No Longer Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP, Addendum #3: The flaw at the heart of Waterfront Toronto’s innovation plan

Reposting this from Twitter. Also, everyone should read Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything. It’s an incredibly insightful consideration of, among other things, how innovation actually happens in the global economy:

Am reading @MazzucatoM’s excellent The Value of Everything and thinking about the Quayside #smartcities project. Her chapter on innovation hammers home for me how misguided @WaterfrontTO’s project is. Specifically, the betting on one company — Google — to deliver “innovation.”

The point of Quayside from the very beginning was to seek an innovation partner to help catalyze Toronto’s urban tech sector. That’s a bit of a simplification, but let’s run with it.

The problem is — and this can’t be stressed enough — most innovations fail. That’s the nature of the beast. Tech doesn’t work out. Tastes change. Funding or interest dries up.

Through Sidewalk Labs, Google is proposing a smart city based on Google-friendly technology and (more importantly) Google-friendly ideas about what a smart city should be (max surveillance, minimal privacy, Google tech standards). The result will be a tech monoculture.

Far from encouraging an innovative ecosystem, @WaterfrontTO is in the midst of betting the farm on the hope that Google’s technological and regulatory vision will carry the day.

To put it another way, @WaterfrontTO, on behalf of Canadians, has gotten into the business of picking winners, of deciding whose development vision (Google’s) they’re going to throw Canada’s weight behind.

What could possibly go wrong? Well…

Recall, Waterfront Toronto is an organization that issued an RFP without having the faintest idea that data and IP were the very foundations of a smart city. They had to cobble together a part-time, volunteer digital advisory panel to cover their total inexperience.

And recall that Sidewalk Labs has never built *anything*. And Google has *no experience* in urban development. In a field where its competitors like IBM have actually done things. Instead, they have slogans that they change every few months when people start asking questions.

RIP “from the internet up”
RIP “urban data trust”

If WT were truly interested in supporting a tech testbed, they’d be working to ensure that as many different approaches to addressing and meeting actual community needs and approaches could be worked on.

But that’s not what’s on offer, and a SL-WT deal is incapable of doing this. That’s because it’s favouring one company and its vision over all alternatives.

The Quayside #smartcities project was born in ignorance (and according to the Ontario Auditor General, some suspicious monkeyshines). It is is propelled by bureaucratic inertia: its consummation is literally an existential question for the two organizations.
If Canada’s three levels of government were forward-looking on these issues, they would not let the existential fears of a local development agency create a fact on the ground that will warp Canadian data and innovation policy going forward.

They would also see the transformation of @WaterfrontTO from a land-development agency into a de facto data-regulation agency with an independent revenue source as the truly terrible idea that it is.

tl;dr: This is not going to end well.

Just to show what @WaterfrontTO’s turning its back on, check out @doctorow’s great article imagining a smart city that’s not based on Google-esque surveillance.

Which one’s better? I have my views, but the point is that an org that was interested in innovation would want to spread their net far and wide, and not bet only on one company, on one approach. They’d want to test whether Doctorow or Google had the better vision.

Finally, to bring it back to @MazzucatoM, as she points out, governments have a key role to play in sparking & shaping innovation. It’s what they do, supporting projects that are too risky for for-profit companies. This is the exact opposite of what’s on offer with Quayside.

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