I’m going to write up my evaluation of the new Sidewalk Labs-Waterfront Toronto understanding in a little while. But it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on how we got here.
In particular, while this new deal (which itself remains nebulous) is being treated as a victory for Waterfront Toronto and Chair Stephen Diamond in particular, we shouldn’t forget that it was Waterfront Toronto itself that brought us to this point. Diamond may be on the right track, but he’s essentially helping to clean up the mess that Waterfront Toronto created in the first place.
Sidewalk Labs didn’t just descend on the city; they were invited in by Waterfront Toronto.
Sidewalk Labs’ much (and justly) derided MIDP was a mostly unsurprising outcome of a procedurally questionable Request for Proposals process (as documented by the Ontario Auditor General), including what looks like Waterfront Toronto giving Sidewalk Labs a leg up on the competition. It arose from an RFP that naively treated data and intellectual property – the lifeblood of any smart-city project – as an afterthought, and that sought innovative governance mechanisms that almost by definition would cloud the accountability relationships necessary to make an agency-vendor relationships work for a democratic society.
It was an RFP that never should have been issued. Everything since, including yesterday’s announcement, has been damage control.
And remember that Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs worked hand-in-glove pretty much until Waterfront CEO Will Fleissig was forced out by the Board in July 2018.
Forcing the issue
So before we get too comfortable with the narrative of Waterfront Toronto taking back the power from Sidewalk Labs, I think we should acknowledge the people whose sustained efforts, over two very long years, with minimal resources, forced the issue. Without them, yesterday’s events likely don’t happen.
(This list is incomplete, more of a top-of-mind reflection. If you’re not on this list, it’s not meant as a slight. Feel free to suggest other important people in the comments.)
I’m thinking of a few people in particular, but foremost is Bianca Wylie. When Natasha Tusikov and I first watched that November 2017 town hall livestream (so very long ago…), we realized immediately that Toronto was being sold a bill of goods. This is because we both study data governance and have worked in government, Natasha has a specialty in platform governance, and I also study the intersection between public and private power. So we immediately realized the danger inherent in Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs’ half-baked plans.
Anyway, Bianca Wylie’s name was pretty much the first one we came across when we first started looking into Quayside. In following her work for these past two years, we’ve continually been impressed by her grasp of the issues, her civic-mindedness, her ability to move the issue forward, and (never to be underestimated as a quality) her tenacity. In a sense, she is the key player in all of this, as she played such a central role in setting in motion the public backlash that led to yesterday’s announcement. No matter what happens from here on in, Bianca Wylie has cemented herself in Toronto’s storied history of civic activism, alongside such luminaries as Jane Jacobs.
More generally, everyone involved in #BlockSidewalk should take a bow. This is what citizens’ democratic participation looks like.
Special mention should also be made of Julie DiLorenzo, who resigned from the Waterfront Toronto Board in July 2018 over the – shall we say – highly unusual Waterfront Toronto-Sidewalk Labs relationship. Everything that has transpired since then, especially Diamond’s effective distancing of Waterfront Toronto from Sidewalk Labs, has validated her concerns. In bringing attention to this dysfunctional relationship, DiLorenzo played a crucial and courageous role.
Saadia Muzaffar played a similar role with her resignation from Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. The panel itself was created by Waterfront Toronto in the midst of a maelstrom of controversy over data governance, with the Auditor General of Ontario (another office that acquitted itself honourably in this debacle) highlighting its ineffectiveness. (That said, the panel’s August 2019 report was very helpful in outlining some of the most problematic issues with the MIDP.)
Muzaffar’s October 2018 resignation, in response to Waterfront Toronto’s lack of seriousness in dealing with data issues, and terrible governance practices. Her justifiably harsh words for Waterfront Toronto – made only a year ago – highlight the extent to which Waterfront Toronto must continue to demonstrate its seemingly newly discovered public-interest bona fides.
Other people played important parts as well. Ann Cavoukian’s October 2018 resignation from Sidewalk Labs garnered headlines and denied the company her personal brand, which is synonymous with individual privacy. Sean McDonald did (and continues to do) useful work on issues like data trusts and data governance, while Kurtis McBride helpfully bridges the worlds of governance and business. Meanwhile, Jim Balsillie, who knows his way around the worlds of data, IP and governance, kept the pressure on, insisting that Waterfront Toronto was on the wrong track with Sidewalk Labs.
(This is one of the ironies of this whole sad show. Toronto and Canada already have plenty of smart and pragmatic individuals who understand both good governance and how economic development happens in a digital economy. If Waterfront Toronto had only reached out to them instead of falling for Sidewalk Labs’ get-rich-quick scheme, we all would’ve been better off.)
Media-wise, the Toronto Star editorial board didn’t exactly cover itself in glory with its thoughtless civic boosterism support for Sidewalk Labs. However, The Logic really came into its own on this story, it being the type of thing it was born to cover. The Globe and Mail, the National Post and the non-editorial/columnist Star reporters also did well.
We also need to give credit where credit is due when it comes to politicians. Some, like Toronto councillor and Waterfront Toronto Board member Joe Cressy have done the work we would expect of our elected officials, while former Toronto Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong raised concerns about the agreement early on. Toronto Councillors Paula Fletcher, Kristyn Wong-Tam and Gord Perks have also been active in exercising oversight on this project.
But probably the most important politician in this story is Ontario Premier Doug Ford. It was his firing of Ontario’s representatives to Waterfront Toronto in December 2018 (including the then-chair) that led to Diamond’s appointment as Waterfront Toronto’s chair. While the Toronto Star editorial board might not be interested in giving Ford credit for a smart move, we should. Certainly, when weighed against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s actions – praising the project in 2017 and then going into radio silence as concerns continued to mount – Ford, and Ford’s Progressive Conservative government, perhaps surprisingly comes out as the more responsive, and responsible actors.
As for us academics, given how obviously half-baked the MIDP is and how blatantly the partnership violated basic good-governance principles, I had hoped that more experts would’ve stepped forward to raise the alarm. On the plus side, those who did really stood out. I’m thinking in particular of Mariana Valverde of the University of Toronto, Alexandra Flynn of the University of British Columbia (check out their recent open-access journal article on this very subject), and David Murakami-Wood from Queen’s University. Shoshanna Saxe, of the University of Toronto, was one of the very few engineers to speak out against the project.
I’d also acknowledge, of course, Natasha Tusikov of York University, who in particular was all over the nonsense “urban data” concept, as well as our colleague Zachary Spicer, now at the Institute of Public Administration of Canada, with whom I’ve written a few opeds related to Sidewalk Labs; we’re also working on a journal article on lessons for other cities from all of … this.
(And a special cross-border/cross-ocean shoutout also to Ellen Goodman and Julia Powles, from Rutgers Law School and the University of Western Australia, respectively, for their very helpful early analysis of the Quayside project.)
I would argue that what stands out about all of these scholars (beyond the likelihood that their research is not funded by Google) is a willingness to speak truth to power. This is not every academic’s default setting. On the plus side, this critical instinct I think leads to better analysis, and a better understanding of the world.
The cost of engagement
But it can also be exhausting. Speaking only for myself, it is not a hell of a lot of fun recognizing that one of the world’s biggest, most powerful companies is trying to pull a fast one over on your country, and that the government agency that is supposed to be protecting the public interest is not doing anything of the sort. In fact, it kind of sucks, especially when you realize that there’s nobody in the wings to pick up the slack if you don’t step up.
It sucks to have to devote hundreds of hours to analyzing a report that was designed to bamboozle and misdirect, that contains such obviously disingenuous concepts as “urban data” and “urban data trust.” It doesn’t feel great to have to constantly call out government agencies for so obviously failing to do their jobs.
When Natasha and I tuned into that November 2017 livestream, we did so out of genuine curiosity over what potentially interesting things Waterfront Toronto (and Sidewalk Labs) might propose. Professionally speaking, we thought that we might be able to figure out an interesting case study on data governance.
We did not expect that we would be witnessing the beginning of a protest movement that would consume the lives of activists like Bianca Wylie in a years-long battle for accountability and good governance over a few blocks of undeveloped land, brought about by an RFP that never should have been issued.
I’m sure all of these people would rather have spent the past two years doing something other than playing a grinding, uphill form of defence. I’m pretty sure Julie DiLorenzo would’ve preferred not to resign from Waterfront Toronto on principle. And although as an academic I’m much less involved in the actual policy battles, I would’ve preferred spending more time working on a long-overdue manuscript instead of being holed up in a room in Germany trying to figure out a 1,500-page doorstop that was designed to resist easy comprehension.
Thousands of person hours, spread over two whole years, given by people with other, more productive things to do with their lives, in service of a public interest that a government agency had failed to protect: This is what led to yesterday’s outcome, which itself is merely the latest event in an ongoing process that never should have been started.
What a waste.