Sidewalk Labs’ smart-city plans for Toronto are dead. What’s next?
by Blayne Haggart, Associate Professor of Political Science, Brock University and Natasha Tusikov, Assistant Professor, Criminology, Department of Social Science, York University, Canada
On May 7, Sidewalk Labs announced it was withdrawing from its partnership with Waterfront Toronto, and its plans to create a neighbourhood called Quayside
On May 7, the Google company Sidewalk Labs announced that it was withdrawing from its partnership with Waterfront Toronto, and its plans to create a smart-city neighbourhood called Quayside.
The surprise announcement — attributed by Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel L. Doctoroff to “unprecedented economic uncertainty” produced by the current COVID-19 pandemic — brings to a close one of the most bizarre and ill-conceived policy debacles we’ve ever come across.
It is hard to exaggerate the extent to which the entire Quayside development was not just a mess, but an obvious mess. This was a multi-billion-dollar deal between a land-development agency with no previous experience with foundational smart-city issues like data and intellectual property and a tech company created in 2015, with no track record in urban development.
Built on data and secrecy
Smart cities are built on data, yet Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs proved extremely reluctant to even discuss data governance issues almost a year into their partnership. This, even though Sidewalk Labs’ main, if not only, competitive advantage is that it is an affiliate of Google, the world’s pre-eminent data company.
And when it came time to produce a plan, Sidewalk Labs instead delivered an orgy of mandate-exceeding ideas thrown together in a glossy, four-volume, 1,500-page sales brochure.
This was a project shrouded in secrecy, engulfed in scandals, featuring a governance style that could most charitably be described as “making it up on the fly.”
Significance of withdrawal
The Quayside debacle matters for all Canadians in two important ways.
First, Canada’s underdeveloped data governance framework would have meant that Waterfront Toronto, a land-development agency isolated from direct public accountability, would have had the power to shape subsequent and consequential Canadian data governance regulation.
Second, Sidewalk Labs’ presence in Toronto would have effectively committed Canada to a digital economic-development policy framework centred on a single foreign data company. Canadian policy-makers would have been under enormous pressure to regulate in the best interests of Google, rather than Canadians and Canadian tech firms. While this mentality worked well for Canada in building a manufacturing base, an economy based on intangibles such as data and intellectual property doesn’t work the same way.
Lessons for future projects
Even in failure, Quayside can teach us lessons about how to deal with the growing number of projects that have data or intellectual property components. We have the opportunity to design digital infrastructure policies that will contribute to our well-being. Some of the most important lessons (developed with our colleague, political scientist Zachary Spicer) include:
Policy-makers need to take data and intellectual property seriously. Data is used to determine everything from traffic flows to access to welfare. It is economically valuable in and of itself, as is intellectual property.
Don’t make policy with a vendor. Waterfront Toronto’s original sin in its March 2017 request for proposals was to share policy-setting on crucial issues like data and intellectual property with a private company. This is not just a problem for public accountability, but can lead to fundamental conflicts of interest when it comes to deciding who should control data and what should be done with it.
Develop data and intellectual property frameworks before entering partnerships with private entities. Waterfront Toronto’s other major error was not understanding the importance of data and intellectual property at the beginning. In a knowledge-based economy and society, data governance is a fundamental issue affecting economic development and fundamental human rights. Governments need policies to deal with these issue, and while there have been some moves on this front, we are woefully behind where we should be.
Develop digital expertise at all levels of government. In a scathing 2018 report on Waterfront Toronto, Ontario’s Auditor General concluded that neither Waterfront Toronto nor the province of Ontario had the expertise to deal with smart-city issues. This has to change, at all levels. We need people who understand how the digital economy is different from a manufacturing economy, and the related social policy issues.
Rethink the role of private platforms. Similar to platforms in other areas, Sidewalk Labs’ fundamental idea was to make itself indispensable to the delivery of public services. We need a broader conversation about the desirability and long-term viability of for-profit private platforms delivering public services, from health and transit to housing.
Finally, urban development should start with the community and avoid “technological soultionism.” Sidewalk Labs started with a set of cool tech that they tried to convince Torontonians they needed. Instead, cities need to start by asking residents to identify their needs and then consider all possible options without assuming that the answer to every problem involves big data and new technology.
Developing future policy
The two-plus years Waterfront Toronto spent pursuing this folly has left the Quayside project back at the starting line, but there’s no reason why we can’t learn from its mistakes.
We now have the opportunity to carefully develop smart-city policies in consultation with Canadians that will improve our standard of living and quality of life.