Sidewalk Toronto and What Happens in Silence over Time

This past weekend I was reflecting on what it means to have the kind of power that gives you the confidence to: 1. commit the public to a type of deal/process they didn’t ask for 2. can’t get out of, and 3. have no democratic accountability options for. That’s Waterfront Toronto.

I’ve talked to several people about this project lately, and one theme that emerged is that people on the public side are tired of it. It’s a lot of effort to keep up with what is going on at Waterfront Toronto these days.  And it’s frustrating, because there’s also this heavy sense of being let down by all the governments in how they continue to handle this matter. A few points in particular:

The communications narrative about this deal was privatized and is in many ways bad for cities. In the ongoing silence from governments, Sidewalk Labs continues to shape the story. There was a new round of wood building talk. There’s the recycling and AI story. Sign up for the Sidewalk Labs’ newsletter and you’ll get the beacon for how the stories are being shaped. You might hear Sidewalk Labs saying this was never about data in the press then you (if you’re like me) log in to some social media platform and see them on stages talking about data in cities. Bottom line: governments lost the space to have the conversations we should be having about pre-existing priorities in cities, about non-novel solutions, about public infrastructure investment. When a  journalist writes about how Sidewalk Labs’ recycling initiative is fine because it’s not tracking people’s waste back to their specific apartments, you feel the weakness in our press and our governments. Because the wrong part is being critiqued.

Go ask a recycling expert about how to improve recycling behaviours in apartment buildings and you can bet they have answers. I – with zero expertise on the topic – can imagine how you would do this as a community of residents in the building without tech.  The press and the governments are still getting sucked into novelty/AI/privacy instead of talking about the problem of creating new systems that we all have to pay for, for marginal if any benefit. Just once, throughout this process, it would be nice to see governments rise and shine the spotlight back into their expertise, their staff, their knowledge bases and where they’ve been failing to lead. I’m still in disbelief about a conversation I had with a significantly powerful media person that told me that of course we should do this deal otherwise we’d have a wall of glass condos on the lake. It was a stark reminder of which parts of this story some people are focused on (and which they’re not looking at at all).

Waterfront Toronto saying it’s taking all of this time because of the public is pretty cute.  Not in a good way. In the current silence I re-read the Jan 23, 2020 statement from the Chair of Waterfront Toronto’s board, Stephen Diamond, about their delay on a decision point about proceeding. Initially, it was supposed to be March 31 that was the date for Waterfront Toronto to sign this deal. Now that date is being moved into May (May 20).  Diamond, who has been constantly signalling that he wants to get this deal done, says the following: “This extension is to allow the public more time to offer input into Waterfront Toronto’s evaluation of Sidewalk Lab’s proposals for Quayside”.

Then in the same update he says:  “Since last November, Waterfront Toronto, assisted by local and international subject matter experts, has distilled the over 1,500 pages of Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan into 160 solutions and evaluated those solutions for their effectiveness in addressing critical urban challenges faced by growing cities like Toronto.” And to bring it all home, then says: “Waterfront Toronto will seek further public feedback at public meetings scheduled for Saturday, February 29, 2020 at the Westin Harbour Castle (1 Harbour Square), and through online consultations.”

As of right now, I have no idea how that work since November has been done, how the process has been followed, how in the world they’re making the trade-offs in their consideration of the ideas involved. In this silence, Waterfront Toronto is reverse engineering their rationale to map onto their mandate so they can come and explain it all, these months of work, to the public, on one day of public consultation. Think of the amount of complexity, which includes governance discussions of both the project and its parts, and a ream of subject matter experts. And then the reason that this is all being slowed down is because of “public consultation?” If Waterfront Toronto had been taking public conversation seriously since October 31st 2019 there would have been a concentrated effort to communicate often and with clarity about what it was doing.

Waterfront Toronto could have been publishing, it could have been hosting calls, meetings, events, workshops, other convenings with their experts. They could have been teaching and sharing about what they were doing. They could have been exerting their voice and using the crisis as an opportunity to showcase what an open government looks like.  Instead – silence.  Moving it all further into closed rooms and obscurity because they are entangled in a process where they think they can’t do this in public. Which makes no sense because it’s only by doing it in public that they could restore trust.  Their gestures and press releases don’t line up with actions. And the most pointed example of why big money takes situations like this and runs right over any chance of credible narrative and engagement because the governments – through Waterfront Toronto – are scrambling so hard to showcase later this month that they were right to push through on this all. Because in their world, they’re not allowed to be wrong. To get out. This is the price we pay for a culture where governments can’t change their minds. Sure, this project is defanged and mitigated and if everyone is smart they’ll shove most of the digital stuff away into tiny places for the future where oversight is going to be even harder. It’s the strategic thing to do for both parties, it’s not hard to see. Walk back all the public backlash stuff and turn this into a boring little real estate transaction with a side of poorly developed/thought out economic development.

How was this all allowed to happen? One of the things I think about with this deal is that it was done on my behalf. That lawyers that are paid for by the public, to advise Waterfront Toronto, oversaw and approved a tender document for a procurement that basically locked the public into a path with this vendor. As everyone can feel, there is no space for Waterfront Toronto to say no to this project. And that makes me wonder about threat of a lawsuit too. I was reading about another tender where governments were fearful of saying no to their vendor for fear of being sued. I wonder if and how much that conversation happened from the legal counsel that me (and effectively all other people in Toronto/Ontario/Canada) paid for?  I know this is a common issue in procurement. It seems to me that there should have been some kind of risk analysis done in the beginning about this issue. It might be a very common step in every deal. I would welcome other people’s thoughts on this. It feels like a vulnerability that needs to be curtailed for future procurement situations across a range of sectors.

In closing

What this comes down to is this tired sense of watching a small group of people get away with something that shouldn’t be happening. Everyone is highly vested in proving they were right to proceed, and to defend choices, and to make something of this. And whatever that something is will be …something. But what we’ve lost is all the other options. It’s the opportunity cost of doing this the right way. The chance to design new infrastructure rules and opportunities from a public perspective first. The chance to not be on the defensive. The chance to tell Waterfront Toronto’s story in some ongoing coherent way that uses its history to defend why it should have the power it does, to do things well for the public in a bit of different way. They’ve taken power they should have been careful with and made something garbled of it. And now they’ve created issues they can’t solve –  but force other levels of governments to act on defensively too.

You can tell this story many ways. You can be sure the way these two parties will tell it is one of listening and adapting and iterating and responding. Public consultation is being used to wrap it up with a bow.  People that aren’t fussed with governance issues are probably fine to see it advance. And those of us that aren’t fine with the corporate capture of this process sit and watch it all in mostly silence – but not silence as consent.  If you’d like to add your voice to those of us not content with being quiet, please join #BlockSidewalk on Feb 26, 2020  at St. Paul’s on Bloor – Great Hall – 227 Bloor Street East – Toronto, ON M4W 1C8 – more details here. And if you’re reading and are not in Toronto please support online and otherwise 🙂

“Les nuits de Lauzerte-18” by Philippe Gillotte is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

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