Thorben Wieditz is an urban geographer who works at the intersection of labour, community and big tech. He helped establish regulatory frameworks for companies like AirBnB in Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa, and is a member of #BlockSidewalk. Follow him on Twitter @twieditz.
February has been a busy month for those following Waterfront Toronto’s attempt to set up Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet, and sibling to Google, with waterfront real estate and the ability to collect data in our city.
On February 18, the tri-government agency released its Quayside Evaluation Committee Report, a document that continues the agency’s Kafkaesque process to reverse-engineer the justification for a “smart city” in Toronto. The report starts out with a letter written by Sheldon Levy, described as an independent member of the Quayside evaluation committee, praising the committee’s work. It appears as if Levy’s role with the Brookfield Institute, an early Sidewalk Labs supporter, has long been forgotten. It continues with references to evaluation criteria that have never been made public and is signed off by members who are either Waterfront Toronto staff or have a direct stake in ensuring that this controversial project continues to hobble along.
It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Waterfront Toronto’s Quayside Evaluation Committee recommends the continuation of this project. After all, the agency entered into a legal agreement with Sidewalk Labs that turned it into the co-creator of the overall plans. Of course it is going to evaluate these positively.
One could also argue that the agency was paid by Sidewalk Labs to do exactly that. And, being paid it is. Sidewalk Labs gave the agency $5.8 million for existing and new staff, a sum received after signing off on the most recent legal agreement between the parties, as Waterfront Toronto’s Chief Development Officer Meg Davis testified at the Public Accounts Committee hearing in December. Within the agency’s context of dramatically declining government support, $5.8 million is a significant sum, and more than the agency received from all levels of government combined for the 2017/18 fiscal year. On the Quayside file, Waterfront Toronto owes more to Google executives in Mountain View California than it does to Governments in Canada.
The script continued with what Waterfront Toronto called a public “consultation” on February 29. What was sold to us as a consultation seemed more like a carefully managed briefing carried out by dozens of facilitators, Waterfront Toronto staff and Sidewalk Labs employees. Staff reviewed Waterfront Toronto’s past projects and provided what one commentator called “overwhelming quantities of low quality information.”
What this consultation didn’t provide, and what Torontonians deserve, was the opportunity to understand and comment on a final plan for Quayside. Two years and four months into the process, there is still no plan for the 12-acre Quayside site. There is still no business case. There are no affordable housing numbers. And there’s no explanation as to why Waterfront Toronto should work with Sidewalk Labs. Instead, attendees were asked to pick and choose from list of 144 disjointed “solutions” that mixed a handful of highly problematic and surveillance tech enabling initiatives with a large number of commonplace (or even required) features, such as green roofs, or nice-to-haves, like heated bike lanes. Very few of these appear to require a partnership with a global tech monopoly to deliver.
The consultation also buried a number of items that sees Waterfront Toronto taking on an active lobbying role for Sidewalk Labs, e.g., recommending additional government subsidies to help its wealthy “innovation and funding partner” out. Worse still, this appears to have been the last opportunity for the public to be consulted before Waterfront Toronto’s Board will make a final decision on the content of the Quayside proposal on May 20. From today’s vantage point, it looks as if the agency will sign off on a plan that the public will never have had a chance to fully understand, evaluate and comment on.
The only beacon of hope over the last few weeks came from Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP). Given that the entire purpose of Waterfront Toronto’s Quayside project was to facilitate digital solutions to pressing urban problems, the DSAP’s latest assessment of Sidewalk Labs’ digital ideas matter greatly. The fact that this panel, more than two years into the process, is still not convinced that Toronto’s most pressing urban issues require the kind of digital solutions Sidewalk Labs is proposing is damning.
The panel highlighted members’ continued concerns about the lack of digital governance frameworks and the expedited nature of this project which seeks approvals well before we have fully developed government policies in place. The response by Kristina Verner, Waterfront Toronto’s vice president of innovation, sustainability and prosperity — that we are dealing with an “evolving policy frontier,” rather than a lack of governance — is highly problematic given the outsized power of Sidewalk Labs’ parent company Alphabet, Sidewalk Labs’ demonstrated lack of reliability as a partner, and the company’s tendency to ignore the terms of existing frameworks. In other words, trust remains a key issue, especially among digital experts familiar with Alphabet’s track record.
Importantly, DSAP’s Jutta Treviranus points to an unresolved contradiction as far as “smart cities” are concerned. AI solutions that are based on population data are inherently biased against small numbers and outliers, or minorities. Using data to guide and automate decisions poses serious problems when considering minorities and various forms of disability. The fact that Waterfront Toronto hired Element AI to conduct a human rights impact analysis is commendable, although its lack of human rights expertise has been questioned by close observers.
What is problematic, however, is that representatives from Element AI told us that Waterfront Toronto did not ask them to sign an agreement with the agency committing to forgo any future contracts with Sidewalk Labs or Alphabet affiliated companies. In other words, should their human rights impact assessment be used to make this project more palatable to the public and its critics and ultimately allow Waterfront Toronto to justify an approval of Sidewalk Labs’ proposal for Quayside, Element AI may stand to benefit from exactly that decision.
After close to two and a half years of controversies, I wonder why Sidewalk Labs is still here. The project has been reduced from a jazzy smart city proposal to talks of a branch office and 144 half-baked “solutions.” What started out as a vision to be “the world’s first neighborhood built from the internet up” in 2017 is morphing into a face saving development that has Sidewalk Labs’ CEO Dan Doctoroff espouse in 2020 that “[t]he project ‘never really was about data.’”
If Sidewalk Labs is not here for the data, what is it in Toronto for? Would it not be better for Waterfront Toronto to work with a reliable partner that comes with an urban development track record? Toronto’s real estate market, for better or worse, is booming. Toronto’s tech sector is booming. This is happening without Sidewalk Labs. Waterfront Toronto has built award-winning sustainable and complete communities in the past, without Sidewalk Labs. There seems to be little justification to continue this bumpy ride. Yet for some unknown reason, Waterfront Toronto continues to soldier on with it.
photo courtesy of Sidewalk Labs