Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Bonus Entry 7: The Toronto Star, Sidewalk Labs, and the tediousness of Us v Them journalism

Over and over again

Monday’s Toronto Star editorial praising Sidewalk Labs’ waterfront proposal as preferable to the local-developer-beholden status quo is the type of article that drives policy experts up the wall. Political journalists’ tendency to reduce any policy issue to a tribal battle royale is a sadly accurate truism, as we relearn every election season. And it comes at a real cost to substantive political debate.

(Bianca Wylie also has a very good response to said editorial. Check it out.)

This tendency is on full display in this empty-calorie editorial. It simultaneously turns a complex policy issue – the suitability of Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan – into a left-right political horse race (“Suddenly the critics of Sidewalk Labs, especially those on the left, seem happy to embrace the premier’s judgment about what’s best for the waterfront”) while invoking a false dichotomy (“Because Sidewalk Labs is a terrible deal for traditional developers … that’s one reason it has real potential to be good for the rest of us”).

This us-versus-them argument is the type you make if you are either unwilling or unable to discuss issues of actual substance.

Rather than injecting some desperately needed fact-based analysis into the local Sidewalk Labs debate, the august minds at the Star go straight to Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s possible motivations for saying that it’s a “terrible deal for the taxpayers” while also insinuating that Sidewalk Labs critics (of which I am definitely one) are agreeing with Ford purely for political reasons. Oh, and asserting that the project’s opponents are “shortsighted” complainers standing in the way of what will be a glorious urban development.

It’s a neat trick: accusing the project’s opponents of lacking substance while failing to actually make a single substantive argument in favour of the actual, as opposed to imagined, project.

For the record, I’ve little doubt that Doug Ford has the best interests of Ontario condo developers at heart, or that the status quo is ugly condo buildings all the way down.

But that doesn’t mean that Sidewalk Labs’ plan is a positive alternative for Torontonians as this editorial assumes, and that just by its mere existence “it has real potential to be good for the rest of us” (i.e., non-developers). That’s the kind of conclusion you can only come to if you haven’t dug into the substance of the MIDP.

Ford is correct. Deal with it

Here’s the thing: The Star editorial never takes seriously Ford’s claim. Instead, it seems to assume that because Ford said it, it must be wrong, and even if he’s correct his motives are corrupt so there’s no need to think about the substance of his claim.

This is a problem for two reasons. First, it moves us further away from a fact-based world in which assertions can be confirmed or rejected based on the truth of the assertion, and toward a world in which something is considered true if someone on “our team” says it.

Second, as it happens, in this case Ford is correct: this is a bad deal for taxpayers.

In saying this I’m not embracing “the premier’s judgment.” I didn’t come to this conclusion because I’m a lefty, Sidewalk Labs-hatin’, Ford-worshipin’, tech-despisin’ luddite. I came to it because I actually read the entire report. Very, very closely. And in reading it I emerged with an (informed) opinion about it, one that drew on what I’ve learned over 20 years as (at varying times) a professional economist, a professor of political science, and an analyst for various federal parliamentary committees. This last role, which involved drafting many committee reports, proved very useful in helping me realize that the MIDP is a sales document, not a substantive plan.

Team substance

Like many others who are experts in data governance, intellectual property, innovation, urban governance and so forth and who are not very fond of this whole exercise, I’m drawing my conclusions from professional expertise, not from any tribal allegiance. When you come at an issue from a perspective of personal expertise or experience and if someone says something that you think is correct, you’ll agree with them, no matter their political affiliation.

In short, I’m not on Team Ford or Team Progressive. I’m interested in the substantive issue.

It should also go without saying that just because somebody agrees with someone on one issue doesn’t mean they’ll agree with them on everything. Most grown-ups are capable of making such distinctions.

(And even if we’re just talking politics, the Star should try asking ultra-right-wing developer-friendly leftist NDP Sidewalk Labs critic Charlie Angus if he thinks that the MIDP is a “terrible deal for the taxpayers.”)

For my part, just because I have some expertise in this area doesn’t mean that my analysis is infallible, but I’m not wrong in the opinions-of-the-earth’s-shape-differ manner that the Star editorial staff is deploying here. This is not a political opinion I’m expressing.

I’d be happy for someone to point out where I’ve gotten something wrong. One of the reasons I’ve undertaken this blogging project is precisely because I want to hear from others who have read the report to let me know where I’ve misunderstood something. That’s how academics roll.

Of course, to do that, you’d have to actually have read the report and counter my analysis with actual evidence.

Sadly, the Star editorial board shows no signs in helping us reach any kind of deeper understanding of the Sidewalk Labs project. Almost two months after Sidewalk Labs unleashed its behemoth on Toronto, the Star here is treating the MIDP as a serious policy document merely because it exists, rather than dissecting it to see if its claims actually adds up.

Because, yeah, it would be great “if Sidewalk Labs actually managed to pull off its grand vision of environmentally sustainable buildings with a welcome share of rental housing, family-sized units and greater affordability.”

Unfortunately, based on my reading of the MIDP, this vision is little more than a pipe dream that follows the Silicon Valley playbook of “Overpromise and underdeliver” à la Elon Musk.  But again, that’s just what I concluded based on two decades of relevant experience and having actually read the report.

A desperate plea for substance

Here’s my challenge to the Toronto Star: Rather than treating this issue like a hockey game or a morality play (Progressives v Evil Ford; the Star versus Evil Developers), tell us why you think the MIDP is a good deal for taxpayers, and in what specific ways it is preferable to the status quo.

Tell us why and how you think that Sidewalk Labs, a company with no track record, is capable of realizing its “grand vision.”

Tell us why you think that Toronto’s only choice is between Sidewalk Labs’ plan and the status quo.

Run a series covering each of Sidewalk Labs’ promised innovations. Interview actual experts to see which ones are actually viable.

And while you’re at it, tell us why you think that its “innovative” governance proposals, which would create five new agencies and give Sidewalk Labs control over foundational standards, is preferable to the status quo.

Actually look into how situating Google in the heart of the Toronto tech scene would affect Canadian technological development.

Oh, and you can also tell us why you think it’s “shortsighted” to be concerned about Sidewalk Labs’ “urban data” (a term they coined that obscures much more than it illuminates) approach to data governance.

Or why it’s not a concern that so much of their innovative affordable housing plans seems to hinge on changing Toronto’s rules on how small a legal apartment is allowed to be.

Of course, to do all this you would have to actually engage in substantive analysis, instead of playing yet another tedious game of Us v Them.

Do better, Toronto Star.

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

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