What does the rest of Canada need to learn from Sidewalk Toronto?

5 minute read

The Sidewalk Toronto project should serve as a wake-up call on the need for a national discussion about the impact and influence of smart city initiatives on residents. The governance of the project highlights the need for communities to enter into agreements with clearly defined policies developed transparently by government and informed by residents.

On October 15, 2018 Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs released a Digital Governance Proposal which will eventually form a piece of the Master Innovation Development Plan (MIDP) for a 12-acre plot of Quayside, which is being developed by Waterfront Toronto in partnership with Sidewalk Labs. This proposal arrived two days shy of the one-year anniversary of the Framework Agreement, a closed contract that marked the controversial culmination of a Request for Proposal process that began on March 17, 2017, and eventually provoked the resignation of developer and Waterfront Toronto board member Julie Di Lorenzo.

The Framework Agreement formed a limited partnership between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, dubbed Sidewalk Toronto. Under this agreement, Sidewalk Labs pledged US$50 million over a year’s time toward the development of the MIDP, of which US$11 million would be earmarked for public engagement.

The Plan Development Agreement (PDA), a follow-up organizing contract to the Framework Agreement, established how the partners would govern Sidewalk Toronto and set out Digital Governance Framework Principles. Rather than consult with the public on this foundational document, the PDA was also negotiated behind closed doors and was released at the end of July, which also meant the relationship between project partners had been largely undefined for the better part of nine months.

The Digital Governance Framework Principles are aspirational and non-binding. They are not a replacement for policy on how data that arises as a result of the new “smart” infrastructure in Quayside will be governed, policy which should have been developed by Waterfront Toronto in consultation with the public prior to the development of the RFP. Each day from then until now has been a missed opportunity for Waterfront Toronto to put these questions in residents’ hands.

On the topic of engagement, Sidewalk Toronto released a Public Engagement Plan in early February 2018, nearly four months after the initial contract was signed. The engagement, which remains ongoing, has also drawn concerns over the lack of transparency. Roundtables, the primary public forum for engagement, focused on presentations of innovative urban design features, but largely failed to address residents’ concerns over foundational governance issues. This was perhaps best illustrated by the August 14, 2018 public roundtable – the third session in ten months – which was primarily devoted to presentations from Sidewalk Toronto staff on what Quayside might “feel like,” rather than the persistent questions from residents, media, and academics about ownership of digital infrastructure and data governance, among many other topics.

The August roundtable resulted in public backlash against the engagement process. Concerns became criticisms, and some of Canada’s foremost voices on technology expressed public frustration. Saadia Muzaffar, a tech entrepreneur and Waterfront Toronto Digital Strategy Advisory Panel member resigned in early October citing an anti-democratic public engagement process, and Jim Balsillie, among others, criticized Waterfront Toronto for ambiguity and a lack of leadership.

Sidewalk Labs’ Digital Governance Proposal will go before Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel on October 18. The way in which this document was developed reinforces a key concern with respect to process: The policies that we have in place to govern data, digital infrastructure, intellectual property, privacy, and procurement are out of date. This means that as the Sidewalk Toronto initiative advances, policy is developed on-the-fly by Sidewalk Labs, Waterfront Toronto’s current partner but future vendor, rather than by the public institutions like Waterfront Toronto, the tripartite agency that acts as “the public advocates and stewards of Toronto's waterfront revitalization.”

But if we pull back, Sidewalk Labs and Quayside is only one, albeit the largest, Canadian smart city initiative. Federal government is currently in the process of reviewing applications for the Smart Cities Challenge which will award a total CAD$75 million dollars to four communities. Award recipients will certainly need to address many of these same questions, but so too will many of the remaining 195 communities that submitted Smart City Challenge applications who opt to pursue the vision they laid out. These are not, however, the first smart city projects in Canada. Public and connected technology is already employed in many communities across the country but there remains an opportunity to address issues of concern before ad hoc policies become further entrenched.

What we need to begin in earnest is a national discussion about how we develop smart cities with governance that reflects Canadian values and in the public interest. Public consultation that covered digital and data issues like public trust and privacy just closed. Hopefully this will yield some useful insight and action, but there are many questions left to address. Who should own the digital infrastructure that is the foundation of a smart city? Who owns the intellectual property? What kind of data are we OK with collecting and where do we want to draw the line? Who owns that data, how can it be used, and by whom? How do you obtain meaningful consent of data collection in public commons? How do we not only protect residents, but empower them through these systems?

Over the past year, the residents of Toronto have built capacity; their voices have been heard. The timeline has been extended until spring 2019 and they have clearly influenced the policy that Sidewalk Labs has proposed. What began as a collection of resident questions about Sidewalk Toronto in a Google Doc is now a Toronto Open Smart City Forum. This forum is supported by volunteers and co-chaired by Bianca Wylie, Co-founder, Tech Reset Canada and Senior Fellow, Centre for International Governance Innovation and one of the City’s most effective advocates on this file, and Dr. David Murakami Wood, Associate Professor, Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies, Department of Sociology, Queen's University. Further, the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University is providing administrative support to the Forum. This is public interest advocacy scaling up and a demonstration of the power of citizen participation in an age of carefully framed public consultation.

The rest of Canada needs to take notice and learn from Toronto. Rather than starting from scratch time a community moves further toward “smart,” we also need to formalize what we are learning from the

Sidewalk Toronto project. The governance won’t look the same for every town, city, or municipality, but public institutions and residents need educational and practical resources to co-develop and formalize their own framework before the RFP is written.

The terrain is new and shifting daily. One lesson from the Sidewalk Toronto project is that we don’t yet have all the answers. What should be clear is that it is public institutions informed by residents who should make the rules and it is up to government vendors to follow them. Toronto will not just be a test- bed for smart city technology, but for how policy will be set in the Digital Age.

About the author

Matt Jackson

Matt Jackson


Matt supports the Institute's work on Digital and Public Governance, with an interest in the implications of new technology, such as blockchain and artificial intelligence. He has a strong track record of managing research projects from planning to completion, making evidence-based decisions, and providing actionable policy recommendations. Mr. Jackson is fluent in mixed-methods research methodologies as well as statistics.

Prior to joining the Institute, Mr. Jackson was a Senior Research Analyst with R.A. Malatest & Associates, Ltd., an independent Canadian Program Evaluation firm, where he managed several large-scale projects for federal, provincial, and municipal government clients, as well as private industry.

Mr. Jackson has completed an M.Sc. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto, and also holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Carleton University.

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