Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 36: The MIDP Volume 2, The Innovations, Chapter 5: Digital Innovation, Part 4; Public engagement

Ending our five-run digital-innovation posts, which were written “from the internet up.” Includes some thoughts on “public engagement.”

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

Part 4: Launching Core Digital Services That Others Can Build On (pp. 442-453)

This is the platform, Sidewalk Labs as intermediary.

Sidewalk Labs plans to offer this limited set of core digital services in cases where achieving fundamental project goals around transportation, affordability, housing, energy, public space, and other areas would require an innovation the market has not pursued. (p. 443)

other entities would be free to develop competing services. (p. 443)

I’m not sure how much competition Sidewalk Labs would for the provision of core services.

Its proposed services

  • Mobility management system: to “coordinate all travel modes, traffic signals, and street infrastructure, and apply demand- based pricing to curb and parking spaces.” (p. 444)
  • Outdoor comfort system: “A proposed system of outdoor-comfort tools, deployed in real time, … including building “raincoats” to block rain, awnings to provide shade, and fanshells to provide group cover.” (p. 444)
  • Flexible retail platform (Seed Space): “A proposed leasing platform [that] would help small businesses and other retailers book a wide range of ground-floor space sizes … .” (p. 445)
  • Open space usage and management (CommonSpace): “A proposed digital application [that] … would make it substantially easier, faster, and less expensive to collect more reliable data on how people use public spaces… .” (p. 445)
  • Public realm maintenance map: “A proposed real-time map of public realm assets … .” (p. 445)
  • Civic engagement (Collab): “A proposed digital application … would aim to engage community… .” (p. 446)
  • Outcome-based building code: A proposed “real-time building code system could monitor noise, nuisances, and structural integrity” (p. 446)

Of note: Sidewalk Labs argues that it can be deployed “without sacrificing public safety or comfort.” (p. 446) However, safety and comfort are in the eye of the beholder, and no law will ever satisfy everyone. So I’d take the claims for this recommendation with a grain of salt.

  • Active stormwater management: A proposed system that “would rely on green infrastructure and digital sensors to retain stormwater, reuse it for irrigation, and empty storage containers in advance of a storm to avoid combined sewer overflow.” (p. 446)
  • Energy Management System (schedulers): A “proposed system of Home, Office, and Building Operator Schedulers [to] automate energy use to optimize residential, commercial, and building heating, cooling, and electricity systems.” (p. 447)
  • Building Waste Management systems: A proposed system that would “help residents and businesses sort their trash, recyclables, and organics (foods) by illustrating common sorting mistakes.” (p. 447)

We’ve discussed the proposals below elsewhere, so I’m just going to list them here.

Spotlight (not a goal?) 1: An outcome-based building code system to enable a safe, vibrant mix of uses (pp. 448-449)

Spotlight 2: An Office Scheduler to optimize energy use (pp. 450-451)

Spotlight 3: A mobility management system to reduce congestion and improve safety (pp. 452-453)

Public Engagement (pp. 454-462)

I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been so annoyed by the Public Engagement sections in this Volume, and I think I know what the problem is: the stories that they’re telling are too pat. The Public (21,000 people!) talked, Sidewalk Labs listened. Each chapter is illustrated with an example of this type of feedback.

However, there are a few tells that this is more of a feel-good public-relations exercise than an account of consequential public consultations. I’ll illustrate with my own experience, focusing on my time as a researcher for the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance.

Every year, the Finance Committee, supported by two or three economist staffers, would hold several months of hearings, some lasting all day, and including hearings across the country, on what Canadians wanted to see in the upcoming federal budget. We heard from hundreds of people and organizations about everything you could imagine. If you could attach a dollar sign to it, someone talked about it.

For an economist interested in public policy, it was a dream assignment: Every year I received what seemed like my own detailed update on the state of the entire economy, from coast to coast to coast.

Our job as the economists/analysts attached to the committee, was to prepare background materials and questions for the committee members and then go through all of the written and oral testimony to write up a report detailing what the committee heard, and what it would recommend to the government for the budget. Once the draft was completed it would then be scrutinized, revised and eventually approved by the committee (sometimes with dissents, sometimes not).

In writing the report, we analysts had two main objectives. First, we had to represent all of the voices that submitted to the extent that we were able. This is because it was important that every citizen who took the time to appear before the committee felt like they were being heard, and therefore respected, by their elected representatives.

It was a job we all took seriously, and overall I think we did pretty well.

Our second objective was to formulate recommendations – the meat of the report – reflecting the will of the committee. To be clear, these weren’t the researchers’ recommendations; they were what we gathered the committee wanted from talking with the members (the Chair, an MP from the governing party, of course playing a key role) and watching how the hearings were playing out. The recommendations, like the overall report, belonged to the elected MPs; we analysts were merely the ones writing it up.

The recommendations were, of course, political, and they were often arrived at  in discussion with the (partisan) committee chair, who certainly had their own (partisan) views on what the recommendations should be and the votes to push them through if needed. However, during my time, they were also conscious that the more cross-party support you can muster for a report, the better (different governments and chairs may behave differently).

I digress a bit. The important point is this: the recommendations were pretty much always based on the testimony we heard in committee. As corny as it sounds, Canadians really did have a hand in writing these reports.

And here’s the clincher: we didn’t just include testimony that agreed with the final recommendation, because people disagree, in good faith, all the time even about the most seemingly innocuous issues. And it’s only fair to represent these ideas, even if the report ended up recommending something different. We were still drafting a political document that had to justify what the committee was recommending, but we also had to respect Canadians’ dissenting opinions.

Which brings us to one of the problems with the MIDP: It’s all too neat. People talked; Sidewalk Labs listened, and what they heard almost always confirmed almost exactly what they were going to do.

The other thing that makes it hard to take Sidewalk Labs’ public consultations seriously is the lack of detail. Any parliamentary committee report includes with it the names of the people who drafted it, including (from time to time) outside consultants. It also includes the name of every single meeting held, and a list of the witnesses who appeared before or submitted something to the committee. And every time someone was quoted, their name was attached to what they said. There was, in other words, a paper trail of evidence supporting what was in our reports.

Sidewalk Labs’ consultations reports, in contrast, are a wonder of anonymity. The members of their various councils and advisory groups are nowhere named. People who made interventions in public fora also go unnamed. The dates, times and participants in the many, many meetings with various officials that Sidewalk Labs claimed are nowhere here documented. The nature of the participation by the 21,000 people who supposedly participated in this consultation is not described.

The lack of detail regarding their consultations makes it impossible to see Sidewalk Labs’ public consultations as anything other than a public-relations exercise. Returning briefly to the world of politics, what these Public Engagement sections most closely resemble are a politician’s stump speech in which they claim that the everyday folk support their party’s policies. These type of lines, designed to showcase how well the politician listens to the people, are so clichéd they practically write themselves:

I’m proud of the work my government has done for people like my barber, with whom I discussed the unfair tax burden he faced. And the mother of four who told me how much our government’s child care grant helped her family. And the university student who wants to become a land developer, and who is so thankful that my government is slashing the regulatory burden standing in the way of the construction of “liveable” efficiency apartments.

The Public Engagement sections in this report sound exactly like a politician’s bid to seal the deal. They sound nothing like an account of a legitimate, give-and-take public consultation. Like almost all of the Master Innovation and Development Plan, they are a sales pitch, and should be treated as such.

Goodbye, Volume 2, Hello, Volume 3

And with that, we’re done with Volume 2. We’ve covered a lot of ground, but if history, like the MIDP, repeats itself, Sidewalk Labs has saved the meatiest bits for last. Tomorrow, Volume 3: the long-awaited Partnership Overview.

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