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Page December 3, 2018

Untangling Quayside & Sidewalk Toronto – Updates and Narratives

By Nabeel Ahmed - December 3, 2018

As 2018 comes to a close, there has been a tremendous amount of activity in Toronto on the smart city front. This post provides a recap of some of this activity (including updates to the timing and process), identifies four narratives about the smart city that need to be examined closely, and looks ahead to what is coming up and how Torontonians are talking about alternative urban futures. For the purposes of the post, Quayside (the term preferred by Waterfront Toronto) and Sidewalk Toronto (the term used by Sidewalk Labs) are interchangeable.


In the last week, a new report was released on increasing unaffordability in Toronto, and another on the TTC's challenges as the transit system with the 2nd-highest number of transit riders in North America and the lowest fare subsidy per rider. The city's chief medical officer delivered a grim presentation on the impacts of the opioid crisis, the provincial government cut protections for workers, the federal government undercut bargaining efforts by the postal workers union, and auto giant GM closed its plant in Oshawa, which will put thousands of workers out of jobs despite GM receiving billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded bailouts.

All of this is mentioned to set the context for the conversations we're having about smart cities and urban futures. To be clear, we're only just beginning to have the conversation and no one who wants to be taken seriously has yet claimed that a smart city will *solve* the housing crisis - even the autonomous vehicle boosters have quietly stopped making wild claims about how AVs will solve transportation once and for all.

So Quayside may currently seem insignificant in the big picture, but it has important global implications because of the scope of Sidewalk Lab's original proposal, the increasing international media attention on this project, and really, the power of technology. Just as success is easy to scale through technology, so is failure.


Recap 1: Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, November 15

The Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP), which provides advice to Waterfront Toronto with respect to digital policies, had its latest meeting on November 15. There were no new proposals on the agenda, unlike last time, and the key discussions were as follows:

a) The makeup of subcommittees: This was a revealing discussion as it exposed the different perspectives that panelists bring to the table, and different ways to slice the smart city pie. Does the panel split up to discuss technical architecture, privacy and security, and intellectual property and standards, or does it split up to tackle governance, architecture, business model, and literacy?

b) The makeup of the DSAP: Over the last few months, especially after Saadia Muzaffar resigned, it has become clear that the DSAP needs to recruit more panelists and bring on more expertise. There is a lot of complexity at play, and while the panelists have incredible expertise, there is a noted lack of capacity. Waterfront discussed the recruitment of more panelists, especially trying to find panelists who were indigenous, people of colour, or had expertise in digital networks.

c) The process and timing for the master plan: The latest version of the timeline, reproduced in an image below, calls for a draft plan (or Master Innovation and Development plan, MIDP for short) to be published for consultation by the end of Q1 2019, and a final MIDP to be delivered by the end of Q2 2019. The Waterfront DSAP anticipates receiving a private draft in Q1 2019.

figure 2

Image description:

Current Master Innovation & Development Plan Timeline:

  1. Public Consultation - remainder of 2018
  2. Private Draft for government consultation – end of Q1 2019
  3. Public draft for open feedback – end of Q2 2019
  4. Final MIDP proposal – end of Q3 2019
  5. Proposal consideration by Waterfront Toronto and City of Toronto – end of Q3 2019
  6. City Public Consultation & Staff Report – anticipated Q2/Q3 2019

At the DSAP meeting, there was a long conversation around this process, and how Waterfront Toronto would ensure that all stakeholders had adequate opportunity to provide input into the MIDP. The MIDP is expected to be a very large document comprising several hundred pages, divided into multiple volumes. The first private draft will represent the first time that even government stakeholders are able to see the plan in its entirety, who will have to provide feedback on a wide range of topics in an ambitious review process. 

For the DSAP, already short of capacity, it will be a real challenge to provide meaningful and specific feedback on highly technical and likely unprecedented technological proposals. In addition, they will not be allowed to share the private draft with any other contacts, even privately, to receive specific advice.

This conversation highlighted that, in the absence of clear directions provided by the DSAP and Waterfront Toronto, they would simply be on a hamster wheel, restricted to responding to Sidewalk proposals. 

The DSAP therefore agreed to prioritize the following:

  • Core principles for Sidewalk Toronto
  • Existing issues and concerns (such as de-identification at source, or the business model)
  • Known evaluation criteria that build on what was defined in the RFP and Plan Development Agreement
  • A clear, accessible process for MIDP engagement and review

As I write this post, it is clear that the DSAP and Waterfront Toronto are working on these priorities through a number of different mechanisms. 

Recap 2: Civic Lab #1 on Digital Governance – November 23

The first of 3 (or 5, to be confirmed) Civic Labs took place on Friday November 23. These invite-only fora are being organized by Waterfront Toronto to convene expertise on digital governance issues and inform the work of the DSAP and Waterfront. A full recording of the first Civic Lab can be found here, but here are the highlights:

  • The City of Toronto and Infrastructure Canada made brief presentations about their engagement with smart city initiatives
  • DSAP members and experts such as Chantal Bernier, Teresa Scassa and Pamela Robinson explained issues of interest such as current Canadian privacy legislation and global perspectives on smart cities
  • The room was divided into roundtables that discussed and then reported back on what Waterfront Toronto should consider, and how, with regards to digital proposals.

The following points were highlighted in the discussions:

  • Long-term, sustainable data governance
  • Individual & collective privacy
  • Learning from other experiences
  • Enhanced democratic institutions & service delivery
  • Broader education of the public and politicians
  • A digital strategy grounded in first principles and linked to concrete proposals
  • Connecting data and algorithms
  • Making digital ideas subservient to need for inclusive cities

Recap 3: Workshop on Data Trusts, November 27

On November 27, another invite only workshop on data trusts was organized by the MaRS Solutions Lab on behalf of Waterfront Toronto. The aim here was to get participants to provide input on the design principles and key values of a data trust, helping MaRS prepare a primer on the concept. The session consisted of a panel discussion followed by breakout sessions where roundtables discussed four scenarios for a data trust:

  • Human health data
  • Traffic and mobility data
  • Real estate and home data
  • Utility services usage data

Finally, on November 30th, Sidewalk Labs released more information on its plans for Quayside, somewhat confusingly referring by them as a site plan (which would have had much more specifics). The plan emphasized aspects of affordable housing and sustainability, and will be used to inform further discussion at the next public roundtable on December 8th. It has been received with enthusiasm for its goals and reservations among many for its vagueness.

The next few weeks will see another flurry of activity on the Sidewalk Toronto front; here is a brief list of upcoming events and engagements:

  • Dec 3: Alternative Urban Futures
  • Dec 6: Smart Cities & Human Centred Design Panel
  • Dec 8: Sidewalk Toronto Public Roundtable #4
  • Dec 12: What's the Story with the Google Toronto Sidewalk Lab Project? 
  • Dec 13: Waterfront Toronto Digital Strategy Advisory Panel Meeting #6


I want to highlight a few issues that merit further discussion over the next few weeks. 

1. The public engagement on the Quayside development is nominally improving, but remains confusing and flawed, to put it kindly. In contrast to most public engagement with urban planning, the issue here is not strictly that there is too little engagement. The issue is that there are multiple streams of engagement going on at once, led by two different actors with two very different incentives and time horizons. This means that it has often been difficult to distinguish between public engagement and public relations, between listening to community and marketing to community.

2. "Smart city" means nothing, and so it can mean everything. While the popular perception of Sidewalk Toronto (guided by Sidewalk Labs itself) has been that it is an urban testbed for digital technologies, the reality is that the current proposal entails a rethinking of multiple facets of urban planning: public space, municipal service delivery, the role of the state (including regulation and law enforcement), economic development, land value extraction, and of course, digital rights and privacy. When citizens wonder about Sidewalk Toronto being a Trojan horse, they are reflecting a sophisticated understanding of smart cities. 

3. Too fast, too slow, or just right? Too much, too little or just right? The Goldilocks level of public engagement around Sidewalk Toronto is highly subjective and the timing depends on the scope of the ultimate MIDP. There is a story that many Torontonians often tell themselves, one of unfulfilled potential and frustration with the status quo. Sidewalk has pitched itself as an "essential catalyst" for breakthrough innovations, and similarly, Waterfront Toronto has long prided itself on raising the bar. 

These ambitions can be incredibly inspiring and are not only worthy of, but also *require* serious consideration. That takes time. Government, unlike Silicon Valley, cannot and should not move fast and break things. Toronto's challenges are deep rooted and unquestionably the result of decades of under investment. We cannot solve past political negligence through new political negligence. 

We should be clear here. There is no delay or obstacle to this project caused by social justice warriors. Rather, Toronto’s citizens are drawing attention to important aspects that existing stakeholders do not seem to have appropriately considered. This is what makes a city great.

4. We need to imagine alternative urban futures outside the box of smart city fantasies, and outside the context of Sidewalk Toronto in particular. A common refrain throughout this project has been "quality of life", and the fundamental question that we have never answered is, What is the future Toronto we want to build?The answer to this old question cannot be centeredaround technologies, but can only consider them as options.

In this vein, tonight's Alternative Urban Futures series organized by Digital Justice Lab kicks off a much-needed conversation. The event tonight also builds on a recent fantastic evening organized by IntersectTO which highlighted a range of community perspectives on race, power and colonialism in technology (see summary here). The upcoming community session on December 12 being organized by the Good Jobs for All coalition will be a crucial follow-up.

Even when thinking about a smart city proposal, we need to bring together as many voices from as many sectors as possible.


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.