A public-partnership for secrecy? Waterfront Toronto’s ‘smart city’ ongoing discussions with Sidewalk Labs

Posted October 30, 2019
By Mariana Valverde

The Google-affiliated American company Sidewalk Labs’ 1500-page proposal for a smart city on Toronto’s eastern waterfront has received plenty of criticism since its release in late June. Surprisingly, Stephen Diamond, the relatively new chair of the board of Waterfront Toronto, seems to have joined the critics, issuing a sharply worded ‘open letter’ days after the Sidewalk plan was delivered to Waterfront Toronto. Those who’ve been watching the story and worry about the public interest breathed a sigh of relief.

But since Diamond’s summertime salvo, citizens have seen no information about how the organization is evaluating the proposal. In the summer Waterfront Toronto hired a facilitator who organized a number of public meetings, but her reports  merely told us what we already know: some people hate the plan, some people are keen, many people have questions. What we don’t know is what Waterfront Toronto made of the reports received.

In the fall, Waterfront Toronto’s own Digital Strategy Advisory Panel issued its own very thoughtful report on the Sidewalk proposal. This was far more critical than anyone expected, and not only in relation to data issuesBut we have no idea how the external panel’s report influenced Waterfront Toronto’s process.

Local observers had hopes that at the October 24 meeting of the Waterfront Toronto board some information about what WT is now doing with all this advice would finally be given to the long-suffering public. But the meeting’s agenda was as follows: 12:15 pm, motion to go into closed session to hear the report from the Investment, Real Estate and Quayside committee; 1:05 pm, meeting opened to the public again; 1:10pm, resolution arising from the closed session; 1:15 pm, adjournment. And someone who was there for the few minutes that were public told me that the promised reveal of the resolution from the closed session did not happen. So we don’t even know whether a resolution was passed. 

The Board of Waterfront Toronto, like those of other public entities (school boards, governing councils of universities, etc.) are legally bound to open their meetings, as the  default setting, to the relevant publics. They are allowed to go ‘in camera’ (closed session) when discussing a personnel matter or a delicate financial issue. But such organizations can and do avoid accountability by abusing the ‘in camera’ mechanism. 

Similarly, Waterfront Toronto is obligated to post board meeting agendas and minutes online, but there is no obligation to provide actual, usable information. During 2017-18, a dangerously large proportion of meeting time has taken place in ‘closed session’, as agendas and minutes reveal. Worse: Waterfront Toronto board members are prohibited from talking with outsiders about the ‘closed session’ discussion, and so cannot seek input from their own constituency.

Waterfront Toronto Board chair Stephen Diamond previously announced that the board – the legal body that must approve any proposal before it then goes to the city, the province and the feds for the next level of approvals—was accelerating the process with a new deadline of October 31. However, at an (open) meeting with the social justice group ACORN, held just before the noon Waterfront Toronto board meeting, Diamond refused to promise a substantive decision by the 31st, saying only that “an announcement” would be made that day. 

Sidewalk Labs’ 1500 page ‘smart city’ prospectus has been criticized, on this blog and elsewhere, for using marketing bafflegab and tech-utopia gadgets to mask the lack of the information about power and ownership that any accountability process needs. But Sidewalk Labs is a Google company, so spewing out words and pictures while keeping their real agenda secret is to be expected. 

But Waterfront Toronto is Canadian and, more to the point, it is a public entity. 

When Waterfront Toronto contemplates yet another tiny perfect public space, they share the plan, they release videos of future spaces, and are open to feedback. But when contemplating a megaproject that would privatize numerous public municipal functions as well as enabling the appropriation of people’s behaviour through sensors, Torontonians are kept in the dark. We have no idea if the lead negotiator defending the public interest in this partnership is supposed to be board chair Stephen Diamond, long-time chief development officer Meg Davis, or the brand-new CEO. Or none of the above.

Further, on October 25, the online magazine The Logic revealed that a very strongly worded letter from Indigenous leaders who had been ‘consulted’ at some length had been presented to the board of Waterfront Toronto. The letter blasts the current proposal for not having incorporated a single one of the suggestions they made, stating that the Indigenous leaders in question, including respected elder Duke Bird, were used simply to check off a box. 

Because of the profound secrecy surrounding this tired ‘deal’, nobody knows who is responding to this letter, if anyone is. Which underlines the illness that the Indigenous leaders diagnose, namely, that there is no accountability and ‘public consultations’ seem to be for show. 

Most Waterfront Toronto board members come from the private sector, and so know that in that world corporations have to make themselves transparent at least to their shareholders. So, how about treating citizens as Waterfront Toronto’s shareholders, since we have long footed the bill? Legally, Waterfront Toronto has only three shareholders – the three governments. But do we not live in a democracy? 

A quick contrast will illuminate the accountability deficit. When the City of Toronto negotiates with other entities (as it is doing now with Metrolinx over transit), citizens are told which deputy city manager is the lead representative of our interests and where and when city council will decide. Careful details are given about what the process will be for approving or rejecting any deals. 

For city business, citizens can readily access all the staff reports that councillors use to decide how to vote. So we see the evidence, not just the final decision. Meetings of city committees and of council are open to the public and are videotaped for ease of remote access. City committees occasionally go in camera; but in my 20 years of city-watching I have only seen that once, when a citizen appointment to a board (yours truly) was under discussion.

So, Stephen Diamond, sir: Torontonians are citizens, and this part of the world is supposed to be a democracy. As such, we are entitled, now, to know about Waterfront Toronto’s decision-making process. Why are we not getting even brief updates? Why do we not know who exactly is representing the public interest, and how, in this massive and unprecedented ‘deal’?