Subscriber Survey

Waterfront Toronto should not approve Sidewalk Labs’ smart-city proposal, subscribers say

Toronto's eastern waterfront.

Waterfront Toronto should not approve Sidewalk Labs’ proposal for Toronto’s waterfront, according to The Logic’s subscribers. 

About 57 per cent of subscribers disagreed that the agency should approve the proposal. Forty-three per cent of subscribers said they strongly disagreed, while 14 per cent said they somewhat disagreed.

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The results are from The Logic’s August 2019 subscriber survey. A private link was sent to subscribers by email and the survey was conducted online. All respondents were kept anonymous and duplicates were removed as needed. Subscribers were asked to provide responses to a series of questions. For this question, subscribers were asked, “Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? ‘Waterfront Toronto should approve Sidewalk Labs’ proposal for Toronto’s waterfront.’” Their choices were: strongly disagree, somewhat disagree, neither disagree nor agree, somewhat agree, strongly agree.

“We don’t require a global tech company to develop our waterfront and city,” wrote one subscriber.

“Sidewalk Labs has proven to be an actor that is not trustworthy from a business or collaborative front,” wrote another.

Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto first announced their partnership on Oct. 17, 2017. Though Sidewalk Toronto was unveiled with much fanfare—including a photo-op with the prime minister—the project has since faced a number of challenges. 

In July 2018, Waterfront lost its CEO, Will Fleissig; The Logic later reported the organization’s board had forced him out. John Ruffolo, then the head of OMERS Ventures, and tech entrepreneur Saadia Muzaffar resigned from Waterfront’s advisory panel, while respected real estate developer Julie Di Lorenzo resigned from its board. Privacy expert Ann Cavoukian also resigned as adviser to Sidewalk Labs.

In addition to the string of resignations, Big Tech critics, federal and provincial politicians turned on the project and an audit by Ontario’s auditor general found that Waterfront Toronto had provided information to Sidewalk Labs ahead of issuing its request for proposals (RFP), which resulted in the U.S. firm winning the bid. In October 2018, Jim Balsillie, the former co-CEO of Research in Motion (now BlackBerry), wrote an op-ed in The Globe and Mail criticizing the development. “Of all the misguided innovation strategies Canada has launched over the past three decades,” he wrote, “this purported smart city is not only the dumbest but also the most dangerous.” 

In February, a group of Toronto residents launched the #BlockSidewalk campaign, calling for the project to be halted until its issues could be addressed. And, in April, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association filed a lawsuit against all three levels of government and Waterfront Toronto, alleging the project violates Canadians’ constitutional rights. 

Many of The Logic’s subscribers took issue with Sidewalk Labs’ final proposal, the Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP), being outside the scope of the original RFP. The firm proposed a 190-acre “IDEA District” on Toronto’s waterfront, far more than the original 12 acres of the Quayside that were considered in play in Waterfront’s RFP.

“Sidewalk Labs’ most recent proposal essentially sets out a land grab/demand for more land without justifying why such a large parcel is needed,” argued one subscriber. “It seems like this newly expanded proposal … is a response to the increasing public outcry for a truly public decision-making process about the fate of Toronto’s waterfront and its call for public ownership over any data collected through Sidewalk Labs’ infrastructure.” 

“Sidewalk Labs continues to try to market its way out of seriously addressing concerns that the City of Toronto and its residents have raised about the nature, scope, financing, and governance of its proposed development,” the subscriber wrote. “Waterfront Toronto should not approve the proposal.” 

Another wrote, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” 

However, 37 per cent of subscribers said Waterfront Toronto should approve Sidewalk Labs’ proposal. 

“The media and popular coverage of the data concerns is beyond overblown,” wrote one subscriber. “The data at issue is non-sensitive and the privacy regime to be adopted in the neighbourhood exceeds the protections currently provided under privacy laws.” 

Another suggested areas in which the project could improve, such as having “an open model for data, algorithms, and much Canadian procurement, as well as genuine, listened-to community consultation. Better benefits sharing with Toronto of downstream financial benefits.”

After its troubled 2018, the project has received several high-profile endorsements. In June, Kwame McKenzie, CEO of the Wellesley Institute, wrote an op-ed for the Toronto Star calling the project “part of Toronto’s evolution.” 

A few days later, Richard Florida, the University of Toronto professor and co-founder of The Atlantic’s CityLab site, also praised the project in an op-ed for The Globe and Mail. He said Sidewalk Labs had the potential to “propel Toronto to the top of the heap in what is arguably the biggest new high-tech sector to emerge in decades.”

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In July, the Toronto Region Board of Trade published an open letter in support of Sidewalk Labs. Signatories included the presidents of OCAD and Ryerson universities and two former Toronto mayors—though Sidewalk Labs helped connect the board with some of those figures. 

Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto amended their July 2018 Plan Development Agreement in August, extending it until March 2020, but adding a provision that if the two parties can’t reach a consensus by October 31 on issues like the amount of land to be developed, the project could be scrapped. 

Earlier this week, Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel released a preliminary commentary on Sidewalk’s MIDP, calling it “frustratingly abstract,” and “not sufficiently specific” about its digital innovation proposals and how individuals and businesses can participate in it.

In a response to questions from The Logic, Keerthana Rang, Sidewalk Labs’ associate director of communications, said the company is releasing an appendix in October that will include “a comprehensive list of technology that would be deployed in Quayside, how we would support Toronto’s technology ecosystem, and our research work on data governance,” said Rang, who  added that the company is confident the appendix will address some of the panel’s feedback, but did not answer a question about why the information wasn’t included in the initial draft of the plan.