What the MIDP’s inability to match section headings with its Table of Contents tells us about Sidewalk Labs’ commitment to quality control, attention to detail and basic competence. Also, renewed confusion about what Sidewalk Labs actually is.
The first thing one notices upon scrolling through this final volume’s 246 pages is the relative lack of full-page pullquotes (six) and, even more remarkable, artists’ sketches of bucolic citylife (also six).
That’s because, just as the final part of the Overview dispensed with the sweet talk and razzle-dazzle building raincoats, and got down to business, this volume is all about who’s going to do what, what laws need to change, and certainly not least, how Sidewalk Labs is going to get paid.
As with the previous volume, much of this has been covered in the Overview and previous volumes, but I’m sure I’ll find some interesting details in here.
Last volume, and then it’s only Waterfront Toronto’s Note to Reader standing between me and freedom. Let’s go.
Introduction (pp. 18-21)
The Master Innovation and Development Plan represents a comprehensive proposal for how to realize that potential in a portion of the eastern waterfront. (p. 18)
This portion being more than just Quayside. As I’ve previously noted, one’s opinion of the scope of the MIDP will depend on whether you buy Sidewalk Labs’ argument that this report is a good-faith response to Waterfront Toronto’s RFP call 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” (p. 20).
I’m not convinced. Everything we’ve seen suggests that this is not a project that starts in Quayside and then can scale up in the future as lands become available. This includes Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel L. Doctoroff’s insistence that denying a light rail extension (a key part of the overall IDEA District plan, not the Quayside development part) would likely cause Sidewalk Labs to abandon the whole project. It also includes the insistence that Sidewalk Labs/Google be allowed to develop Villiers Island.
This, once again, is an all-or-nothing proposal.
No experience, but research
Sidewalk Labs has no experience working on big projects. Rather, it claims that it can develop what has been described as the most valuable undeveloped waterfront real estate in North America because it has engaged in “intensive research and development” and undertaken “feasibility studies.” (p. 21)
Part 1: Harmonizing the Objectives of Waterfront Toronto, the Public, and Sidewalk Labs (pp. 22-25)
The most incompetently assembled and formatted report ever?
I have never read a report as incompetently assembled as this one. I’ve noted the incomplete Tables of Contents, the absent indexes and the lack of hyperlinks for endnotes – the use of endnotes instead of footnotes, for that matter. Now, in Volume 3, we can add inconsistent and mislabled section headings to this list.
See the “Part 1” above? That appears in the Table of Contents on page 12, not on the header on page 22. Instead “Harmonizing the Objectives…” appears in the same font and style as subheaders in the previous volumes. This makes it look like this Part is part of the Introduction, not its own part, and makes it that much harder to locate information in the report.
This pattern is repeated throughout the report, with a few more examples of fundamental incompetence thrown in for good measure: Chapter 6’s “Introduction” (p. 208) is listed in the Table of Contents (p. 14) as “Stage Gates and Risk Mitigation.”
Not to be outdone, the section “Participants in the development of the IDEA District” (p. 218) is listed in the Table of Contents as “Overview of the Participants in IDEA District Development” (p. 14).
Usually, you can count on even the most vacuous report to have its Tables of Contents match section titles, but not the MIDP. And this isn’t even with going into how the Table of Contents styles don’t match from Volume to Volume (e.g., “Part 1:” in Volume 2, versus “Part 1 [tab]” in Volume 3).
This report reflects an absolutely abysmal level of quality control and attention to detail. Just shoddy, with all the characteristics of a rush job. Given the extent to which this entire project has been driven by an attention to public relations, if Sidewalk Labs can’t even properly format its own reports, how can it be trusted to run a huge swath of the Eastern Waterfront?
Okay, back to the substance.
This section seems to repeat mostly what was in the Overview, although somehow with less detail (p. 22, Objectives for the people of Toronto).
And we’re reminded that “The company will seek to earn a reasonable return on its investment” (p. 23).
Adding to the résumé
On pages 23 and 24 Sidewalk Labs repeats the exercise, first conducted on pages 61-65 of the Overview (and in more detail; this is the rare report in which the overview sections are longer than the actual sections that it’s overviewing), telling us why Sidewalk Labs is uniquely suited to this job.
One interesting addition that isn’t present in the Overview is that it reframes Advantage One from “An interdisciplinary approach to urban innovation” that emphasizes its team (Overview pp. 61-63) to “Cutting-edge urban design and technology” that summarizes the talent at its disposal but also notes that “Sidewalk Labs has developed, and continues to refine, critical pieces of technology for improving cities,” an interesting point that isn’t in those original pages and would have been worth highlighting. Instead, that first section makes it sound like Sidewalk Labs is primarily a facilitator that’s best at locating tech, not developing it.
It’s yet another pointless piece of confusion that leaves me unsure about what Sidewalk Labs actually is, and what they bring to the table. Not a good position to be in when you’re some 1,200 pages into its master plan. Just shoddy and unprofessional.
What Sidewalk Labs is promising (pp. 30-31)
- A “bold innovation agenda” (i.e., the bells and whistles from the previous volumes)
- “Develop Quayside as a complete and inclusive community”
- “Develop a major economic development project” (i.e., bring Google to town to anchor an urban tech cluster).
- “Serve as the lead developer of advanced systems” (in Quayside and Villiers West). “Among other responsibilities, this role would include identifying and overseeing sophisticated third-party operators and partners.” (i.e., in charge of procurement)
- “Serve as a technical partner and advisor.” “Sidewalk Labs would provide a suite of technical advisory and management services.” This standard-setting role would include standards and policy setting and running procurement.
- As stated, Sidewalk Labs’ description undersells its contribution. This role would make Sidewalk Labs less of an advisor and more of a policymaking governmental co-equal.
- “Deliver essential technology.” This would involve procurement as well as developing its own technology, called “purposeful solutions”
- “Optional financing for critical infrastructure.” Including light rail and municipal infrastructure. It’s formed a company that does infrastructure financing.
- “Unlocking $29 billion in third-party investments.” via some initial investments.
The intellectual property profit-sharing deal
For certain technologies that Sidewalk Labs develops and deploys at scale in connection with the project, Sidewalk Labs also proposes to share 10 percent of the profits with the public sector. (p. 31)
What it wants from government
This section repeats Overview pages 208-209. It serves as a reminder that Sidewalk Labs seeks either the restructuring or replacement of Waterfront Toronto:
the proposal calls for government to designate a public entity to serve — or, if Waterfront Toronto is so designated, to continue to serve — as revitalization lead for the IDEA District with certain additional powers. (p. 32)
And as we’ve seen previously, a lot of what Sidewalk Labs wants to do, like build “liveable” super-tiny apartments, is currently illegal. It therefore wants special rules to only apply to its area of the Eastern Waterfront, or as it frames it, “A carefully targeted package of regulatory reforms and development standards” (p. 32)
And it’s also a reminder that Sidewalk Labs wants “performance payments to compensate for non-standard upfront costs and for serving as a catalyst to deliver on Waterfront Toronto’s priority out- comes and accelerate development across the eastern waterfront.” In return it also offers a piece of the action “if Quayside and Villiers West are more profitable than expected,” and that 10% share on some intellectual property. (p. 32)
Part 2: Seven Principles Guiding the Proposed Partnership (pp. 26-27)
Repeats the principles listed on Overview page 200, adding in a list of Waterfront Toronto’s priority outcomes.
Part 3: Overview of Innovation and Funding Partnership (pp. 28-35)
Quayside is touted as a “scalable proof of concept for the ideas that will drive economic growth, achieve urban progress, and deliver on Waterfront Toronto’s priority outcomes.” (p. 28).
I’m not sure that something can count as a “proof of concept” if you have to agree to the whole package before developing the proof of concept.
And for those of you who like a good table, page 34 has a Summary of Innovation and Funding Partnership proposal table (labelled Fig. 0.3, although that doesn’t matter much since there’s no list of figures anywhere in the report).
What does Sidewalk Labs do?
Sidewalk Labs structured its Innovation and Funding Partnership Proposal to capitalize on its own unique combination of strengths, including a team that spans urban planning, technology, policy, architecture, engineering, development, and finance; its exceptional technological resources; its access to patient capital that is able to take a long-term view of investing, where warranted; and its ability to serve as an economic catalyst. (p. 42)
This description of Sidewalk Labs’ supposed strengths sounds eerily like what a government agency can do and leverage.
Part 4: How the Proposal Reflects the Seven Transaction Principles (pp. 36-44)
This is an expanded (!) version of Overview pages 199-200, which includes a list of desired outcomes, which we’ve already seen mentioned several times over the past thousand-plus pages.
Performance targets: If missed, would affect Sidewalk Labs’ involvement in the project. (p. 40). I would want an independent evaluation of Sidewalk Labs’ numbers for Quayside, as this setup (if it doesn’t meet Quayside, e.g., targets it can’t proceed) gives it an incentive to underpromise on Quayside.
Also, I’m unsure that Waterfront Toronto has demonstrated the capability of pushing back against, or evaluating Sidewalk Labs.
This seems like a bit of an empty promise for a for-profit company:
And unless and until Sidewalk Labs demonstrates the commercial feasibility and the effectiveness of its solutions for achieving Waterfront Toronto’s priority outcomes, no other developments would deploy them. (p. 40)
If a solution isn’t commercially feasible, why would Sidewalk Labs deploy it in the first place?
“Strong public oversight,” underdeveloped governance proposals
Sidewalk Labs’ statement that it is interested in “strong public oversight” (p. 42) would be more credible if it had put any thought into the number of people and resources that would be necessary to create the expansive bureaucracies that they’ve proposed throughout these pages.
Sidewalk Labs claims that the IDEA District would be “climate positive” via exporting of energy to the rest of Toronto. Climate experts: would this count as being “climate positive”? (p. 38)
Interesting that pretty much everything they’re proposing on pages 38 and 38 is “financially infeasible” if only done in Quayside. Maybe their financial time horizon isn’t long enough?
If only there were a previously existing institution in society that was designed to make investments in the public interest without having to earn a profit. If only…
Part 5: A Partnership Proposal Intended for Ongoing Refinement (pp. 45-47)
The never-ending proposal
This quote fills me with dread:
The Innovation and Funding Partnership Proposal constitutes a proposal. It is subject to further negotiation with Waterfront Toronto and, for certain elements of the proposal, the three orders of government. Ultimately, the proposal’s success will require Sidewalk Labs and government to work together collaboratively and to adapt to unanticipated conditions that could arise. (p. 45)
I’m not looking forward to reading MIDP II: The Embiggening.
And how will these responses to unanticipated consequences be subject to democratic review? Neither Waterfront Toronto nor especially Sidewalk Labs are set up for the type of reviews that would be typical of an ongoing City, provincial or federal project.
Overview of Volume 3 (pp. 48-49)
The chapters that follow provide substantial detail on the overall transaction structure, the proposed roles and responsibilities of the various participants, the financial and legal terms, the preconditions needed to deliver the business case for the transaction outlined and the vision set out in Volumes 1 and 2, and the anticipated implementation of the project and its various components. (p. 48)
tl;dr: There was no need for Volumes 1 or 2, and the Overview should’ve been shortened to an executive summary. Also, Sidewalk Labs should’ve sprung for a copyeditor.