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Advisory panel issues response to Sidewalks Labs' Quayside master plan

Comments from Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel include “frustratingly abstract” and “unwieldy and repetitive”.

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The highly innovative Toronto quayside project has divided opinion
The highly innovative Toronto quayside project has divided opinion

“Frustratingly abstract” and “somewhat unwieldy and repetitive” are among the comments made by Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP) about the controversial smart city Quayside development master plan by the Alphabet-owned Sidewalk Labs, a sister company to Google.

 

DSAP, a group of 15 Canadian and international subject matter experts who span a range of disciplines, meets bi-monthly and a Preliminary Commentary on the Sidewalk Labs Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) marks its first formal document about the development.

 

Highlighting areas of concern

 

In a blog post on the Waterfront Toronto website, Michael Geist, DSAP chair, writes that the commentary is not intended to represent the position of the panel as a whole but is rather a summary of the comments made by individual panellists. He added that it is also not intended as a full assessment of the MIDP but rather is an opportunity to highlight areas which DSAP members feel require additional information, clarity, or amendment.

 

Geist emphasised though that the concerns raised by the group “should not be taken lightly, as they are not lightly made”.

 

Some of the comments in the report will add to the overall concerns about the development which has been dogged with controversy, especially in the area of data sharing and privacy.

 

In April, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) announced it was suing Waterfront Toronto and the federal, provincial and municipal governments over the project stating that the three levels of government had "sold out" citizens’ constitutional rights to freedom from surveillance “to the global surveillance mammoth of behavioural data collection, Google”.

The development of overarching data governance mechanisms should be shifted to Waterfront Toronto and its government partners

There have also been a number of high-profile resignations associated with the project: tech entrepreneur Saadia Muzaffar resigned from the advisory panel because of concerns around personal data, followed by privacy expert, Ann Cavoukian, from her position as advisor to Sidewalk Labs.

 

The project has also divided opinion though. In July, the Toronto Region Board of Trade has published an open letter signed by 30 influential figures urging Torontonians and public officials to “welcome and evaluate" Sidewalk Labs’ draft (MIDP "for the many positives it can bring”.

 

Preliminary observations

 

The DSAP’s Report Writing Working Group – consisting of Charles Finley, Andrew Clement, Karen Gomez, and Mark Wilson – led the development of the commentary, and have made a series of preliminary observations:

  • Overall: in many areas, the MIDP is not sufficiently specific about critical areas of its digital innovation proposals, and it does not provide a clear path for individuals, civic society, or small/startup businesses to participate from design, implementation, operations, and sustainability perspectives.
  • Digital innovations: further information is required to show how digital innovations – including infrastructure and launch services – will support Waterfront Toronto’s goals for Quayside. This should include a shift from “what” is proposed to “how” the proposal will accomplish the objective, and why the proposal is superior to alternatives.
  • Data governance/privacy: The development of overarching data governance mechanisms should be shifted to Waterfront Toronto and its government partners, while Sidewalk Labs should focus on elaborating on how it will make its own proposals for data collection, processing and use more transparent, accountable and amenable to a robust privacy protection regime.
  • Intellectual property/economic development: While welcome, the current value sharing proposals are insufficient. Moreover, additional specific commitments designed to enable the growth of the local urban innovation industry are needed.

Geist writes that addressing these observations may represent a challenge, and potentially a significant one, adding: “Yet, we are confident that this commentary can contribute to the ongoing evaluation of the project by Waterfront Toronto, the evolution of Sidewalk Lab’s MIDP, and the ongoing policy discussions occurring at all levels of government.

Further information is required to show how digital innovations – including infrastructure and launch services – will support Waterfront Toronto’s goals for Quayside

“We look forward to responses from the appropriate parties, and to continuing to engage with Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto as this process moves forward.”

Once any amendments to the MIDP and/or additional information have been received (including any information provided by Sidewalk Labs in response to DSAP’s comments), the panel said it will engage in a full review of all elements of the plan that fall within its expertise “taking into account any relevant contextual considerations”. This review, which will also be made public, will include recommendations to Waterfront Toronto management.

 

Those with questions to the panel can send them via Waterfront Toronto at [email protected] and they will be passed on.

 

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