No Longer Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP, Entry 46: Waterfront Toronto’s Letter to Sidewalk Labs

Waterfront Toronto’s October 29 letter to Sidewalk Labs and related PowerPoint slide outlining their understanding of how the Master Innovation and Development Plan should be changed before March 31 is, in essence, a huge reset of the plan and the relationship, almost exactly two years since these two crazy kids officially got together. (If the first-anniversary gift is paper, the second is obviously regret and resolve.)

It clarifies, once and for all, that any plans will be limited to the 12 acres of Quayside. It confirms the obvious, that of course Waterfront Toronto doesn’t have the power to deliver a lot of Sidewalk Labs’ demands, such as transit and extensive regulatory changes across three levels of government. It highlights that Sidewalk Labs will have to follow Canadian laws, which is always a comforting comment to come across in such documents.

It asserts that Waterfront Toronto, and not some new administrative body (which may or may not be Waterfront Toronto) is going to see this project through. Related, it puts Sidewalk Labs in its place in terms of who will be running the show regarding with procurement and general governance.  It tells Sidewalk Labs to forget about getting a discount on this prime land: it’s market price or nothing.

The letter also punts some important questions down the road, while setting down some key markers. These include exactly how intellectual property and data will be governed, and the specific forms of governance required to implement the plan (the five proposed agencies are kaput, with some undefined task force(s) either filling in the gap or deciding what should be done).

Overall, though, we’re back to the beginning: Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto are going to work together to produce an innovation and development plan for the 12-acre Quayside project. Which is what was supposed to be happening all along.

Only now they have to complete it in five months. Unless there’s another delay, which I’m sure would never, ever happen. #belikebrexit

Feasibility: Cramming a 190-Acre Proposal into 12 Acres

While this letter is supposed to amend the MIDP, it is completely unclear to me about exactly how it can do so. You might recall that the MIDP itself is an unwieldly 1,500 pages, lacking an index and logical framework. More importantly, that entire plan was based on the argument that Quayside itself is not big enough to realize Sidewalk Labs’ vision. Its economic and environmental promises and projects are pretty much all based on developing something at the scale of the “IDEA District” (a verboten phrase under this newish agreement).

For example, timber skyscrapers were supposed to drive a lot of the economic and environmental effects in Sidewalk Labs’ plan. (Let’s pretend for a moment that this plan is actually feasible.) But the MIDP argued that setting up this whole new timber factory would only be feasible at the scale of the IDEA District, which is no more. A similar point can be made for the other drivers of economic and environmental effects: the proposed Google Branch HQ (off the table), and all those self-driving cars (maybe no longer feasible in just 12 acres?).

At the very least, you would think that this restricted size would require Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs to completely revamp the MIDP, possibly to the point that it’s no longer recognizable. They would also have to redo their assessment of its environmental and economic effects. If Sidewalk Labs was serious about their claims regarding scale, then it’s hard to see how they can actually produce (in five months) a Quayside-only plan. Assuming that this would interest them: a fair reading of the MIDP would lead one to think that it wouldn’t.

Of course, it’s pretty clear by this point that Sidewalk Labs needs Toronto as much (if not more) than Toronto needs them. Their dilemma is a variation on how the Canada-US relationship is viewed internationally, as a barometer of American reasonableness: If Americans can’t get along with Canadians, who can they get along with? Toronto is Sidewalk Labs’ proof of concept. They have no track record. If they screw this up, it’ll look really bad for them. And it’s not like Google has the smart-city market to themselves.

Goodbye, “Urban Data”

The most significant part of this letter, the part that will matter far beyond Toronto’s borders, is Waterfront Toronto’s much-appreciated body blow to the concept of “urban data” and the “urban data trust.” As Mariana Valverde points out, these concepts are designed to obfuscate Sidewalk Labs’ actions on data collection and privacy. There was never anything honest about them, and my attempts to come to terms with Sidewalk Labs’ manipulation of words like “trust” almost drove me mad.

While such dishonesty about a concept that is essential to the MIDP should’ve been a firing offence, Waterfront Toronto did the second-best thing and told Sidewalk Labs to knock it off with the urban data and use commonly accepted and legal terminology. This move will help put our data policy discussions on a sound, comprehensible footing while discouraging Google from trying this nonsense elsewhere.

Let’s Work Together

While this letter places Waterfront Toronto in the driver’s seat in many ways, it remains vulnerable to the problem that has plagued this project since the very beginning, namely the joint development of an “Innovation Plan” between a government agency and a private vendor. Here, it all gets a bit confusing: Section 2a. gives the two organizations joint responsibility to “develop an ‘Innovation Plan’” (p. 3), while reserving to Waterfront Toronto the role of evaluator and overseer. The two will also work together on setting architectural and public-realm standards, while Sidewalk Labs will be responsible for developing innovation and design standards and guidelines “reflective of the Innovation Plan, taking into account Waterfront Toronto’s Minimum Green Building Requirements and Intelligent Community Guidelines” (p. 4). All of this sounds like Sidewalk Labs will continue to have a central role in setting the base standards (i.e., the rules) for Quayside, and possibly the Eastern Waterfront, should Waterfront Toronto decide to adopt them.

Which brings me to one of the big questions. This type of joint partnership, to the extent that it could work well, depends on both partners understanding their own interests and the subject at hand. It seems to me that it is an open question whether Waterfront Toronto has the capacity to contribute equally to this project. In the letter it places emphasis on the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel to provide advice to Waterfront Toronto. However, as expert as these panelists are, they are only part-time. They are no substitute for in-house expertise.

Waterfront Toronto, as far as I can tell, remains a land-development agency. This letter shows that they’ve learned the first lesson, that data and intellectual property are important. But, it’s one thing to block; it’s another thing entirely to be able to develop and evaluate standards and innovations in this area.

Data and Intellectual Property: First Steps

While this agreement punts on the question of exactly these policies will look like, it does place some markers. Digital proposals will be subject to Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Principles, and will probably be subject to some consultations, although the weasel word “may” shows up in: “Digital proposals may be required to go through a public meeting process and approval by governments.”

Also, despite Sidewalk Labs’ objections, Sidewalk Labs will be required to store and process personal information in Canada, while also using “commercially reasonable efforts to store and process non-personal data in Canada” (p. 7). Exceptions will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

And apparently a Digital Innovation Appendix will be coming by November 7. Mark your calendars.

Finally, for good measure:

Sidewalk Labs agrees to work with Waterfront Toronto and its government stakeholders in good faith to ensure each digitally enabled solution will not impede (and where feasible, will  foster)  accessibility  in  Quayside,  freedom  of  association,  freedom  of  expression, equitable  treatment  of  marginalized  groups,  public  engagement  and  participation  and other fundamental rights and freedoms, as applicable. (p. 7)

On intellectual property, they’re going to work together to decide on the rules (again, this is something that Waterfront Toronto should’ve decided on its own and then presented to Sidewalk Labs as a condition of involvement). Still, the baseline is better than the previous terrible base line. Commitments include: net revenues for all IP piloted in the “Waterfront Toronto-facilitated testbed area,” better access and use of Sidewalk Labs’ hardware and software digital innovation patents, and an irrevocable, perpetual licence for site-specific intellectual property (p. 9).

Google Branch Headquarters

The letter also highlights that if Google wants Villiers West, it’ll have to talk with the actual owners: City of Toronto/CreateTO and Ports Toronto (p. 3). As it happens, Appendix B (pp. 13-14) is a letter from the City of Toronto laying out the process for buying that land. So, watch this space, especially given Toronto Mayor John Tory’s openness to the idea. Google’s Canadian Branch Headquarters might still come to town, but not, it seems, as part of a Sidewalk Labs play.

You Can’t Talk to the Government (But Your Dad Can)

Probably my favourite part of this letter is in the Digital Governance and Privacy section, subtitled “Interactions with Government,” in which Waterfront Toronto tells Sidewalk Labs basically that it can’t lobby any of the Canadian levels of government on issues related to Quayside data governance without asking Waterfront Toronto first.

The intent here is pretty obvious: to keep Sidewalk Labs from working the refs and changing the rulebook. But when you consider that Sidewalk Labs is effectively a Google company and an Alphabet subsidiary, any restriction on its actions that don’t affect either Google or its parent company would seem to be pretty toothless.

Consultations: When? And on What?

There are a few other interesting things in here, particularly related to the possible development of an Urban Innovation Institute and some new rules to improve the appeal of a venture capital fund for Canadian businesses, governments and investors (pp. 8-9).

The final question is, what next? The next official deadline seems to be March 31, 2020, when a new plan will go before the Waterfront Toronto board. No doubt, the two sides will be hard at work until then.

But there’s also the question of public consultations, namely when they would take place, what they would cover, and whether they will be taken seriously.

In terms of seriousness, past results are not encouraging. The summer consultations had no discernible effect on this letter. Stephen Diamond issued his demands to Sidewalk Labs before the consultations got underway, and the two organizations amended the Plan Development Agreement almost immediately after they concluded and before Waterfront Toronto issued its report into the consultations. Yesterday’s outcome had all the hallmarks of behind-the-scenes negotiations, with public consultations holding distinctly secondary importance.

Can we expect better in the future? I have no idea, but I’m pretty pessimistic. Waterfront Toronto’s letter claims that, following the Board’s approval (which occurred on October 31), “Waterfront Toronto will proceed with a formal comprehensive evaluation along with further public consultation in order to obtain a final decision from our Board by March 31, 2020.”

To which I ask: “a formal comprehensive evaluation” of what? On what will the public be basing their opinions? On the MIDP plus these 14 pages? That makes no sense. On a newly revised MIDP? How long will that take to produce? And then how long will it take to undertake an economic and environmental assessment of it?

Look: I’ve read the entire MIDP, and now I’ve read this letter. Taking the latter seriously would seem to require gutting the former. I have no idea how to reconcile the two. It looks like Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs have their work cut out for them. And of course, there’s the basic question: Should these two organizations even be in this relationship?

Like I said, we’re back to the beginning.


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