No Longer Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP, Entry 47: My Submission to the Round 2 Consultation

Back in more innocent times, August 30, 2019, to be precise, I praised the work of the analysts at Waterfront Toronto for their honest attempt to summarize the Master Innovation and Development Plan, a document whose design (as I’ve noted on so, so many occasions) actively discourages its analysis. Whatever other monkeyshines Waterfront Toronto is up to with Quayside, it was clear that this document was designed to help people understand this super-complex abomination of an report.

As someone who used to write reports for a living, professionally I’m a bit sad (if not surprised) to report that Waterfront Toronto’s Discussion Guide for its Round 2 of Quayside consultations (Round 1 being the rushed July meet-ups held before anyone had had a chance to read, let alone digest, the whole MIDP) is as vacuous and useless as the first Note to Reader was helpful. The guide, plus attachments, are 54 pages of lists of approved technologies, statements of principles, and repeated assertions that Waterfront Toronto totally definitely did a thorough analysis of the MIDP.

What’s missing? The actual analysis. You know, the one thing that the public actually needs to read in order to make sense of the 160 “solutions” Waterfront Toronto says it identified in the MIDP.

This analysis isn’t just needed to help interested but non-expert residents understand what’s on offer, but to check Waterfront Toronto’s work. Even if Waterfront Toronto hadn’t consistently over the last three years raised questions about its trustworthiness and capacity to understand and evaluate these issues (see about 60% of my Quayside posts), you would want to check their arguments. That’s how accountable organizations operate.

For the record, I’ve also read the 10-page Quayside Evaluation Committee Report. But just like the discussion guide, it too expects to be able to skate by merely summarizing its findings. It reads as little more than the minutes to a meeting. To get a sense of how incomplete these public documents are, consider the following statement, on “Housing Affordability Feedback” (p. 5):

Although major alignment issues were identified, the consensus of the Committee was that the Housing Affordability proposal provided a worthwhile foundation upon which to engage governments and pursue additional and amended affordability solutions.

So, what were the “major alignment issues”? Did the committee make the right call that these issues weren’t important enough to hold up the project? I don’t know, and neither do you, because Waterfront Toronto hasn’t provided us with the information we need to make that decision.

Show, don’t tell

Instead of providing us with a way to independently evaluate their work and this project, we are supposed to reassured that they evaluated the MIDP by “reading every page of the MIDP, identifying all the solutions it contained, and ultimately aggregating one master list of solutions to be evaluated.” If you’re looking for kudos for actually having read the report that you commissioned, then I don’t know what to tell you.

But that’s about par for the course for this document: They tell us about all the hard work they’ve done (like, uh, reading) without showing us their work. In the movies they say, “Show, don’t tell.” The same goes for reports.

Anyway, here’s my actual submission…

Submission by Dr. Blayne Haggart
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Brock University
St. Catharines, Ontario

These notes are based on an evaluation of the provided Quayside Discussion Guide, as well as my thorough reading of the Master Innovation and Development Plan and related documents. In terms of qualifications, I hold a PhD in Political Science from Carleton University and an MA in Economics from the University of Toronto. I am an Associate Professor of Political Science at Brock University, where my research focuses on the governance and regulation of intellectual property, data and the internet. I have also published extensively in these areas. I am currently writing a book on knowledge regulation and smart cities.

Previously, I worked as an economist and researcher with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service, providing non-partisan research and drafting reports for the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, the House Subcommittee on International Trade, Trade Disputes and Investment, and the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, among others. My analysis draws on this professional and academic experience.

I would like to highlight five points in particular.

1. Insufficient analysis. Waterfront Toronto has, once again, failed to provide sufficient information to help the public form an informed opinion about the Quayside project. The Discussion Paper is merely a list of which technologies Waterfront Toronto liked and didn’t like in the Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP). It provides no justification for its choices beyond assertions that Waterfront Toronto did the analysis, and these are the technologies that passed and failed their tests. There is nothing in here to allow Torontonians to assess for themselves either the quality of Waterfront Toronto’s arguments or the appropriateness of the proposed technologies.

Since Waterfront Toronto reached its October 31, 2019, agreement with Sidewalk Labs, it has failed utterly to keep the public informed of its plans in any meaningful way. The October 31 agreement made reference to an amended MIDP, whose amended text was never released, while also noting that the MIDP remains the basis of the Quayside planning process. The MIDP, including its economic analysis, covered a Quayside-plus area (the so-called IDEA District). Given its setup, it is impossible to simply pick-and-choose the tech “solutions” that applies to Quayside, as this discussion guide claims. Sidewalk Labs must make its case based on a Quayside-only rationale; it has not done that publicly. Following that, Sidewalk Labs released a Digital Innovation Appendix (emphasis added) to an amended report that has not been released. This Appendix was analyzed by Waterfront Toronto’s volunteer, part-time Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, which admitted that it lacked the time and resources to evaluate it fully.

This arbitrary pick-and-choose approach to the MIDP, combined with the never-released “amended” MIDP and an Appendix to a report that nobody has seen, means that Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs have effectively created a shadow report lacking any grounding in a Quayside-only analysis.

There are also strong reasons to doubt that Waterfront Toronto has conducted a thorough assessment of this project, beyond the fact that it has not released the technical evaluation. To take only one example, “Mass timber construction” (Attachment 1, p. 5) is touted as an innovation that can work at the Quayside level. However, in the MIDP, it is claimed that a development on the level of the “River District” would be required to make it feasible. In the MIDP’s own words:

These benefits only become possible at the scale of the River District. … While Quayside’s size — it consists of only 10 buildings — is too small to support a re-conception of the entire construction supply chain, the River District would provide the developable area to achieve the full power of this approach. Sidewalk Labs estimates that roughly 6 million square feet of development are needed to justify an investment in the factory-based production of mass timber, as well as for such a factory to hit peak efficiency in producing sustainable building components on a predictable timeline that developers can trust (Vol. 1, p. 382).

Waterfront Toronto needs to explain why they believe that this policy is feasible on Quayside’s much smaller scale, and why Sidewalk Labs was wrong in their assessment. Otherwise, the overwhelming suspicion is that one (or both) of these policies have no basis in any objective, empirical analysis.

It is a fundamental principle of open government that citizens should be able to review a report that they are being asked to comment on. If Waterfront Toronto were serious about soliciting informed public comments, they would have released a revised version of the MIDP immediately after reaching the October 31 agreement with Sidewalk Labs. Instead, this Discussion Guide is a discussion guide to a report that has not been released to the public, with Waterfront Toronto asking the public to trust, sight unseen, that it actually conducted a thorough assessment.

These problems are in addition to the general lack of substantive public consultations, post-MIDP. The rushed July 2019 consultations were effectively rendered moot when Waterfront Toronto telegraphed its primary concerns with the MIDP through its Note to Reader prior to the consultations. Then, on August 1, 2019, it effectively announced negotiations with Sidewalk Labs to deal with these concerns. The result was the October 31 agreement, on which the public-consultations seem to have had a minimal effect. There seems to be little reason to expect two 3.5-hour public meetings on a Saturday and just over a month of online openness to submissions will be treated any differently.

2. Lack of digital/data governance expertise. Although Waterfront Toronto claims that it “has been working for years to create the enabling conditions to establish a testbed for emerging technologies in areas related to sustainability and urban innovation,” it has not shown that it has done anything to build its capacity to serve as a data regulator. Relying on a part-time advisory panel comprised of academics and businesspeople (the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel) is no substitute for in-house data-governance capacity-building. The DSAP’s ability to fulfill a substantive role in Waterfront Toronto digital governance has been called into question by its own members, in the 2018 Ontario Auditor General’s report into Waterfront Toronto. Not only have panelists repeatedly complained that they lack the time to evaluate the various plans, several of them have raised this expertise issue in their latest report.

In the absence of such capacity building – and putting aside whether it’s a good idea for a local land-development agency to become a de facto data-standards setter for the entire country – Waterfront Toronto’s commitment to “be responsible for leading all aspects of data governance and privacy for the project, including related discussions with the appropriate governmental authorities” (p. 1) is largely meaningless. An agency without the capacity to understand what it’s regulating is an agency that will be captured by the interests it seeks to regulate.

3. No opt-out principle. Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Principles (p. 10) do not include the right to opt out of Quayside surveillance.

4. Lashing Canadian data and innovation policy to Google’s mast. The fundamental premise of the Quayside project is flawed. It is not designed to encourage innovation; it is designed to test Google products and standards (see page 11 of the Discussion Guide). This will cause enormous problems, not only for Toronto but for Canadian technology and innovation policy going forward. By linking Quayside to a single company’s technological standards, Waterfront Toronto (and by extension the Governments of Canada and Ontario) are betting that Google’s standards will be best-of-breed, and will actually emerge as the global standards. As a result, the federal and Ontario governments will face enormous pressure to accommodate Google’s interests and standards in the making of innovation and data policy. And if Google’s tech doesn’t become the standard, Quayside will become a white elephant. This possibility should not be discounted; Google is a late entrant into the multi-billion-dollar smart-city market, and Sidewalk Labs has no track record in urban development.

It should also be highlighted that Quayside’s status as Canada’s urban development national champion renders Waterfront Toronto’s much-lauded forbidding of Sidewalk Labs from lobbying governments on data policy completely meaningless. Governments won’t need to be directly lobbied in order to ensure that Sidewalk Labs is kept happy and Quayside running as Sidewalk Labs wants it to run.

5. Indefensible human rights assessment. Waterfront Toronto’s human rights assessment (p. 3) is being conducted by a for-profit tech company, Element AI, which conceivably could be either a competitor or supplier to Sidewalk Labs, rather than an NGO with actual expertise in human rights.

Recommendation: The Quayside project should be abandoned and Waterfront Toronto’s relationship with Sidewalk Labs ended.

Waterfront Toronto’s take on the MIDP lacks a discernible analysis; the Discussion Paper is basically just a list – it doesn’t include enough information (i.e., analysis or context) to allow residents to evaluate it. As suggested by members of its own Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, Waterfront Toronto continues to lack the capacity to act as a guardian of Canadians’ digital and data rights, nor should it be allowed to act as such. Its commitment to public consultations, let alone listening to the public, is highly questionable, as if it is just going through the motions of pretending to listen to the public. Its choice of Element AI rather than an actual human-rights organization to evaluate the human-rights implication of whatever it is proposing is absurd on its face.

This train wreck of a process has been ongoing for almost three years. The need to save face is the worst possible reason to undertake a policy. Yet it is impossible to conclude that Quayside is being driven by anything but. Sidewalk Labs needs Quayside to put it in the smart-city game, while Waterfront Toronto is counting on the Quayside plan to ensure its survival beyond its current time-limited mandate (as well as providing a possible independent revenue source). This whole project should be ended, the sooner the better.

This entry was posted in Quayside, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.