Waterfront Toronto advisory panel raises concerns about Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside development plan

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sidewalk rendering
A rendering of Sidewalk Lab's now defunct "tall timber" vision for Toronto's waterfront area

By Robin MacLennan

Ontario Construction News staff writer

An advisory panel has raised numerous concerns about the Sidewalk Labs development plan for the Quayside development on Toronto’s waterfront.

Waterfront Toronto’s digital strategy advisory panel (DSAP) released a report this week, calling the plan from Sidewalk a “frustratingly abstract” development that includes innovations that are “irrelevant or unnecessary.”

“The document is somewhat unwieldy and repetitive, spreads discussions of topics across multiple volumes, and is overly focused on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how,’’ the panel wrote in its report.

Comments included that the document is “somewhat unwieldy and repetitive, spreads discussions of topics across multiple volumes, and is overly focused on the “what” rather than the “how.”

Too little detail is included on how innovations would be designed or implemented, the unique value proposition put forward is not always convincing, and accountabilities are undeveloped.

The 15-member panel is an arm’s-length body that provides expert advice to Waterfront Toronto. Preliminary Commentary sets out initial impressions, comments and questions from panelists about the draft Master Innovation Development Plan (MIDP) submitted by Sidewalk Labs.

“Sidewalk Labs made several presentations to, and sought feedback from, the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel – but panelists question the extent to which this feedback was incorporated into the Plan, or why their frequent calls for greater specificity and specific examples appear to have gone unheeded,” they wrote.

The report includes questions about the MIDP in general (including the inaccessibility of the document and the lack of detail around many digital elements) and specific comments regarding various digital innovation and digital governance-related proposals.

Here are the highlights:

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 public participation 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 and privacy

The development of overarching data governance mechanisms should be shifted to Waterfront Toronto and its government partners, while Sidewalk Labs should elaborate 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

Current value-sharing proposals are insufficient. As well, additional specific commitments should be made about enabling the growth of the local urban innovation industry.

“This Commentary is neither a formal review nor an evaluation of the draft MIDP and does not represent a consensus position of the DSAP,” members wrote in the report. “However, it should be taken as an indication that there are challenges that the DSAP will look to see addressed in any supplementary material or revisions to the MIDP.”

Some panelists said the official Sidewalk plan does not appear to put citizens at the centre of the design process for digital innovations and raised concerns with plans to manage data collected from the neighbourhood.

The panel, chaired by University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist, includes executives, professors, and other experts on technology, privacy, and innovation. The panel’s early report was presented to Waterfront Toronto, the multi-government body that is overseeing the Quayside development. It is meant to highlight areas that need improvement.

They are asking for a reconciliation document “that clearly describes whether and how the comments and questions for Sidewalk Labs have been addressed.” Also, the DSAP wants regular updates from Waterfront Toronto on any developments or responses related to comments and questions best addressed by them and/or their government partners.

“Regardless of whether any additional information has been provided, DSAP is planning a detailed review of the final plan when it is available.

“It is expected that this will result in a number of recommendations to Waterfront Toronto management,” the report concluded. “This review will also be made public.”

A Sidewalk Labs spokeswoman said the company appreciates the feedback and intends to release more details in October regarding the digital innovations it hopes to implement at Quayside.

Sidewalk released its draft Master Innovation Development Plan in June, laying out its vision for the redevelopment on Toronto’s eastern waterfront.

The company is planning a residential-focused 4.8-hectare Quayside site, but also proposed it develop a nearby eight-hectare site as an office development including a Google Canada head office. Sidewalk also proposed design principals that could extend across the 77-hectare area to create a wider innovation district.

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