No longer liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Bonus entry 10: Waterfront Toronto gets ready to make a choice

A couple of things stand out in Catherine McIntyre’s profile in The Logic of Waterfront Toronto Board chair Stephen Diamond. First, the headline, “The man who stood up to Sidewalk” is a bit premature. It’s certainly true and commendable that he has required Sidewalk Labs to address some of Waterfront Toronto’s concerns by October 31. However, beyond these public statements, the substantive negotiations are all happening behind the scenes. Given that the Plan Development Agreement make it difficult, if not impossible, to separate the two organizations, we’ll have to wait until October 31 to see what standing up to Sidewalk actually looks like.

So, mark the date.

However, for my money, the most important revelation in the article isn’t really about Diamond, but about Sidewalk Labs supporters. It’s best captured in the sentiments expressed by Ken Tanenbaum, Diamond’s partner at Diamond Kilmer Developments:

Tanenbaum, meanwhile, calls Sidewalk’s interest in the site “a moment.” He worries that if Waterfront, at Diamond’s direction, walks away from the deal now, the opportunity to develop Quayside and its neighbouring land—whether into a smart city or something else—will be missed. “Absent a moment, things could linger for a long time,” he says. “We could be looking out at those lands in a decade and it not being halfway close to where we might have been with Sidewalk.”

On the one hand, you have Diamond’s business partner in his land-development company expressing a strong opinion that Diamond push forward this development deal, highlighting the potential for developing neighbouring land. On the other, though, consider the substance of Tanenbaum’s argument, which is basically that if Waterfront Toronto doesn’t do this deal, then development of this area will be set back a long time.

Conspicuously absent from Tanenbaum’s rationale is whether or not Sidewalk Labs’ plan itself it actually a good, doable plan for Torontonians. (Disclosure: I have my doubts.) From this perspective, action is a justification in itself: Development for the sake of development.

This line of reasoning is depressingly prevalent among Sidewalk Labs supporters, whose main concern seems to be driven by world-class-city-envy: the fear that Sidewalk Labs might take its shiny monorail and decamp for Shelbyville, forever branding Toronto as a second-class city.

Here’s Richard Florida from last month’s Toronto Life series of Quayside opeds, in an article that otherwise consists of a character reference for Daniel L. Doctoroff and a credulous, nonsensical defence of Google/Sidewalk Labs’ privacy policies:

Think about how we’ll feel 10 years from now if Sidewalk is pushed out of Toronto and the world’s leading urban-tech innovation cluster has taken root in a city like Denver, Detroit or Pittsburgh. Is that a risk we really want to take?

For the record, the correct answer is, it depends: If Sidewalk Labs’ actual plans are terrible then turning them down isn’t even a risk; it’s simple self-defence. Florida’s argument here isn’t even an argument from authority; it’s an argument from insecurity.

Cutting your losses

The natural tendency in these situations, faced with sunk costs of time, money and institutional credibility, is to figure out a way to get the project over the finish line by any means necessary, including transformative changes that allow you to declare victory and move on. So, drastically scale back the MIDP, keep the partnership with Sidewalk Labs, and get on with life, even though actually addressing Waterfront Toronto’s concerns would require gutting the entire MIDP.

Trouble is, the fundamental flaw isn’t with the MIDP, as irresponsible and poorly thought out as it is. The problems with everything that’s happened over the past two years can be traced back to Waterfront Toronto’s original Request for Proposals. Waterfront Toronto asked a company to deliver something – a plan for a smart city – without understanding what a smart city actually is. This plan involved things that Waterfront Toronto wasn’t really set up to do, like data governance. It also managed to completely muck up the lines of accountability between government agency and vendor, making it all but impossible for Waterfront Toronto to act like an independent adjudicator of this project.

This is not a salvageable project. Arguing for it from the perspective of “we don’t want to miss a unique opportunity” is irresponsible given that this unique opportunity is a poisoned chalice.

The original RFP is and always was fatally flawed. Sidewalk Labs has not shown itself to be a trustworthy partner. Remember, for the longest time Sidewalk Labs, a Google company whose links to the world’s per-eminent data company were almost certainly the reason it booked this gig, refused to even discuss data governance, the centrepiece of any smart-city project.

Even worse for a bureaucratic perspective, these deep, irreconcilable issues mean that approving this project in any form will only continue the pain for Waterfront Toronto, in the form of civic protests (perhaps manageable) and blowback from other levels and agencies of government, upon whose turf Waterfront Toronto has found itself intruding (much more important). Friendly governments don’t last forever. Data governance is going to become increasingly important and political. Waterfront Toronto is not set up to deal with all of these problems, especially since Quayside is only one part of its actual responsibilities.

This is a terrible position for a government agency to be in, especially one that really shouldn’t be attracting this much political attention. And it will almost certainly continue so long as the Sidewalk Labs project is kept alive.

Moving forward

I have no idea which way Waterfront Toronto will jump on October 31. What I do know is that it would be wrong to see a Waterfront Toronto rejection of Sidewalk Labs as a failure, even in terms of developing the waterfront.

Here’s the thing: Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront will end up being developed, one way or the other. I also know that how it gets developed matters, and that this entire debacle actually leaves Waterfront Toronto in a much better position to fulfill its mandate.

While the last two years have been an education in how not to engage in smart-city development, they’ve also given us an incredibly important education about how to do it right. It’s taught us all about the importance of data governance in municipal infrastructure projects, and about the need to design these projects from the ground up, not from the internet up (i.e., to make tech responsive to people’s needs, not the other way around).

It’s highlighted the importance of getting actual community buy-in through actual consultations, rather than merely going through the motions. It’s even given the three levels of government a blueprint for revamping Waterfront Toronto to incorporate the capacity to address data and intellectual property governance.

These are not trivial lessons. The entire world is racing to come to terms with what it means to live in a data-driven economy and society. Everyone is trying to figure out what to do, and we’ve just had a crash course in the politics and economics of the 21st-century digital society. We need to take these lessons and run with them.

That, in the end, is the choice before the Waterfront Toronto board. It can learn from its mistakes and do better, for all Torontonians. Or it can let inertia and insecurity – development for the sake of development – carry the day.

The irony is that what looks like the easier path – just develop the damn land – would end up costing Waterfront Toronto and Toronto itself so much more in the long run.

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

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