And just like that, it ends, with Sidewalk Labs, the company that bragged how Google’s deep pockets allowed it to play the long game, that six months ago said it was in it for the long term, turning its back on the Quayside project. CEO Daniel L. Doctoroff claims “economic uncertainty” related to the global pandemic, which, I don’t know. The Toronto waterfront remains some of the most valuable undeveloped urban land in North America, and post-pandemic, a recession-scarred Toronto, you’d imagine, would be quite receptive to the promise of new economic investment.
Doctoroff’s letter has all the markings of an exercise in saving face, but that shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s been clear for a while now that this project was being maintained by a combination of bureaucratic inertia and the extent to which both organizations had bet the farm on this obviously flawed project. Which isn’t to say that its collapse was foreordained; personally, I figured they’d get something, no matter how unwieldy, across the finish line (see: face-saving).
In a just-published article in The Conversation, Dr. Natasha Tusikov and I reflect on some of the policy lessons this debacle can teach us. After all, there’s no shame, necessarily, in failure: Waterfront Toronto got in over its head with Sidewalk Labs and the original RFP. These things happen.
What’s less forgivable is the failure to learn from these mistakes. Dr. Tusikov, I and many, many others identified these issues very early on. But instead of listening to people who actually knew what they were talking about, instead of following fundamental good governance principles, Waterfront Toronto at every turn obfuscated, deflected and denied. I’ve detailed numerous examples over fifty-plus posts, totalling over 100,000 words, but just to remind you, here are a few greatest hits:
- Claiming a children’s day camp as a form of public consultation.
- Months after the (secret) Framework Agreement had been signed, appointing a part-time, volunteer Digital Strategy Advisory Panel to provide a sheen of legitimacy to an agency with no digital expertise. And then failing to give them the time to do their analyses – not that a part-time panel can make up in any way for the absence of skilled in-house analysts.
- Holding a whirlwind July 2019 “consultation” on the 1,500-page Master Innovation and Development Plan, before anybody – including its own analysts – had fully digested this monstrosity.
- Reducing the consultations to the status of a sideshow by issuing its own demands (the real demands) before even collating the responses.
- The October 31, 2019, agreement with Sidewalk Labs, which picked-and-chose a list of technologies from the MIDP, called it a plan, and claimed that they had amended the MIDP, without releasing an amended text. Or a (non-existent, or at least inconsequential) revised economic, social or environmental analysis.
- And the original sin, in the RFP, engaging in a co-governance venture in the first place, then claiming, upon the release of the MIDP, that Waterfront Toronto was now supervising Sidewalk Labs (despite the governing Plan Development Agreement stating they were in a joint relationship), and then, post-October 2019, they were back to working together again.
The tragedy is that the lessons that Dr. Tusikov and I (with an assist from Dr. Zachary Spicer) point out were obvious a few months into the project. This project should have been shut down the moment former Waterfront CEO Will Fleissig was shown the door in July 2018. Because of Waterfront Toronto’s … hubris? ignorance? arrogance? … everyone who correctly saw the Quayside disaster for what it was has had to spend the last two years playing defence instead of using our skills to promote positive change.
Waterfront Toronto needs to go under the microscope
The three levels of government responsible for Waterfront Toronto need to undertake a serious investigation into every aspect of what can only be seen as a colossal governance failure on its part. The Auditor General of Ontario has pointed out substantial structural flaws, and the extent to which it has engaged in stringing the public along in this process should be very concerning to anyone interested in good governance.
But now that it’s over, hopefully Sidewalk Labs’ departure will allow the people who have devoted so much time to this project to go and build something positive, rather than spending our time trying to avert disaster.
It’s somewhat ironic that the two events that most set this endgame into motion were the election of Waterfront Toronto nemesis Doug Ford (which led to the shaking up of Waterfront Toronto’s Board) and a global coronavirus pandemic. But, of course, it wouldn’t have gotten to this point without the hard work of many activists, most notably Bianca Wylie and the #BlockSidewalk coalition. As Dr. Tusikov and I point out in The Conversation, the Quayside project had implications that reached far beyond Toronto; for that reason alone, Wylie and #BlockSidewalk’s activism should be mentioned in the same breath as the activists, including Jane Jacobs, who thwarted the Spadina Expressway in the late 1960s.
While the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel and its members ran the real risk of being co-opted by Waterfront Toronto, potentially endangering their own reputations, their critiques were invaluable in giving reporters an “official” voice to quote in their stories. After all, it’s much harder to dismiss criticisms coming from inside the house. In the business community, Jim Balsillie is another person who has done more than his fair share to highlight the myriad problems with this project.
Edited to add: And I can’t believe I almost forgot to mention the principled resignations of Julie Di Lorenzo (from Waterfront Toronto’s Board), and Saadia Muzaffar and John Ruffolo (from the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel). The pressure to go along to get along should never be underestimated: It takes courage to stand up for your principles in the face of wrongdoing.
Finally, shout-out also to the handful of academics who did their jobs in critiquing an obvious flawed project, even when it seemed like we were rolling a boulder up a hill. This is what we get paid for.