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Blog March 19, 2020

What’s Up with Waterfront Toronto? Why The Silence From City Hall And Other Governments?

The news on the coronavirus are dominating our newscasts so much that many other stories are being neglected. That’s natural. But some stories, like Waterfront Toronto’s relationship with Google sister company, Sidewalk Labs, planning the Toronto waterfront “smart city” project, were being neglected for many months before the virus struck.

On Saturday February 29 several hundred people attended a public consultation held by Waterfront Toronto (WT) on the current Quayside Toronto “smart city” plan, whose parameters but not the details were set on October 31. This is the last public meeting before the May deadline by which the WT board needs to approve or reject the plan. WT senior staff made several presentations that essentially told people, “trust us.” Attendees were given a 45-page full-colour document telling us that WT is now happy to accept 144 of the 160 “innovations” contained in the current Sidewalk Labs plan. I read the thing but would not claim I was informed -- in part because WT copied the Sidewalk Labs’ laundry-list format: for example, “innovations” that would require changes to current law or policy, such as Tax Increment Financing, were listed right next to gadgets. And even the gadgets, which one assumes are Sidewalk Labs’ forte (since they have no urban planning experience, even in the US) were briefly described, but without information about whether the gadgets exist already –some of them apparently do, tech experts told me-- or are merely gleams in a computer engineer’s eye. In addition, promises were made about WT supporting public funding for many of the ‘innovations’, with no clarity about what kind of public subsidy to an American tech company we’re talking about, or why taxpayers should subsidize a Google sister company.

Even people who managed to get to a microphone in the brief question time allotted did not get answers. One person noted that  the official report put together by the Swerhun facilitation firm about the previous public meeting (held in early November) listed eight pages of questions that WT was promising would be answered by the Feb. 29 meeting: but, he said, none of the questions carried over from the previous public meeting had been answered. Having attended both meetings, I can confirm that the speaker, retired union researcher David Robertson, was correct. 

It has now become clear that WT has closed ranks: oddly, there have been no whistleblowers, despite many resignations. WT seems to be acting as Sidewalk Labs’ lobbyist-in-chief more than as the defender of the public interest, but the inside story remains mysterious.

WT’s claim that it can both promote and evaluate a project at the same time is evident in the ‘evaluation committee’ that WT set up, headed by prominent public sector leader Sheldon Levy but also including several WT staff. Sheldon Levy should have spoken at the Feb. 29thmeeting, since his committee’s report was the main agenda item, but, if he was present, he did not speak.

There is further evidence of WT’s role as promoting rather than evaluating the Sidewalk Labs proposal. On February 26, WT’s own group of hand-picked data experts, the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP), issued a report that criticized not only some of the gadgets labelled only as ‘innovations’ by WT, but also questioned the corporate-driven and data-centric assumptions of the ‘smart city’ project. The DSAP report called for a sensible approach, “digital restraint”. That involves first asking if collecting data is useful or necessary, before pondering any gadgets.

I had scanned the DSAP report prior to attending the public meeting three days later and was astounded that the very existence of the expert panel, never mind its brand-new report, went unmentioned in the lengthy presentations by WT staff. The DSAP does get a brief mention in the document that was distributed, as one of several advisory groups; but most folks present would have had no way of knowing that WT’s own chosen experts have become quite leery of Sidewalk Labs, and indeed of WT’s willingness and/or ability to truly defend the public interest. 

The real issue now is that citizens have no way of finding out what’s going on. Are WT senior staff negotiating with Sidewalk Labs in New York? Or with Alphabet, the parent company? Is the city consulted in these negotiations? Is board chair Steve Diamond leading the negotiations? Or is it WT staff, and if so, who exactly? 

The reason we have no clue about who, what, when or where is that the three governments --the parents of WT, and the only entities to which the organization is formally accountable-- are keeping rigorously schtum. On February 6 I wrote to Mayor John Tory, Councillor Joe Cressy (the only politician on the board of WT), and the head of the city’s Waterfront secretariat, David Stonehouse, asking them what the city is doing to hold WT accountable. I suggested a town hall meeting to inform local citizens about what the city is doing to ensure transparency and to protect the public interest. I never got an answer from any of them. 

Of course the two ‘senior’ governments should also be using their waterfront secretariats (they each have one, located in the respective ministries of infrastructure) to give citizens some account of how public policy goals are being served by WT, as they continue with their unusual ‘deal’. But Metro Toronto is generally more transparent than higher levels of government, and locals such as myself expect our municipal government to keep us informed, even when they cannot control the outcome. For example, in regard to the provincial transit agency, Metrolinx, which has abolished existing city transit plans in favour of Doug Ford’s pet Ontario Line, Metro has informed citizens of what their staff and their elected representatives are doing to protect the city’s and the citizens’ interests. They have very limited power, but at least they are being transparent about their efforts to shape transit policy, and we know who’s in charge on our behalf (the deputy city manager).

In regard to WT, by contrast, there is profound silence in and around City Hall. Mayor Tory has made a few statements supporting the Sidewalk Labs plan – even though the plan will not go to council until June at the earliest, and he do well to remain neutral until then.  But neither Tory nor anyone else at the city has informed citizens, over the past few months, about what they are doing on our behalf in regard to Quayside. 

When an arms-length publicly funded agency run by an obscure appointed board is put in control of very important projects, the government that created the agency needs to ensure it does not lose its way. In this case, all three levels of government are involved, and all should be ensuring WT protects the public interest rather than listening to the siren song of Silicon Valley. But governments and especially the city need not only to act, but to also tell citizens what steps they are concretely taking to ensure accountability and protect the public interest. Transparency does not guarantee democracy, but it is a necessary start.