Mark Wilson, a former IBM executive, serves on the boards of several Toronto cultural institutions. He was chair of the board of Waterfront Toronto from 2007 to 2016.
Somehow, we’re at risk of losing the plot on “Sidewalk Toronto,” Waterfront Toronto’s joint effort with Sidewalk Labs to create a new sustainable, affordable neighbourhood by the lake through forward-thinking urban design supported by leading-edge technology. Or, should I say, to develop a proposal for such a neighbourhood. Because that’s all that’s happening right now.
In March, 2017, Waterfront Toronto, looking at problems facing our city – from the skyrocketing cost of housing to a growing transit and congestion emergency – decided to try something radically different with land it owned at Parliament Slip. Instead of using its proven model of master planning followed by publicly tendering land for development, Waterfront Toronto issued a request for proposal (RFP) for an innovation partner to make a new neighbourhood, Quayside, as a demonstration project for big solutions to big problems. Higher levels of affordability, mobility, sustainability and economic opportunity were Quayside’s targeted outcomes. Solutions piloted there could be taken up across the waterfront, the Greater Toronto Area and beyond.
Sidewalk Labs was started by Alphabet, Google’s parent, to pursue the mission of improving life in cities. It’s a for-profit enterprise, with the benefit of patient capital only a company such as Alphabet could provide. Sidewalk Labs responded to Waterfront Toronto’s RFP and was selected through a robust procurement process.
Given some of the criticism, you might be surprised to learn that Sidewalk Labs did not get any land as a result of winning this RFP – not a square metre. Instead, it committed US$50-million to develop a plan, with absolutely no guarantee it would be adopted and with onerous government-approval requirements. Sidewalk did so both because it believed Toronto was the best city in which to do this work, and because it was convinced of the feasibility of the innovative ideas and objectives at the heart of the project.
Yes, it is taking considerably longer than originally envisioned, and answers to key questions – including those related to digital governance – still need to be provided in the public process.
So what? Take the time to get it right. Not even the first draft of a plan has been finished, let alone has anyone asked for approval.
Among the issues being addressed with an array of expert Canadian advisers: How to fund not just traditional infrastructure, but digital and social infrastructure creating an inclusive community while facilitating innovation from Canadian players (not just Sidewalk)? How to deploy technology while protecting personal privacy and the public interest? How to manage data and intellectual property?
I have a glimpse of this work serving on a panel advising Waterfront Toronto on its digital strategy, focused on Quayside. I also served on Waterfront’s board for 14 years, including 10 as chair, although my tenure ended before this project was hatched.
As Waterfront and Sidewalk are doing what they said they would do, the volume of criticism is rising. It can be hard to determine what’s going on because of the mix of voices involved.
Some are committed urbanists and privacy advocates worried about whether this project will deliver the benefits it promises while protecting the public interest. They want to ensure that the final plan isn’t rushed through or rubber-stamped by governments. I am confident that won’t happen, but vigilance is healthy.
Others come to this discussion with different agendas: animus toward all global technology firms, including Google; opposition to any role by the private sector in developing a digital strategy; or longstanding resentment over Waterfront Toronto’s role in revitalization efforts, despite its successful track record. Listen to them, and this all started with evil intentions and must be stopped.
Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs can’t point any of this out and have been taking a lot of punches lately. But the “tell” is that opponents want to shut down the project before a proposal is even offered. Perhaps they fear that it might be something good for Toronto – a plan that breaks new ground, delivers real solutions and addresses digital governance.
That kind of plan might be embraced and approved – much to their disappointment.