Skip to main content
Page October 20, 2018

The Digital Strategy Advisory Panel stands up

By Nabeel Ahmed

October 20, 2018 - Five months and four meetings after it was first constituted, the Waterfront Toronto Digital Strategy Advisory Panel finally kicked into gear. In keeping with how the Sidewalk Toronto project has proceeded, it was a bit of stop-start ride. Jerky. As if there are two drivers on this smart city bus, both trying to change gears at the same time, trying to move at different speeds. My biggest realization from yesterday's meeting, however, is that both drivers are new to this bus.

This is crucial to understanding what has happened over the last year. Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs both have impressive track records and incredibly smart, committed people, but Sidewalk Toronto is far - FAR - beyond anything they have ever done. This is exciting, and very complex, but also very powerful. That imposes a duty of care that either was not anticipated or has not been delivered. Now we're all playing catch up.

First, some context-setting, and a quick recap.

When we talk about smart cities in Toronto, we cannot just focus our energies and attention on Sidewalk Toronto. This is simply one of the smart city initiatives underway in the city, and all of them deserve attention. Take a look, for example, at the City of Toronto's proposal for the Federal Smart Cities Challenge, vying for $50 million. It was not shortlisted as a finalist for the prize, but represents the culmination of significant public engagement, aiming to reduce child poverty in Toronto's high-rise rental apartments through digital inclusion and literacy.

Sidewalk Toronto has both fostered an incredibly vibrant conversation about smart cities in Toronto, and sucked the oxygen from any other conversation about what a smart city could or should look like. This is not the project's fault, necessarily, but it is at the expense of alternatives. For much of the last year we have been responding to a shiny 12-acre plot instead of building our collective vision of our future Toronto. The Toronto Open Smart Cities Forum aims to enable exactly that.

Let's talk about the meeting. The Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP) had its fourth meeting yesterday. In the first three meetings, the DSAP talked about its mandate and governance (Meeting 1), Waterfront's new Plan Development Agreement with Sidewalk. (Meeting 2), and then (again) the mandate, workplan, and public engagement process (Meeting 3), minutes.

While these meetings were taking place, Sidewalk Toronto continued with its public engagement agenda - roundtables, resident reference panels, design jams, and probably some funky hand-crafted marshmallow jam as well. There is a lot to say about the public engagement, both good and bad (okay, a lot of bad), but what is relevant is that it clearly hasn't worked (or if it has, in very particular ways). Not for DSAP, not for Waterfront Toronto, not for Sidewalk Toronto, not for the public. So much so that a panel member resigned, three others threatened resignation, and in a masterstroke of demonstrating good faith, Sidewalk Labs CEO called criticisms 'unfair'.

So you could cut the tension in the air with a knife yesterday, as Meeting 4 opened.

In brief, here's what happened:

  • DSAP and Waterfront Toronto asserted their role in driving the public conversation

  • Waterfront Toronto presented a proposal for "Civic Labs", a series of three public conversations focused on digital governance and intellectual property. Read the proposal here; more analysis forthcoming. 

  • Sidewalk Labs presented a proposal for digital governance, including a "civic data trust", a data impact assessment process to govern the collection and use of data, an open architecture for data, and significantly, a position on data residency: that data would not need to be kept in Canada. Read the proposal here and Sean McDonald's excellent analysis here.

  • DSAP members had a robust, open, and engaged debate about these proposals. There was a lot of encouragement for the Civic Labs, and appreciation as well as criticism for the digital governance proposal (particularly regarding data residency). That's where the meeting ended.

There are three elements to highlight here:

a) timing and complexity

b) the process and rationale of public engagement

c) the roles of different stakeholders


Timing and Complexity

Sidewalk Labs sent their digital governance proposal to DSAP members, who comprise over a dozen experts, less than 48 hours before the meeting. This was clearly recognized as an unacceptably short window and shortchanged everyone involved. This delay is simply representative of others that have dogged this project, and is at the heart of many concerns that Torontonians have expressed. The panel asked the same questions. Why has it taken over a year to get to this point? Why, especially when the public has repeatedly asked about data governance, has this conversation been avoided, limited and stilted at best? Why have we been talking about timber construction innovations when everyone knows that Sidewalk are technology experts?

The answer from Sidewalk has been - well, this is complex. This is entirely true and cannot be overstated: there is a lot to unpack in this smart city agenda. Neither of the two principal actors, Waterfront Toronto or Sidewalk Labs, fully seemed to grasp how complex this was, and it's taking everyone more time than expected to deal with the ramifications of the Sidewalk Toronto vision. (This is especially surprising given that Sidewalk has from Day 1 spoken openly about learning from the mistakes of the past, with an urban historian among their key executives.)

As a result, the panel discussed modifying the general timeline of Sidewalk Toronto. The original plan was for a Master Innovation and Development Proposal to be submitted by the fall of 2018, which was then pushed back by Sidewalk Labs to spring 2019. Now it is increasingly clear that there may not be enough time to properly consider all the aspects of urban planning, technology, and digital governance that are part of this proposal.

The immediate implication is that the public and its elected representatives on City Council, not being experts on digital innovation, will also need a lot of time to properly digest and provide meaningful feedback. This requires building significant public literacy, which the Civic Labs will only begin doing. A host of other initiatives are required, such as the community engagements supported by the Digital Justice Lab and Digital Rights Now (a federal consultation on digital rights in Canada).

The second implication is that Sidewalk Toronto may - falsely - slip into the familiar narrative of 'innovation stifled by government', 'regulators holding back the private sector'. This can certainly be true at times, but is absolutely not true in this case, not so far at least. There has been no delay due to any government action or inaction here. Waterfront Toronto has bent over backwards to push this forward.

The Silicon Valley mantra of "move fast and break things" is broken. The entire job of government, and here Waterfront is the first representative, is to steward the public interest. At the same time, we don't want to reinforce the impression that Toronto is opposed to innovation and bold ideas. This places everyone in a tight spot - and so it is imperative to publicly recognize this.


The Process and Rationale of Public Engagement

While it is too early and unfair to evaluate a public engagement process that is still underway, the DSAP meeting revealed a key faultline in how the DSAP and Sidewalk view the process.

Several members of the DSAP expressed that it would have been better to discuss thorny issues earlier; Sidewalk has had a different approach altogether. It seems that Sidewalk wanted to refine its ideas before presenting them, so as to not appear unprepared and have half-baked proposals.

It would indeed have been irresponsible for Sidewalk to, for example, propose a civic data trust without coming up with responsible data use guidelines. What this does not explain is why these issues were entirely avoided earlier. Over $11 million have been earmarked for public consultation - perhaps some of that consultation could have been directly about data governance and intellectual property. If data trusts were one of the ideas, perhaps members of the public and the DSAP would have benefited from just knowing more about what data trusts are.

It was, and still is, possible to engage the public over time, communicating clearly about how this engagement would roll out and setting clear expectations about how the public would be consulted on issues of privacy. The approach seems to be presenting a fairly advanced vision that was developed entirely behind closed doors.

A final point about public engagement is that it seems to have been led by Sidewalk, and not Waterfront Toronto. The DSAP has been discussing this for a while; as panelist Carlo Ratti said in August, "We need to move past having talks about having talks."


Roles and Stakeholders

The most encouraging outcome of yesterday's meeting was that the DSAP and Waterfront Toronto not only expressed their resolve to take ownership of this process, but also demonstrated their efforts to do so, in the shape of Civic Labs. This was long overdue.

It is not clear why Sidewalk Labs presented a digital governance framework - it is as if Uber were to propose regulations on ride-sharing, or Airbnb were to tell city council how to govern short-term rentals. By definition, there is a conflict of interest. The Sidewalk presentation began by trying to acknowledge this, only to have the Freudian slip of all Freudian slips when stating that there is a role for the "private" sector in setting policy.

Indeed, several DSAP members expressed concern about the provenance and nature of the proposal, and one refused to even comment on it, for that would legitimize it. Teresa Scassa pointed out that the role of government was quite limited, constrained almost exclusively to enforcement.

Sidewalk has an incredibly important role in discussing data governance - but it cannot lead the conversation on this topic. Canada has a number of internationally-recognized experts, including several on the DSAP. Toronto's people are its true innovation potential.

Addendum: As I write this, privacy expert Ann Cavoukian, former Information and Privacy Commissioner for Ontario and creator of Privacy by Design, has resigned from Sidewalk Toronto. This raises serious questions about Sidewalk Labs' committment to privacy, and necessitates even further scrutiny and investigation.


Nabeel Ahmed​ is a researcher on smart cities and the use of big data in urban planning. He previously worked in the not-for-profit sector for six years, focusing on social entrepreneurship and social innovation, and has degrees in urban planning, public administration, and business administration.