In the face of controversy, criticism and high-profile calls to go back to the drawing board entirely, both Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto say they’re undeterred about their smart city waterfront redevelopment plan, and a key public consultation session will continue as planned this weekend.
On Saturday, concerned Torontonians will get a chance to provide their input on the Sidewalk Toronto plan, including the first serious opportunity to provide public comment on data, privacy and intellectual property governance issues.
The meeting comes on the heels of a report issued Wednesday by Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, who suggested that Sidewalk Labs, a Google LLC sister company, received preferential treatment during a 2017 request for proposals by Waterfront Toronto, the federal-provincial-municipal partnership agency mandated to revitalize the city’s lakefront.
Waterfront Toronto insists that the process was fair and the contact with Sidewalk was just “market sounding” ahead of the RFP.
Lysyk’s report also raised questions about whether Waterfront Toronto had the legal authority to sign one of the agreements it entered into with Sidewalk Labs. She recommended more oversight and for the provincial government to keep Waterfront Toronto on a shorter leash.
Originally, the Sidewalk Toronto project, as first announced in the fall of 2017, was supposed to have a year-long consultation process, with a Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) coming out after that was completed.
The timeline has been repeatedly delayed, with the roles of Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs shifting over time.
Unless the timetable changes again, Saturday’s roundtable will be the last major public consultation session before a draft MIDP is publicly released in the first quarter of 2019 (the full MIDP is slated to be finalized for government approval by the end of June).
Even though Waterfront Toronto chief development officer Meg Davis said that the current timeline is still in place, she suggested further delays could be coming in order to build in further consultation time if governments want.
“It will be what it will be,” she said. “We will do our very best to bring things forward as quickly as we can, but we’re not going to rush them.”
Infrastructure Minister Monte McNaughton said the provincial government is taking the auditor general’s report very seriously.
“I will tell you that our actions will be guided by three principles. Taxpayers must get good value. Oversight must be strengthened. And privacy legislation must be followed to the letter,” McNaughton said in an emailed statement. “I will fix this.”
Former Blackberry Inc. co-chief executive Jim Balsillie, a persistent critic of the Sidewalk Labs project, called for a full-blown reset of the whole project.
“We need to restart this whole RFP process, because there is no longer any credibility with this current smart city charade,” he said. “What are we supposed to do, now that it’s official that the deal was illegitimately conceived and managed, and Google wants control of all data?”
The issues of data use, privacy, intellectual property and governance of the whole smart city system have always been at the core of public concern around the Quayside project, but 14 months after the project was announced, Saturday’s roundtable will be the first forum for serious public input and discussion on those issues.
… if you really respected the importance of those issues, you would know that you can’t have proper work done in a couple months.
Bianca Wylie, Tech Reset Canada advocacy group
Separate from the public roundtables, Waterfront Toronto in late November launched the first Civic Lab as a starting point to consult on these policy issues. The civic labs are expected to continue early next year and wrap up right around the same time that Sidewalk Labs should finish the MIDP, if everything stays on schedule.
Bianca Wylie, co-founder of Tech Reset Canada, an innovation advocacy group, has been following the project closely and said that cramming in all the serious policy consultations right at the end means that the process is mostly “theatrical” and not serious.
She said Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs should have done more public education and dialogue much earlier in the process if they really wanted to have an honest debate about privacy and data.
“It’s theatre. It’s public relations,” Wylie said. “It’s the time scale that’s the problem. Because if you really respected the importance of those issues, you would know that you can’t have proper work done in a couple months.”