Civic Tech: Sidewalk Labs is selling quality of life, but is Toronto buying?
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Civic Tech: Sidewalk Labs is selling quality of life, but is Toronto buying?

Early indications suggest the project may not be transparent as hoped.

Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff, who spoke in Toronto last week at a conference and a public meeting about the Quayside project.

Never Too Soon for Mission Creep

At Sidewalk Lab’s first public meeting last Wednesday, both CEO Dan Doctoroff and Waterfront Toronto’s Will Fleissig spoke about the importance of public consultation and co-creation on the smart-city Quayside project. Nothing would be done without consultation, they said. And if the public or elected officials don’t like the plan, there is a clear way out with no adverse impact.

The next day, however, onstage at Google’s Go North conference, Doctoroff said Sidewalk Labs could get to work right away. And, of course, they want to—the sooner they get to work, the sooner the experimental work can become profitable. Right off the bat, Doctoroff said, they “could include pilots that focus on traffic mitigation, perhaps in the Queens Quay area, which is also down by the waterfront.”

As John Lorinc pointed out today, this work all falls within the requests made by Waterfront Toronto in its request for proposals. But the narrative diverges from suggestion at the public meeting that nothing is happening yet, and so there’s nothing to be concerned about.

At the Google conference, as at the public meeting, Doctoroff also talked about experimenting with a healthcare idea, based on a pilot clinic just opened in NYC. This Sidewalk Labs spinoff company is called City Block, and its mission is “to radically improve the health of communities, one block at a time.”

TechCrunch has more details on Doctoroff’s speech at the conference:

Doctoroff also referred to a “new transportation flow modelling concept” that Sidewalk believes can be beneficial to public transit agencies immediately, and that could come to Toronto soon.

All of the above ideas are not things specific to the long-term plan to develop the 12-acre piece of land being called Quayside on a section of Toronto’s Port Lands. In fact, Doctoroff said that in terms of timing for these smaller pilots, “we can start those right now,” or at least “relatively soon.”

Each of these pilots could involve their own public consultation, but we’re now talking about pilots outside of Quayside.

Missing Business Model

The Q-and-A portion of the public meeting spanned a range of topics, from affordable housing to accessibility to transit. It was mostly standard urban-planning fare with a side of tech discussion.

The public meeting didn’t shed any light on how Sidewalk Labs will be spending up to $50 million dollars in the first year. It’s essentially research and development, but what shape and form that might take is unclear. Until they’re forthcoming about the specifics of the business models they are exploring or services they want to develop in Toronto, this first year of spending is a grey area. Getting information about this or other parts of the proposed model might be a challenge with Waterfront Toronto, too. Turns out that they’re exempt from freedom of information legislation; they have their own policy instead. Freedom of information legislation, while not by any means perfect, is stronger than policy.

Beyond the freedom of information situation, Waterfront Toronto isn’t being open about the initial contract details of the preliminary agreement that’s been signed. No one on the Waterfront Toronto board would second deputy mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong’s motion to release the full contract. Instead, the agency released a four-page summary hours before the first public consultation.

This start on transparency is disappointing. To co-create and co-design it would be helpful to understand the context of this arrangement with Sidewalk Labs a bit more. But the transparency issue is nothing compared to the core problem beginning to emerge.

For Sale: Quality of Life

The phrase that stuck out the most from the public meeting was “improving quality of life.” This was the stated goal of Sidewalk Labs’ business. But it’s worth thinking a little more deeply about “quality of life” as a business.

Big tech puts an innocent face on its brands. Google’s motto is “Do the right thing,” and Facebook’s is “Bring the World Closer Together.” Sidewalk Labs’ unofficial motto, based on the public meeting, appears to be “Improving Quality of Life.

Last week, Google, Facebook, and Twitter testified before the U.S. Congress on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Senator Al Franken grilled Facebook’s general counsel on how a company that analyzes millions of data points could fail to notice two of them: payments in rubles and the sale of electoral advertising.

But interrogating and shaming Facebook is out of order on this front. Facebook isn’t in the business of managing democratic elections. The government is. The government is also the main institution responsible for quality of life. Acting surprised when businesses follow the profit motive even when it conflicts with their mission statement is beyond naive.

We don’t want to be in the same position in 10 years talking about how big tech companies negatively impacted our quality of life. Partnership or collaboration or joint effort—whatever phrase we want to assign to this venture, we need to be vigilant about how it’s unfolding. The accessibility of the Sidewalk Toronto team and the promise of many more public meetings should mean there won’t be a shortage of opportunities to do so.