Two Waterfront Toronto executives who work on the agency’s smart-city partnership with Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs will appear before the House of Commons ethics committee Thursday to discuss the project.
Waterfront Toronto’s chief development officer Meg Davis, as well as Kristina Verner, its vice-president of innovation, sustainability and prosperity, are scheduled to appear as witnesses to the committee on Thursday morning. The agency represents all three levels of government; while municipal and provincial officials have criticized the smart-city partnership, federal officials until now have largely avoided publicly raising concerns. The ethics committee meeting is part of its study of Canadian privacy and government services.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus, the committee’s vice-chair, told The Globe and Mail that his committee has begun reaching out to a number of project affiliates to appear soon to discuss the project’s origins and implications for Canadian society. He said the list of witnesses they hope will speak includes Sidewalk Labs chief executive Dan Doctoroff and former federal Liberal bureaucrat John Brodhead, who now works on policy and strategy for Sidewalk, to appear in the future.
Mr. Angus offered a litany of questions he hoped to ask the witnesses, including how Waterfront Toronto agreed to partner “so quickly” with Sidewalk Labs after a “staggeringly short” procurement process, echoing concerns made in December by Ontario’s auditor-general. He also hopes to ask more about conversations between Sidewalk and the federal Liberal government, including the role that former infrastructure staffer Mr. Brodhead might have played in the project. And he has high-concept concerns, too.
“What is the long-term plan?” Mr. Angus said in an interview. “Are we turning public infrastructure and public data over to one of the largest American corporations in the world? What are the terms of that handover of real estate and the data of citizens? Those questions need to be answered before this project moves ahead.”
Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs – the urban-planning subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., one of the world’s most data-rich companies – agreed in October, 2017, to explore developing a digital-first community on Toronto’s eastern waterfront. Set on 12 acres at the foot of Parliament Street, the project is called Quayside, although the initial agreement included the opportunity to expand farther across the eastern waterfront at a later date.
In recent months, the project has come under fire from tech leaders and former project advisers, several of whom resigned citing concerns about the project’s governance, privacy implications and lack of public detail. Last week, the Toronto Star reported that Sidewalk had been developing more robust internal plans to develop a larger swath of the Waterfront than had been previously revealed, and that the New York company would offer to help fund a Waterfront light-rail transit route – in exchange for a cut of income streams including property taxes and development fees.
Ms. Verner told The Globe that the invitation to appear before the ethics committee arrived Jan. 30, before last week’s reports. “I’m expecting to hear questions with regards to the privacy implications for smart cities, and perhaps lessons learned through the research we’ve been doing as we’ve prepared for this project and throughout our community consultation,” she said in an interview late on Tuesday.
Asked about the Star report, she said: “There may be other peripheral issues with regard to the ongoing work we’re doing with Sidewalk Labs that may come up through the committee, but I am expecting that they will be focused on the items within their mandate.”
Sidewalk Labs did not immediately respond for comment before publication.
Each level of government appoints a third of Waterfront Toronto’s board. After Ontario’s auditor-general released a report in December arguing that the project needed more government oversight and had insufficient timelines, the province moved to fire its Waterfront Toronto directors, hoping to bring in more hawkish replacements soon.