A Discussion on Tech in Toronto | Control and P3's (Public Private Partnerships)

A Discussion on Tech in Toronto | Control and P3's (Public Private Partnerships)

A Discussion on Tech in Toronto - part vi | Control and P3’s (Public Private Partnerships)
//Sidewalk Labs' project to build the Quayside community "from the internet up"

By Aisling O’Carroll

NOTE: This is a multi-part series to be released online over the next few months. See the other parts here.

Illustration by Sidewalk Toronto.


There has been debate around the topic of a private, corporate entity developing a community at the heart of Toronto. What will the relationship between the City, Waterfront Toronto, and Sidewalk Labs be in the development and realization of the project?

Pina Mallozzi (PM) | Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs are collaborating to design a complete community that will reflect the vibrancy, diversity, and openness of Toronto; one that will combine forward-thinking urban design and innovative technology to achieve our shared objectives in terms of mobility, sustainability, and inclusion, and improve quality of life for residents and visitors.

Waterfront Toronto has a number of roles in this project. One of these is public stewardship and leading waterfront revitalization in Toronto. Waterfront Toronto ensures that the public interest is protected and that our work serves as a catalyst for private sector investment, attracting jobs, and generating prosperity balanced with delivering communities that are publicly accessible and continue in the tradition of excellence in design along our waterfront.

The success of this collaboration will be directly tied to the strength of the public feedback provided by our consultation process and arriving at the final version of the Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) will entail extensive consultation and collaboration with the community and government stakeholders, as well as the contributions of leading global thinkers. The first draft of the MIDP is scheduled to be released in early 2019, and we will be seeking public feedback on it. The City of Toronto is also planning its own consultations on the MIDP. In the end, the vision presented in the MIDP must be truly transformative. It must meet our set objectives and have the support of the community to move forward. It must also be approved by the boards of both Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs. Once it’s approved the project will still be subject to the applicable development and regulatory approvals process.

What are the opportunities and/or risks of public-private partnerships, such as the one established by Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, for urban development? Is it possible to integrate technological solutions through a public model or is this type of project only possible through private interests or public-private partnerships?

Annalisa Meyboom (AM) | Sidewalk Labs and other large companies like Siemens and IBM are vying to take over city infrastructure in the name of helping the cities, but with the underlying intention of making large profits by either getting a head start on business initiatives or spin-off projects that allow easier access to markets. (1) The benefit for cities in engaging a company and providing them with a monopoly on the city system(s) is that they achieve smart infrastructure in a "turnkey" arrangement with a tech firm, with only limited capital or personnel investment to achieve their goals for the city’s "smartness." (2) For a cash-strapped municipal government, the incentive for this type of relationship is strong.

But monopolies have four well-documented disadvantages: they can price fix because there is no competition, they can supply inferior products, they lose the incentive to innovate, and they create inflation. As such, cities should avoid creating monopolies in any form and have a principle of keeping their networks neutral with relation to their infrastructure; if they do not, citizens will inevitably lose in the long run, even if the city shows a benefit in the short term. The city as a neutral network with many actors working to innovate will provide unforeseen benefits, as we have seen with other networks and in setups like Apple and Android where ecosystems of apps are sourced from a broad range of people with varied interests and viewpoints. In the cases of these types of ecosystems, they also have competition—people can use Android or Apple phones, for example. A city’s infrastructure should ensure that there is an ability for multiple providers of services to compete or else the provider should be directly responsible to the people—in the case of Toronto, through their democratically elected government.

James Chan (JC) | I do believe it’s possible for the public sector—whether it’s a municipal government or arms-length development agency—to achieve a technology or digital project of this scale without an over-reliance on a private company, but I don’t think there are too many public sector organizations set up to do so at this time. There are a few hurdles and barriers that need to be overcome first, and unfortunately none of them are quick wins, glamorous projects, or politician-friendly photo ops.

Those hurdles include creating and evolving an internal culture to find the right balance between a reasonable level of risk averseness in order to protect citizens, and an entrepreneurial one that fosters innovation and embraces experimentation. It includes overhauling the traditional procurement process in order to enable small, local start-ups to participate and contribute. It requires leadership that goes beyond a skin-deep rebrand or advertising campaign to redefine the image and role of a public servant or bureaucrat in order to attract top-notch tech and digital talent from the private sector and new graduates (look to the Canadian/Ontario Digital Service and Code for Canada as terrific role models). And most importantly, there must be fundamental change with respect to the relationship between government and citizens. We need to move away from the status quo of a transactional relationship (“I pay taxes so I should receive this service”) to a new normal of co-creation, where citizens are not only consulted, heard, and listened to, but feel a sense of ownership over major decisions and developments that affect their lives.

Adam Vaughan (AV) | The challenge is that the deal is a hybrid between a public facing technology lab and a real estate development deal that is tied to a series of other agreements still to come. Land values are often withheld in order to protect the public interest especially where bids are taken by tender. It is also important to note that much of what Sidewalk Labs wants to do is unknown, and it's hard to define what hasn't been planned. Defining a process rather than a project may be the solution.

Private sector partners always act from a point of self-interest. That's both a risk and a benefit. I am sure, and in my talks with Waterfront Toronto, am equally confident, that the public interest has been addressed as it relates to this issue. I also believe that a more aggressive disclosure policy will give the public more confidence with regard to this concern.

previous: part v | Privacy and Data
part vii | Future Impacts


(1) Tuan-Yee Ching and Joseph Ferreira, “Smart Cities: Concepts, Perceptions and Lessons for Planners,” in Planning Support Systems and Smart Cities, eds. Stan Geertman et al. (New York: Springer, 2017).

(2) Ibid.