Sidewalk Labs' Quayside plan: The train wreck rolls on

Courtesy of Sidewalk Labs

Courtesy of Sidewalk Labs

Urban development is never easy and rarely pretty. Convincing every stakeholder to sign off on a big, transformative project requires bottomless reserves of patience, time, savvy, public buy-in and a talent for deal-making. 

But trying to ram big projects through in secrecy, and with little or no public consultation and transparency, is far worse. Throw in data governance and privacy issues and we’re just scratching the surface of what a disaster Sidewalk Labs’ rollout of its proposed project in Toronto has been on every front for the past two years. And, stunningly, it’s showing no signs of improvement despite repeated opportunities for course correction.

It all began in October 2017, when Waterfront Toronto, the multi-governmental agency responsible for developing a portion of the city’s portlands, awarded the contract to Sidewalk Labs, a Google sister company. Sidewalk was keen to create a smart city on the 12-acre plot of land known as Quayside.

Just one problem. Ever since, the company has been reluctant to share with city officials or the public how it plans to use the data it hopes to collect in its smart city. Yes, some positive noises have been made by Sidewalk with respect to a data governance trust. However, clear and simple messaging along the lines of “we won’t use your data to make money without telling you” has been desperately lacking.

But that’s just data. What about the “smart city” itself? Details have changed, from the size of the proposed development, to the contingencies of its completion, to what the smart city will do and how it will do it.

From the opaque consultation process to the mixed messaging and the subsequent attempts to defend its proposals, it has felt like two years of smoke and mirrors. Then, in June, as the criticism about the secrecy surrounding the project reached fever pitch, Sidewalk Labs issued its “Master Innovation and Development Plan.”

A document named so boldly and characterized so clearly as definitive surely would answer all skeptics’ questions, right?

Evisceration

Just last week, Waterfront Toronto’s advisory panel eviscerated the document, saying the plan was “frustratingly abstract,” “unwieldy and repetitive,” and “overly focused on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how.’”

“In many areas, the MIDP is not sufficiently specific about critical areas of its digital innovation proposals, and it does not provide a clear path for individuals, civic society, or small/startup businesses to participate from design, implementation, operations, and sustainability perspective,” the report stated.

On the data governance front, the panel urged Sidewalk to focus on “elaborating on how it will make its own proposals for data collection, processing and use more transparent, accountable, and amenable to a robust privacy protection regime.” 

Ah yes, “how.” Next to “why” -- which I still view as an open question as a citizen of Toronto -- this is the most important yet most poorly answered question that Sidewalk should tackle.

Next steps will involve Sidewalk addressing the panel’s concerns. Apparently that process has already begun. This is a company that desperately needs good PR and communications counsel and a complete overhaul of its proposals and its approach -- all at once. 

I run a strategic communications firm, so I can’t help but wonder: Amid the half-answers and bad message management, what’s at the heart of this prolonged and embarrassing rollout? Arrogance? Inexperience? Or some combination of the two?

Meanwhile, the train wreck rolls on. Just this week, the Globe and Mail reported that Sidewalk is actually seeking a significant amount of real estate value -- in the hundreds of millions of dollars, by some estimates -- as a stealth subsidy of its project. 

So, to recap: Poor transparency, weak data governance, no clear accountability and potentially massive taxpayer subsidies in exchange for vague promises of civic innovation.

Do we want this? That’s debatable.

Do we need it? Definitely not.