What Toronto’s Quayside project has taught us about smart cities and data

An artist's impression of Sidewalk Lab's Quayside smart-city project in Toronto. Image: Sidewalk Labs.

Toronto’s proposed Quayside community was supposed to be a brag-worthy global showcase for what a smart city, “built from the internet up,” would look like. Instead, the joint partnership between Waterfront Toronto and U.S.-based Sidewalk Labs swiftly got caught in a 12-month, $50m negotiation and consultation process. Those involved in Quayside have been surprised by the concerns raised about the project and the resistance to it.

A public meeting in March — only their second in five months — failed to fill in basic details about the nature of the partnership, including how the for-profit Sidewalk Labs would actually generate income from the project. Perhaps most surprisingly, officials at the meeting revealed that they were still privately negotiating the most fundamental components of their partnership, namely what data would be collected, who would control and own this data, where it would be stored and how it would be used.

The two sides are also negotiating who will control the intellectual property (IP) that comes from a project that has been designed to produce lots of IP.

Coming to terms with a data-driven world

These are not trivial issues. Smart-city infrastructure requires data collection — in fact, data is best conceived of as the fuel that powers smart cities. Without a constant stream of new data, smart cities cannot be as responsive in delivering public services.

In this respect, Quayside is not unique. Infrastructure projects will increasingly include data components, and municipalities and other levels of government — to say nothing of the citizens whose data these projects will collect — will face challenges similar to those currently encountered by Waterfront Toronto.

Government officials and our fellow citizens can learn a great deal about how not to approach such projects by examining Waterfront Toronto’s negotiations with Sidewalk Labs.

We suggest three key principles to consider for future smart city infrastructure projects:


1. In data-intensive projects, data is the whole game

Most of the flat-footedness related to the Quayside project to date can be traced back to Waterfront Toronto’s original request for proposals (RFP). The document treats data instrumentally, focusing on what it can enable rather than treating it as the main product.

There is very little in the RFP that directly references the issue of data control, and the RFP is silent on who will determine what data will be generated. Instead, these and other related issues are left to be determined after the fact, with the RFP requiring only that “the Partner will work closely with Waterfront Toronto to... create the required governance constructs to stimulate the growth of an urban innovation cluster, including legal frameworks (e.g., Intellectual Property, privacy, data sharing)... deployment testbeds and project monitoring... reporting requirements and tools to capture data.”

2. Set your governance policies in advance

Here, we cannot do better than Bianca Wylie, head of the Open Data Institute Toronto: “You don’t write policy with a vendor.”

By not knowing — or not thinking through — what it wanted on data and IP governance, Waterfront Toronto has left itself to negotiate a deal that has fundamental implications for privacy and data security, and that may lead to de facto privatisation of formerly public services.

While issues such as privatisation are potentially legitimate policy options, typically they are decided upon before the fact.

3. Focus on data collection, control and use

Everything about data — from the decision to collect it to the way it is used — has a societal impact and therefore requires careful thought. Data-governance policies should, at the very minimum, answer the following questions:

Who controls the decision over what data is generated, its direct and indirect uses, the data itself and the platform through which the data is collected, including access to that platform?

How are decisions about the generation, collection and use of data made?

How will the data be used?

What are the social and economic consequences of these actions?

A national data-governance strategy

Not all of the blame for this situation rests with Waterfront Toronto.

Canada, as others have noted, lacks a data-governance strategy.

As Wylie has remarked in the context of the Quayside project, our entire legislative framework is woefully out of date, and “we haven’t had a national discussion about our data, related public infrastructure, and the degree to which we want big tech influencing our governance and public services”.

Nonetheless, Waterfront Toronto should have set their data-governance demands in advance, and then sought out vendors. Much of the resulting confusion about Quayside can be traced to this initial mistake.

Fortunately, this is a learning opportunity for other governments. Almost everything government does now has a data component. This understanding must be built into their procurement prior to engaging with vendors.

The ConversationBetter yet, governments should create an overarching data governance plan and use that to guide interactions with various stakeholders. The stakes are too high to leave such consequential policies to chance.

Blayne Haggart, Associate Professor of Political Science, Brock University and Zachary Spicer, Visiting Researcher, University of Toronto.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.