Urban innovation firm Sidewalk Labs is working on a “digital innovation appendix” intended to blunt criticisms that its lengthy master plan proposal for developing a tech-driven district of the future on Toronto’s waterfront is “frustratingly abstract,” “somewhat unwieldy” and repetitive.
In a presentation Thursday, Sidewalk director of public realm Jesse Shapins told the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP), an arm’s length group advising Waterfront Toronto on Sidewalk’s project, that Sidewalk’s appendix — expected next month — will feature five sections.
These include smart cities/digital governance, privacy regulations and Sidewalk’s plans for the responsible use of data, digital infrastructure, digital systems and data use, and ways Sidewalk’s project will “amplify” local tech innovation.
In June, Sidewalk Labs, a sister firm of Google, released a master plan of more than 1,500 pages that laid out its blueprint for Quayside, a 12-acre parcel of land near Parliament and Queens Quay E. that Sidewalk wants to develop into a commercial and housing district.
Among the urban innovations envisioned by Sidewalk for the area would be sensors that collect data aimed at making urban life more efficient, timber frame buildings and automated underground garbage collection. If the innovations prove successful, Sidewalk wants to broaden the project beyond Quayside and into the Port Lands, all part of what Sidewalk calls the IDEA District.
Waterfront Toronto has partnered with Sidewalk on the project but, this week, the DSAP panel of tech, data and privacy experts advising Waterfront Toronto released a “preliminary commentary” calling Sidewalk’s master plan proposal “frustratingly abstract,” adding it spreads discussions of topics across multiple volumes of the proposal and is overly focused on the “what” rather than the “how.”
The panel also took aim at the aspect of the Sidewalk Labs’ proposal calling for the creation of an urban data trust that would govern data collected by sensors in the new district.
Among the criticisms, the DSAP panel said it’s not clear the city of Toronto or any other government can “legally surrender the governance of data it collects to an urban data trust.”
Jacqueline Lu, associate director, public realm for Sidewalk, told the panel meeting that Sidewalk respects and will follow Canadian policies pertaining to data collection and privacy.
“We want to make clear at Sidewalk that we do believe government should take the lead … on inclusive, smart city governance (regarding privacy and data), Lu said.
Shapins said the appendix responds to “the desire for more information and specificity about how the digital systems in (the master plan) proposal might work.”
He went on to say the appendix will be a “couple hundred” pages. “I think that’s important. You’ve asked for more information.”
DSAP member Andrew Clement, professor emeritus of information at the University of Toronto, told Shapins and Lu that he is “struck” by how little Sidewalk has responded to DSAP’s recurring issues and questions. He told the Sidewalk representatives he wants to see much more detail about “what data are you going to collect, what are you going to do with it, and make a case for why that is necessary and beneficial.
“What is it that you actually have in mind for all this data … you can certainly be much more specific, even if you’re not being final,” Clement said.
“We absolutely appreciate your feedback and we are striving for that,” Lu told him at the meeting.
The panel’s report and criticism could be yet another blow for Sidewalk Labs’ vision.
Earlier this summer, Ontario Premier Doug Ford criticized the idea of Sidewalk Labs expanding beyond the 12-acre “beta-site,” calling such a move a “terrible deal for taxpayers.”
And Steve Diamond, the chair of Waterfront Toronto’s board has issued a letter criticizing the master plan.
Diamond says the idea of broadening beyond the 12-acre site and into the “IDEA District” is “premature” and “Waterfront Toronto must first see its goals and objectives achieved at Quayside before deciding whether to work together with Sidewalk Labs in other areas.”
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Diamond also says Sidewalk Labs’ call for a new Light Rail Transit Line in the area would involve commitments for other levels of government — commitments Waterfront Toronto can’t make.
In August, Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs agreed to set an Oct. 31 deadline to settle “threshold” areas of disagreement standing in the way of forging a final partnership deal on the project.
If the partnership lasts, the deadline both sides have for entering into “principal implementation agreements” — agreements to launch Sidewalk’s plan — is Dec. 31, 2020.