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Sidewalk Labs – CEO Dan Doctoroff seen here on Jan. 13, 2020 – has managed to create a sense of inevitability around its effort without actually – yet – firmly committing to anything specific.

Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Sidewalk Labs is getting closer to breaking ground in Toronto. That was the clear impression left by a consultation event Saturday, where members of the public were asked to vet the proposal by the company for a new smart-city neighbourhood named Quayside.

It is likely going to be built. But what will the neighbourhood look like, and what will it include? It’s remarkably hard to say. After more than two years of work by the Google sister company and by the public agency Waterfront Toronto, the plan for Quayside remains oddly unclear, both intricately detailed and full of uncertainties.

This is a clear failure of the planning process so far: that Sidewalk Labs has managed to create a sense of inevitability around its effort without actually – yet – firmly committing to anything specific.

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The ambiguity was apparent at the public consultations. Roughly 600 people showed up for the sessions on Saturday, and they displayed a mix of views. Vocal opponents of the project were present in large numbers; so were people supportive of it.

But what exactly were they supporting, or opposing?

Attendees received copies of a list of 144 “innovations" that Sidewalk Labs has suggested for Quayside. These ranged from the obvious and tactile – green roofs – to the arcane and financial. They were organized by topic and whether Waterfront Toronto endorsed them or not. In effect, the participants were being asked to say: Did Waterfront Toronto make the right call?

But how’s an ordinary citizen supposed to know? This list gave page references for each proposed idea. These references pointed to the well-publicized Master Innovation and Development Plan – itself 1,524 pages and confusing. It also pointed to a library of supplemental documents. I haven’t read these in full. Neither, I would bet, had any of the citizens at the consultation.

The danger here is that decisions of little consequence are being mixed up with far-more important ones. Wood towers of 30 storeys; the use of specialized pavers; Sidewalk’s Responsible AI Principles; specific percentages of affordable housing. This is mixing apples and oranges and dragon fruit.

And let’s be clear: The most consequential issues with Quayside have to do with technology and data. Which data will be collected by which public and private body? Where and how will this data be stored?

And the big one: Do the three governments that own Waterfront Toronto have sufficient policies and controls in place to address these questions? There, it depends on who you ask.

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During part of the consultation, I shared a table with two people who had different takes on the project: Cybele Sack, who has been following the Quayside process closely and had many critical questions, and Andrew Heller, a tech executive who is optimistic about the future. Ms. Sack raised questions about the process, suggesting that she couldn’t tell if Waterfront Toronto had made the right calls, and asked whether Sidewalk’s proposals had been viewed through a lens of accessibility and inclusion.

Mr. Heller was optimistic. “I think this is a chance for Toronto to define itself as a leader” in the tech sector, he suggested, attracting investment and workers. “And is it complicated? Yes. It’s an experiment. But we have to experiment."

That is more or less the view of Waterfront Toronto itself. In an interview, WT board chair Stephen Diamond suggested that the multifaceted proposal by Sidewalk will push governments into making policies around the collection and governance of data. “We have to think hard about technological innovation, or it will leave us behind,” he told me. “Governments need to come to the table to address these questions.”

The good news, he said, is that any new laws and regulations will apply to the Quayside project, and that it’ll be at least two years before shovels are in the ground. A City of Toronto consultation process will come first.

Many more questions and, eventually, answers.

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