Sidewalk Toronto – The Whole is Other Than the Sum of its Parts
July 31, 2019
Dear Waterfront Toronto,
As you wrap up this first round of consultation and continue with your deliberations I have two thoughts to share from a resident perspective.
Firstly, “the whole is other than the sum of its parts.” I have no philosophy background, so this might be a misstep as a reference, but someone will fix it if I’m getting it wrong. From what I understand, this is a translation of Aristotle’s words. His concept lends itself well to understanding the problem with this plan, and its assessment.
The whole of this plan is that the framing of important democratic issues is coming from the wrong party. Many of the urban planning ideas it contains, the sum of some of its parts, when considered independently and at surface-level, seem fine, if not good. That’s by design. The plan was always going to be saleable when viewed through a standard urban planning lens. The large real estate transaction, an area I know you specialize in, begins to get muddier. The economic development and innovation approach muddier still. And it’s because the overarching construct of the plan – the whole – is flawed.
It’s structurally flawed in a way that is deeply challenging to resolve. Basically, the structural problem created in the request for proposal is replicated in the plan. It’s a circular reference. The request for proposal led to an omnibus plan that has offered a corporation the power to define organizing principles and governance changes for how we live. This is not work for a profit-seeking entity to do in a democracy. And it’s far too much at once. The impacts of this framing run through many of the component parts of the plan.
I understand that you want to thoroughly evaluate the plan you’ve received from Sidewalk Labs. Experts can and will be hired to do the piecemeal assessments of the component parts of the plan. Just as lawyers, management consultants, and a retired judge have all signed off on what has happened so far, on behalf of the public.
But how will you, Waterfront Toronto, then explore trade-offs when there are this many concurrent, and interdependent, pieces on the table? Start with just a few and you get a sense of the exponential complexity. Take real estate valuation, economic development, and the governance of public infrastructure. Then consider that these pieces all include cross-cutting democratic governance issues in areas that multiple global policy communities don’t have answers for, including anti-trust, and data governance. Add into that calculation the feature of time. What is being proposed here includes risks associated with time. You appear to minimize privatization risks in your Note to Reader. Uber did not start out in the market explicitly declaring itself a competitor to public transit. And somewhat related to that, what is government’s role in managing increased venture capital in municipal markets, considering recent history?
So my first question at the end of these shared thoughts is: how do you plan to factor this multivariate calculus into your assessment of the proposal?
Secondly, and probably most importantly, please consider that saying no to this plan signals awareness of how to innovate properly and responsibly, within reasonably established guidelines. If you want to help make space for governments to innovate, then the public needs to trust that an experiment will be stopped when the time to end it has arrived.
Should you proceed with another round of consultation, as is currently planned, I will continue to participate as a resident that respects process and trusts in the institutions of government. But it would be disingenuous not to share with you the negative impacts this project is having on trust in our institutions and the lack of confidence it signals in our political systems. The scariest part of this project for me personally is that it appears as though governments don’t want to do their job. That they’re more than happy to assign that responsibility to a willing vendor if they have enough money. But even if that’s true, I don’t think you, or the three levels of government, have the authority or mandate to make that decision on my behalf.
In the meantime, Sidewalk Labs will continue to market itself to the residents of this city, and to those that seek to benefit from the potential capital flows related to the deal. And they will continue to do so in siloed ways that avoid the problem with the whole of the plan, which is democratic governance. This ongoing marketing will continue to undermine your authority.
Many urbanists’ excitement about new building design, sustainability, tall timber, garbage management solutions, and playful safe streets and spaces will be further stoked. People are already buying into some of these component parts. Why wouldn’t they? Some are good ideas or appear to be good ideas on the surface. But at what cost?
Who is minding the oversight of governance for the public interest? Nothing is worth the loss of integrity that your organization will suffer if you enable the loss of democratic control to corporate capture. No real estate deal, no office opening, no infrastructure finance, no public realm ideas – nothing is worth that. There is no price you can put on our democracy and I struggle to understand the proper valuation method you might use for it in your assessment.
Let’s move on from this and move back into building great things on the waterfront, taking the lessons learned and applying them. There is a very bright future ahead for the waterfront and it would be wonderful to pick up where that work left off. You can keep the plan as consultant’s work, perhaps do some of the things in new procurements. That was always supposed to be an option. Everyone benefits. Onwards.