A Discussion on Tech in Toronto // Future Impacts

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.


How will the Quayside community, and its technology, integrate with the surrounding city?

Pina Mallozzi (PM) | This is a common concern that Torontonians have expressed to us, that the site will “feel like it was dropped out of space.” Our goal is to make Quayside feel like a neighbourhood that is designed in a way that’s environmentally and economically sustainable and connected with the communities already underway and the lake. If an invisible bubble exists around Quayside, then we have failed as community builders. This ideology applies to all facets of the project. For example, the backbone of the mobility infrastructure for Quayside will be high-order transit lines that connect to the broader network of the city.

At the end of the day, if Quayside achieves our aspirations for innovation while feeling like a complete community on Toronto’s waterfront that is open to everyone, easily accessible through public transit, and connected to existing networks for all modes then we know that we’ve succeeded.

Marianna Valverde (MV) | Some technologically advanced quasi-gated communities have been built in Asia; but these are all outside of existing cities and can thus govern themselves (or be governed by whatever private company is the local sovereign). Also, these mini-cities exist mainly in non-democratic spaces (Singapore, China).

A key issue in the Toronto case is that the project is wholly within city limits, which means all city policies apply unless city council were to agree to make an exception (and even then, some things, like labour collective agreements and the Ontario building code, cannot be changed or held in abeyance even by council).

It is quite astounding that relevant senior City staff, and even councillors, were not consulted before the initial agreement was made (as emerged in the January 24, 2018, meeting of the Executive Committee of City Council). Major provincial as well as municipal contracting is subject to transparency rules (such as naming the three top bidders and giving, in advance, the criteria used to choose the winner) that were totally ignored in this case.

Given the international experiences with special districts and special cities, I do not think it is feasible to set up a mini-city with its own transportation and waste disposal and hired-car services within an existing city, at least not one with a long tradition of local democracy and professional public service.

How do you think this approach will impact urban planning processes and policy in the future? Do you think cities will continue to become more privatized in the future? Will they continue to become “smarter”?

Adam Vaughan (AV) | I am not sure the two are related. The public good, the public realm, and the public investment and design of cities are critical for the health of municipalities. One can only hope they become “smarter.”

If “smart” people are afraid of technology and data, where does that leave science? If we don’t trust science, what do we trust?

Chris Green (CG) | Municipal organizations hold an important voice at the table in terms of representing the public interest. Many private companies no doubt share similar utopian visions for urban futures, and should help in delivering them, but this would preferably happen in an open dialogue with the municipality and its citizens to ensure public benefit and accountability for the stewardship of critical urban services and infrastructure. This dialogue will assist cities in increasing their own internal design and digital capabilities, enabling them to hold more sophisticated conversations around urban technologies and systems and to be able to critically assess privatized solutions.

Like private companies, cities face their own financial challenges and targets, but what differentiates them is that their decision-making processes can be more strongly informed by equitable interests and urban benefits. Municipal organizations have the opportunity (and responsibility) to establish the criteria by which “smart” will be judged and promote not only systemic efficiency but urban resilience, conviviality, and inclusivity.

MV | In May 2018 the chair of the board of Waterfront Toronto, Helen Burstyn, went so far as to state publicly that the project might not be realized. She gave no details, so I have no idea if the problems she sees as plaguing the partnership include the ones I have mentioned here; but perhaps it is time to consider not only what the success of the project might mean for the future, but what we can learn from it regardless of its realization, or even through its possible failure.

If either the private partner or the public agency or both abandon the project, perhaps that would be a good thing, since we could then start from scratch, in a transparent and democratic manner, and begin to talk about civic minded, cooperative and inclusive technical innovation. Computers and fibre optic cables are in our time what railways and canals were in the nineteenth century and electricity and the telephone were in the early twentieth century—and all of these communication and transportation technologies were either publicly owned or publicly regulated. There are a lot of lessons from the past we could use to guide policy today. But we need to begin by ditching the obfuscating term “smart city.”

James Chan (JC) | I am sure that this Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs public-private partnership will not be the last example that raises the question of our cities becoming more privatized. But I fear that big names like Sidewalk, Google, and Amazon distract from where the focus should be—the structural and perpetual challenge of municipalities in Canada not being able to properly fund large-scale infrastructure projects, let alone next-generation digital neighbourhoods and smart cities. The enormous gap between the funding needs for critical transit, housing, and social services and what property taxes are able to provide, especially in a political environment that incentivizes the “freezing” of tax hikes, will inevitably lead city councils to court private sector partners out of sheer necessity.

While I don’t believe all public-private partnerships to be automatically and inherently bad, as I know others do, I am also not reassured that the power dynamic in these arrangements always favours the public interest. If you look at how easily elected officials are willing to offer tax breaks and other financial incentives to attract large tech companies and the jobs and investments they purport to bring to a city, it is not unreasonable to think that even larger concessions are on the table if those same tech companies offer to share, add, or take over existing public services in a beautifully rendered and slickly presented “smart city” scenario. Again, this goes back to the critical importance of having a tech and digitally literate media, civil society, and citizenry to ensure that any partnerships are struck with offer full transparency that respects and is subservient to our existing mechanisms of oversight and accountability and the opportunity for full participation of the community to ensure that we continue to build equitable and prosperous cities for all.

previous: part vi | Control and P3’s (Public Private Partnerships)