The Toronto Star, Quayside, and Still Not Getting the Core Concept (MIDP Addendum #4)

One of the best gags in Archer comes from an early first-season episode, in which the team is assigned to prevent someone from blowing up the inaugural flight of a helium-powered rigid airship. Throughout the episode, our titular hero proves incapable of telling the difference between helium, a completely safe inert gas, and hydrogen (think: Hindenburg). Finally, exasperated fellow agent Lana Kane snaps, “What about that are you still not getting?” To which Archer replies, “Well, obviously the core concept.”

That episode came to mind when reading the Toronto Star editorial board’s and Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn’s mournful obituaries for what they saw as a tragically lost development opportunity. In their telling Sidewalk Labs was done in by ignorant activists and foolish privacy zealots who couldn’t see the bigger picture. They bemoan this grand “lost opportunity” (in the words of the Star editorial) for innovative urban development. The tone and content of both articles – as well as an earlier editorial criticizing Ontario Premier Doug Ford for criticizing Quayside – is basically, sure there were problems with it, but some of their ideas would’ve worked out. And now we’re going to be stuck with the status quo of ugly condos or – heaven forfend! – a Ferris wheel.

Cohn’s oped and the Star’s editorial position suggest a particular view of the world, one in which “innovation” is a product you can buy off the shelf, and in which Quayside is best understood as a normal a physical urban development project. While Quayside’s physical-infrastructure aspects were important (obviously), particularly for Torontonians, they were not the main problems with this project. Nor were they the most important part of the project.

I think The Star’s blind spot is shared by a lot of people and policymakers who don’t deal directly with intellectual property and data, so I’m going to do my best to lay out the source of this misunderstanding as I see it.

The Core Concept

Here’s an example that I hope will highlight to Cohn and The Star what’s changed in the past two decades. When the 407 electronic toll highway was built in the late 1990s, the data its sensors collected was seen as a means to an end: identifying drivers so they could be appropriately billed. In 2020, the equation is reversed: The building of infrastructure is now the means to the end of collecting data, which is now seen as economically valuable in its own right. Projects like the Quayside plans are all about the data collection, as well as the intellectual property and standards that Sidewalk Labs was hoping they could produce in Quayside.

In other words, it’s no longer 1999. Most of the cheerleading for Quayside seemed not to see how projects like these have changed: they focused on the timber skyscrapers, not the sensors, standards and intellectual property.

Quayside was a Toronto Project with National and International Implications

Let me be blunt: If the Quayside proposal had been just another urban-development project, nobody outside of Toronto would have had any reason to care about it. If it turned out to be a mistake, Quayside would have been about as troubling as if Waterfront Toronto had decided to build a Ferris wheel on its land. Which is to say, Torontonians would be stuck with an eyesore and a lost opportunity for something better (unless you like Ferris wheels), but life would continue on elsewhere in the country, with the added bonus that Calgarians and Haligonians would have one more thing about Toronto to mock.

But the proposed Quayside project was not a Ferris wheel. Quayside mattered not because it was a terrible urban-development project, but because it was an exercise in designing data-collection standards and promoting a particular vision of digital economic development. The problem here is two-fold: first, that Quayside would have given the opportunity for Google to drive Canadian economic policy to a disproportionate degree; and, second, it would have allowed Waterfront Toronto (and, really, Google) to become a de facto data-standards-setter for the country.

This is where it’s important to understand that “innovation” isn’t something that you buy. Innovation is something that governments create the conditions for. Innovation happens all the time, but it’s the underlying rules that determine what type of innovative activities occur, and whose interests they serve. That’s what was at stake here.

Quayside was all about determining what these rules were going to be, who was going to set them, and in whose interest. This matters because all regulatory frameworks are not created equal.

Google – let’s not be so naïve as to pretend that Sidewalk Labs is anything other than a wholly controlled Google play – has a particular business model based on the ubiquitous surveillance of everything at all times. The criticisms of this model have become commonplace; my main point here is that allowing Google to set up an urban innovation hub in the Eastern Waterfront would have placed enormous pressure on the federal and Ontario governments to become champions of the Google business model.

Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto were always up front about wanting to get into the smart city market. If they had been successful, the project would have been Canada’s de facto national champion in that market. As a result, governments would have been under excruciating pressure to adapt Canadian data and economic policy to serve Google’s ends, even if these ends were not in the interests of the wider economy or citizens’ basic rights. The debate we need to have on this issue would have been settled by facts on the ground.

We should also be clear about the nature and riskiness of this bet. One of the biggest knocks against Sidewalk Labs, which that The Star never took seriously, is that Google has no experience in this field. Much is made – including by Cohn – of Google’s outsized stature in the digital economy, and pretty much every Quayside cheerleader treated Google’s involvement as a sure bet. But in reality Google is a newcomer to the smart-city market. Companies like IBM have a by-now decade-plus head start on them, to say nothing of decades of experience dealing with governments as clients. There’s a reason why IBM’s forays into the smart-city market haven’t made the same waves as Google’s.

One of the main things Sidewalk Labs wanted to do with Quayside was to create smart-city-related standards. Standards, by definition, are the rules that others have to follow. But you can be sure that other companies and organizations are not just waiting around for Google to show us the way; they’re trying to come up with standards of their own.

And Google could easily lose this battle. Remember Google Plus? Google Reader? This is not a company with a record of sticking with money-losing investments, whatever they claim.

In other words, Waterfront Toronto was not creating the conditions for “innovation,” or buying “innovation.” This tiny land-development agency, isolated from direct political influence, was tying a not-insignificant part of the Canadian economy to Google’s mast, gambling that Google’s standards would emerge victorious on the global market.

I’m not sure that’s a bet I would feel comfortable making.

For many of the same reasons, and since Canada’s data-governance frameworks are woefully out of date, the Quayside project ran the very real risk of giving effective Canada-wide data-standards-setting power to a land-development agency located in one city, isolated from political influence and with no experience in or mandate to deal with these issues.

Google itself would have had a de facto strong voice in this debate, thanks to Quayside. Waterfront Toronto did manage to wrest from Sidewalk Labs a promise that it would not lobby Canadian governments on data-governance issues. But Sidewalk Labs wouldn’t have needed to lobby directly if: a) its interests were aligned with Waterfront Toronto’s; b) other branches of Google could make the case; and c) Canadian policymakers could see what’s needed to make its bet on the smart-city market pay off.

DSAP’s Fraught Future

Lest there be any misunderstanding, Waterfront Toronto, a land developer, should not be in the business of setting data standards. Putting aside the – to me decisive – issue of the legitimacy of placing such an agency in this role, there’s the issue of competence. Waterfront Toronto’s expertise lies almost exclusively within its part-time, volunteer Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. Such a panel is no substitute for in-house expertise.

What’s more, beyond the fact that it is a volunteer, part-time panel, members run the risk of conflicts of interest in designing new projects, be they directly in the form of business interests that might benefit from future involvement on digital-innovation projects, or indirectly through the receipt of industry-based research funding. (This is why you need civil servants working on these issues.) This is not to say that DSAP should not be involved with Waterfront Toronto, but it would work best as a check on actual in-house expertise. It can’t be Waterfront Toronto’s digital-policy arm.

I hope that both Waterfront Toronto and DSAP seriously consider these issues as they decide what to do next with Quayside.

Dazzled by Data

I’m not going to deal much with the other questionable parts of The Star and Cohn’s analyses, except to say that they failed to pay serious attention to both the woeful inadequacies in Sidewalk Labs’ plan and Waterfront Toronto’s back-to-front governance failures. Cohn writes:

Some (but by no means all) urban planners were dismissive of Sidewalk Labs, lampooning its lack of experience in construction and real estate development (just like the smart money mocked Google and Yahoo a generation ago when the Yellow Pages seemed unbeatable).

Nothing like deploying vague generalities to dismiss concrete criticisms.

I would invite Cohn to dip into my MIDP analysis at random and tell me which proposals he thinks are well-considered and which ones aren’t. Or maybe, to make it simple, he can tell me why we should trust a company that spent twice as many pages describing how a smart thermostat works as it did outlining the revolutionary power grid it planned to build. Or maybe he can share a list of which companies with no track record he’d like to build Toronto’s critical infrastructure.

And on governance, maybe The Star could explain why, exactly, they proved so keen to sign on to a plan that was gutted in October and reduced to a list of various technologies in February, all without Waterfront Toronto or Sidewalk Labs having done any substantive economic, environmental or social assessment on the amended report.

I think these opinions are likewise grounded in the incorrect assumption that this was primarily a physical urban-development project, mixed in with an unstated belief that big data is the answer to all our problems and that tech companies can do magic.

Hatred of Toronto’s developmental status quo is completely understandable, but why would anyone think that a search-engine/advertising company (whose product, BTW, is much closer to the Yellow Pages than it is to urban planning) could plan a city? What about this am I still not getting?

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