Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 43: Waterfront Toronto Note to Reader

Qualified praise for a mostly honest document that should never have been written.

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

I am of several minds about Waterfront Toronto’s Note to Reader. As a guide to the Master Innovation and Development Plan, it’s a bit of a mess, but it’s a mess that I recognize, understand and empathize with. As an analysis, it raises many good points, including a few I missed in my own review (mostly I think because Waterfront Toronto has access to information that I don’t. Or maybe I flatter myself). But as an official Waterfront Toronto document, it shouldn’t exist at all.

In other words, it’s par for the Quayside course.

It me

The Note to Reader summarizes the MIDP, provides some context, offers some critiques and suggests some questions. In other words, it’s exactly like the briefing notes and legislative summaries I used to prepare as a researcher with the Library of Parliament.

Overall, it’s pretty overwhelming and also a bit of a mess. Which is understandable because, as I’ve noted so many times over the past month, the underlying MIDP is a mess.

I’m pretty sure, based on professional experience, that I know how this went down. Waterfront Toronto gave, say, six analysts a week or less to summarize and analyze specific sections of the report, then did a bit of quality control (probably more than seems to have gone into the actual MIDP) to help everything to more or less line up, and then published it. Given these constraints, the analysts and writers at Waterfront Toronto did an amazing job to produce a document as coherent as this. I read it quickly (I’m exactly as burned out on MIDP-related docs as you might imagine), but it seems to hit all the key points. Sure, they could’ve produced a somewhat more coherent document, but not in the time allotted.

From one analyst to another, if you worked on this report and run into me at a bar, and you didn’t take my past 49 posts as a personal affront, I’ll buy you a beer. Good job.

What is this weird document?

While professionally the Note to Reader is a quality piece of work (given the constraints the authors faced), and I don’t think I have any complaints about the summary part of the document, the oddest thing about it is that it exists at all. It’s the Executive Summary that should’ve been included in the report proper; it’s what the Overview document should’ve been.

It’s also a summary written by an organization that, by its own admission, was (and is) still in the process of figuring out exactly what’s in the MIDP and what it all means. Moreover that it was published before the public had had a chance to have its say was odd, to say the least. I would’ve expected a government agency to wait to hear from the public before issuing what is effectively its response to the MIDP.

Then there’s the problematic matter of the non-arm’s-length relationship between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto. The Note to Reader is a critique of a document by an organization for which the Plan Development Agreement, signed July 31, 2018, and renewed a year later, assigned joint responsibility.

It’s rewriting history a bit to note, as the Note to Reader does, that

The PDA outlined the parameters under which Sidewalk Labs would develop a proposal for Waterfront Toronto’s consideration. While Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs did work together earlier in the process to do research, generate ideas, and consult the public, the roles of the two organizations then separated, allowing Waterfront Toronto to focus on creating a robust framework for review and evaluation of the MIDP. Sidewalk Labs’ responsibility is to prepare and submit the MIDP. (p. 48)

In a very early post, I ran through the many, many, many places that the PDA gave both Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs joint responsibility for the preparation of the MIDP. You can’t just wish that away.

The fact of the matter is, the two organizations are – for better or worse – joined at the hip. This leads the reader to suspect Waterfront Toronto’s motives in raising these critiques. Which is not to say that Waterfront Toronto doesn’t make some very good points: it was heartening to see the in-writing recognition that Villiers Island was out of scope, and that Waterfront Toronto also has issues with Sidewalk Labs being in charge of procurement (p. 51).

It’s that critiquing a report that you were formally charged with producing is all a bit … off. The relationship is such that the two organizations cannot be separated. And so we outsiders cannot know for certain whether these critiques are seriously deal-breakers, or whether they’re all for show, offering the illusion of democratic accountability. To be blunt, I’m not sure how far I can trust Waterfront Toronto.

All up in the air

As it happens, minutes after I finished reading the Note to Reader and typing up a preliminary blog post, Waterfront Toronto announced that it and Sidewalk Labs were extending the Plan Development Agreement by six months, and Waterfront Toronto had given Sidewalk Labs until October 31 to address several fundamental concerns with the MIDP. So what happens next, I have no idea.

I do know that its purpose as a “Guide to reading the draft Master Innovation and Development Plan proposal submitted by Sidewalk Labs” was undercut by the fact that it was prepared before Waterfront Toronto had had an opportunity to digest and fully understand the report. I can recognize a hot take and a deadline-driven document when I see it. Its rushed production necessarily limits its utility to the public.

Moreover, the rushed public consultations for which it was prepared, running for three weeks in July, remain a terrible idea.

That said, as I write this (early August, and reviewing it in late August — time travel!), I’m still uncertain what form the upcoming consultations will take, or what the timeline should be. Given Waterfront Toronto’s October 31 ultimatum, I see no sense in Waterfront Toronto publishing either a report on the summer consultations, or issuing its own pre-October 31 report, or holding public consultations before we’ve seen Sidewalk Labs’ response.

But even this talk of extended consultations and consideration is being too generous to Sidewalk Labs. This company has failed, over the past 18 months and so many extensions, to come up with a minimally satisfactory proposal that stuck to the original RFP and didn’t require things that Waterfront Toronto couldn’t possibly deliver. The changes requested by Waterfront Toronto go to the heart of Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP; it doesn’t deserve a rewrite.

Where does this leave us?

So we’ll see.

Personally, in terms of this blogging project, which began over a month ago with the Auditor General of Ontario’s examination of Waterfront Toronto, the Note to Reader, while problematic for the reasons mentioned above, was a nice way to end a journey through some of the most reader-hostile public documents I’ve ever had the mispleasure to endure. So much of the MIDP was so obviously a sales job designed to mask some unbelievably audacious asks that it was draining to get through: it’s difficult to read a document that is designed to mislead and confuse.

I remain far from convinced that Waterfront Toronto is fully owning either its role in this project or the consequences of the events it has set in motion; I’ve already pointed out one instance of what seems to me to be a bit of historical revisionism. I also don’t think that Waterfront Toronto has demonstrated that it is capable of implementing even a scaled-back version of a smart-city project. (Then again, recall that the Ontario Auditor General noted that the province was similarly lacking in this capacity.)

And although Waterfront Toronto has committed to consulting with the other levels of government and effectively giving them a veto over whether the project will go forward, I have no idea how much this promise is worth. Ontario Premier Doug Ford has called the MIDP “a terrible deal for the taxpayers” but I’m not sure what this will mean in concrete terms. Toronto will apparently be holding consultations of some sort. And the Trudeau government apparently is deferring to the Waterfront Toronto board, so I guess no separate, independent oversight from that level of government.

All the more reason to make Quayside a federal election issue, an issue I’ll revisit in a final, wrap-up op-ed that’ll be published soon.

Still, on a professional level, I recognize and appreciate it when a document has been prepared by people who are trying to help others understand the world, to explain rather than to sell us something. Or at least not mainly to sell us something.

For a report whose very existence is problematic, the Note to Reader is – mostly – an honest document. The same cannot be said for Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan.

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