging the MIDP in its current form. Whatever happens, October is shaping up to be an interesting month.


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