Policymakers globally are watching Sidewalk Labs’ Waterfront Toronto project. Blayne Haggart, Associate Professor of Political Science, Brock University, and Natasha Tusikov, Assistant Professor, Criminology, Department of Social Science, York University, Canada, look at the importance of community engagement for this smart city scheme and those around the world.
On May 3, six months into what was initially billed as a year-long public consultation process, Sidewalk Toronto held only its second public meeting on its smart city Quayside development plans.
The proposed Quayside community was supposed to be a global showcase for what a smart city, “built from the internet up,” would look like.
But by all accounts, the latest meeting did little to clarify crucial issues, such as how Sidewalk Labs, the Google sister company partnering with the Waterfront Toronto tri-governmental agency on this project, would make its money. Most crucially for a project that is all about data collection and implies ubiquitous surveillance, their data governance plans remain unclear.
More to the point, negotiations between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto remain shrouded in secrecy, and in the absence of a clearly structured true consultation, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to believe Sidewalk Toronto’s Dan Doctoroff and Will Fleissig’s commitment to work with “the city and the local community” in “co-creating” Quayside.
Rather, the process resembles a public relations campaign, a suspicion not allayed by Sidewalk Toronto’s public engagement plan’s inclusion of consultative measures such as a “YMCA-Sidewalk Toronto Summer Kids Camp” for nine-to-12-year-olds.
‘Last century’ consultation process
For such a forward-thinking, data-driven project, Sidewalk Toronto’s consultation process is very last century. This became clear to us during interviews we recently conducted with Brazilian internet and knowledge experts.
In 2009, Brazilians were thinking about how to regulate the internet to address issues such as net neutrality and privacy rights. Like data governance today, these important issues generally were not well-understood, and were of great interest to economically influential officials.
The consultation process they came up with in response to this situation both demonstrates the inadequacy of the Quayside process and offers a better way forward.
So what did they do?
First, they ran a two-stage process. The first stage solicited public input, which responded to clearly stated topics set by subject experts, designed to be partly educational. Crucially, this was not just a one-way street: They used an online platform to allow for collaboration among contributors.
In the second stage, the public responded to a draft legal text, which they could compare to the first-stage discussions.
Second, the process was fully transparent. Everyone — from the largest telecommunications company on down — was required to put their views on the record via this consultation. This had the effect of increasing the relative influence of less-powerful groups at the cost of the large corporations.
Third, although internet regulation touches on issues that include rights, security, and economics, the government made it very clear that it saw internet rights as human rights.
Eventually, the process yielded the Brazilian Internet Bill of Rights (or Marco Civil da Internet), a law that enjoys a very high degree of legitimacy based on our discussions with people in business, academia, government and civil society; many of them credit this very process for that legitimacy.
Lessons for Waterfront Toronto
The Marco Civil consultations contain several lessons for Waterfront Toronto, which, as the lead government agency, is ultimately responsible to the public:
1. Ditch the arbitrary 12-month deadline. As Tech Reset Canada co-founder Bianca Wylie notes, Waterfront Toronto isn’t stuck with Sidewalk Labs. This project is too important not to get it right, and if Sidewalk Labs thinks it’s worth doing, it will wait. Or Waterfront Toronto can work with someone else.
2. Hold two-stage consultations. As with the Marco Civil, Waterfront Toronto should consult experts to help design a consultation aimed at educating the public on data and privacy issues and to encourage actual collaboration within a structured conversation. This would be an excellent job for Waterfront Toronto’s recently formed Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. Only once the consultations have been concluded should a draft plan be created; it, too, must be open to consultation.
3. Consultations must be fully transparent. Waterfront Toronto cannot create a plan in the public interest that enjoys real legitimacy if it is engaged in secret negotiations with a supplier (for example, Sidewalk Labs). Companies like Sidewalk Labs should react to the demands and needs of the community and not be granted a privileged place at the table.
The consultations and plan must recognise that digital rights are human rights. Economic innovation is important, but the economy and the city should be the servants of humanity, not the other way around.
Getting these consultations right is important. Although digital data collection is becoming increasingly central to economic, social and political life, policymakers, academics and governments are still trying to understand the full implications of what it means to live in a world of ubiquitous data collection and surveillance.
There are conflicting economic, geopolitical and human rights interests at stake.
Policymakers around the world are watching this project. What Waterfront Toronto does here will have significant impact on similar projects around the world.
If the community does not have a significant role in shaping this project, it’s hard to see how it will either be seen as legitimate or reflect the wider public interest.