First #BlockSidewalk public meeting, 4/17/19
"We believe that when Torontonians challenge Sidewalk's bid for control, they open the door to a truly inclusive and collaborative process to determine the future of their waterfront, their city, and our world." - Lauren Jacobs, July 2019.
Happy long weekend!
It has been just over a week since Sidewalk Labs announced its withdrawal from Toronto's waterfront, and we've only begun to digest this victory, reflect on the lessons of this campaign and on the magnitude of the opportunity now in front of Torontonians. Many of the writers who have been essential to our understanding of the Google affiliate's smart-city proposal have contributed a first take of this extraordinary development (see #MUSTREADS, below). Here are some of our thoughts and thanks, a week in.
It’s been a long-time coming.
Today, Sidewalk Labs, Google’s sister company and Alphabet-backed “bet” to turn Toronto’s waterfront into a surveillance test bed, announced that it pulled out of Toronto.
“This is huge, we are sending a message to Silicon Valley on behalf of all those around the world who are fighting big tech in their cities,” says Julie Beddoes, one of the organizers with #BlockSidewalk. “The Quayside project got mangled down from an 800-acres vision of a surveillance state to a bid for an office building on a 12-acre site. We knew all along that Sidewalk can’t realize its tech dreams on 12-acres alone, so this has been coming for a while,” Beddoes continues.
News about Alphabet pulling out of real estate deals in other cities around the world preceded today’s announcement. Whether startups like Sidewalk Labs have a solid ROI was also questioned during Alphabet’s latest earnings call. Covid-19 may have put the last nail into its coffin as government priorities surely changed and a huge amount of what Sidewalk Labs wanted to do in Toronto required taxpayers’ money and publicly owned land.
“This outcome is a testament to the principled and courageous stance taken by citizens to protect Toronto from Google’s corporate takeover,” says Thorben Wieditz of #BlockSidewalk. “Without the on-the-ground organizing and the commitment of so many individuals, groups and organizations, this would have not been possible.”
We want to thank the many citizens of Toronto who came together and continue to work tirelessly to build the just, equitable and inclusive city we all want. And with Sidewalk Labs’ defeat and the important task of rebuilding our city post-COVID, we may just get that chance.
Never stop organizing. Onwards.
If you're looking for basic information about community concerns about Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs and its proposals for Toronto's waterfront, take a look at our FAQ page!
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Image: Harvard Graduate School of Education
In Toronto, Sidewalk Labs' persuasion campaign prompted our community to ask questions about the ways in which tech giants are becoming integrated with, and assuming the roles of, our governments and public sectors. As tech companies scramble to offer new health/surveillance tech to governments around the world, these questions are more relevant than ever. We've compiled a first sampling of critical articles on this topic.
April 9, 2020
Dear Waterfront Toronto Staff and Board:
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the evolving plans for the approximately 12 acres of publicly owned waterfront land known as the Quayside parcel.
We recognize you have invited community members to submit comments reflecting on the second round of public consultations held on 2/29/2020, shortly before the COVID-19 outbreak in Ontario. We do have comments reflecting on the consultation, outlined briefly below.
Our submission, however, focuses on the consequences of the ongoing pandemic, and information we think both the public and the Waterfront Toronto Board of Directors need in order to (re-) evaluate the Quayside proposal in light of drastically altered circumstances and frankly, public priorities. Proceeding on a “business as usual” basis would, we believe, represent a material governance failure.
It needs to be said that none of the issues outlined below arise anew in light of the pandemic. Instead, the pandemic has caused us - collectively - to hit the pause button on a great many initiatives and projects in an acknowledgement of the profoundly changed, and changing, social and economic realities precipitated by the global health crisis. COVID-19 highlights the problems that this group has been pointing out from the very beginning, which are now of heightened interest to the public.
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Above: a city-run respite site providing temporary shelter spaces located near the Quayside/Sidewalk Labs site
We hope this newsletter finds you, your family, friends and communities safe and well.
We know the COVID-19 crisis brings dire consequences for many of us. It has affected how we live and how we work - for many of us, creating uncertainty about our livelihoods and shelter. In the midst of this uncertainty, we recognize an opportunity for all of us to create a more equitable community.
So at #BlockSidewalk, even as our personal priorities have shifted to keep everyone safe and afloat during the pandemic, we believe it is more important than ever to ensure our public Waterfront benefits the people of Toronto and responds to the needs of Torontonians as expressed by Torontonians.
Last week, Waterfront Toronto announced it has pushed back the decision date re: Sidewalk Labs/Quayside - for now, till June 25th. This is a good first step - we’ll need time as a community to re-assess many of our priorities, particularly those involving public resources. The only certainty is that we can't continue business as usual.
A warm thank you to all who came out on a snowy Wednesday, to the many thoughtful speakers, and to the co-hosts of the meeting: Acorn, Good Jobs for All, Climate Justice TO and Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.
NEW REPORT BY DIGITAL PANEL FLAGS FLAGS ONGOING, NEW CONCERNS
Waterfront Toronto's Digital Strategy Advisory Panel has released a new report on Sidewalk Labs' digital proposals, and "they aren't confident the resulting data collection and surveillance risk would be justified," reports the Globe and Mail.
The report can provide needed context and background to help understand the digital proposals Waterfront Toronto has said it supports in its latest Sidewalk Labs update. Key take-aways:
1. We need to evaluate the risks of the partnership. An entire Appendix is devoted to the risks of the partnership - a question BlockSidewalk supporters have kept trying to put back on the table. The Appendix asks five questions; for the first four, the appendix suggests, the answer is "no."
- Does Sidewalk have a strong track record as an urban innovator appropriate for Toronto?
- Can Sidewalk Labs’ core claims be relied on?
- What does experience with Sidewalk to date in this project indicate about its reliability as a partner? In particular, has Sidewalk respected its contracts and other commitments?
- Can Sidewalk be treated as independent of its parent Alphabet/Google and its wider enterprise?
- What are the risks of partnering with an Alphabet enterprise?
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Earlier this week, Waterfront Toronto released new materials on its deal with Sidewalk Labs.
These materials index 144 projects that Waterfront Toronto's evaluation committee supports, from Sidewalk Labs' 1500-page Master Innovation and Development Plan.
In other words, Waterfront Toronto has selected items from a menu that Sidewalk Labs has created.
Other choices do not appear on the menu. There is no option to pursue development with other (local) vendors, for example, to explore public or not for profit paths to accomplish the same goals, or to take development in a different direction altogether - even though contractually, Waterfront Toronto is under no obligation to pursue any proposal made by Sidewalk Labs, and is free to pursue any ideas proposed with other vendors.
Consent - never on the menu.
On February 29th, Waterfront Toronto's CEO says "he’d like public feedback on which ideas from Sidewalk Labs should be the highest priority."
Yet again, the consultation skips over critical questions - that part of the process where residents get to decide whether we want this deal (or this partner) at all. It didn't happen when the RFP for Quayside was designed. It didn't happen when the proponent was selected. It didn't happen during the last round of public consultations.
Is it now too late for these questions? Was there ever a good time? What a boon for Sidewalk Labs and its parent, Alphabet! At a time when U.S. and E.U. officials are attempting to break up Alphabet's monopoly power, in Toronto, its subsidiary is handed a platform that could give the tech giant an edge in the burgeoning market for digital infrastructure and "smart city" tech.
Public money - definitely back on the menu!
The new materials helpfully indicate where Waterfront Toronto will help lobby for regulatory change and public funding. In 24 cases, Waterfront Toronto will advocate for funds from the three levels of government. In 11 cases, Waterfront Toronto will itself provide funding. How much funding? In an interview with the Financial Post, Waterfront Toronto CEO George Zegarac "said he expects to put most of the $590 million generated by selling the land for the proposed development back into affordable housing and other services for the new neighbourhood."
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Waterfront Toronto recently announced its board vote on the Sidewalk Labs plan has been pushed back to May 20th, "to allow the public more time to offer input into Waterfront Toronto’s evaluation of Sidewalk Lab’s proposals for Quayside." To date, only one date for public consultation has been announced: February 29th at the Westin Harbourcastle Hotel.
We aren't waiting.
On February 26th, several community groups have called a meeting, inviting elected representatives to hear directly from residents about new and ongoing concerns with the Sidewalk Labs affair, and a call to intervene in the public interest.
Please join ACORN, Good Jobs for all, Climate Justice Toronto, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, BlockSidewalk and many others on February 26, 6:30 PM, at St. Paul's on Bloor (Great Hall), 227 Bloor St. East. You can RSVP/register here.
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We are two and a half months out from Waterfront Toronto's board vote on what remains of the Sidewalk Labs proposal for Quayside. What's new?
We ended 2019 with community members expressing concern that Waterfront Toronto continues to have conflicting roles, helping create, advocating for and evaluating the Sidewalk Labs proposal for Quayside (a proposal which remains frustratingly murky). Waterfront Toronto staff are scrambling to address these and other community concerns, while the City of Toronto forges ahead to develop new policies around technology and data collection. Decision-makers say these policies won't be ready in time for the evaluation of Sidewalk Labs' proposal, which features an unprecedented density of data-collecting sensors. Our year starts off with a call to action around this clear case of corporate capture (see below).
Meanwhile, the courts will begin to hear Waterfront Toronto's motion to dismiss the Canadian Civil Liberties Association lawsuit, which could shut down the entire Quayside deal. MPPs grilled Waterfront Toronto about the controversial process it used to grant the Quayside Project to Sidewalk Labs at the Public Accounts Committee in December, and have asked the agency to produce additional evidence for their review (stay tuned). For their part, Sidewalk Labs/Google have resumed intensive lobbying at City Hall.