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 see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.