QUESTION: Toronto Smart City adviser resigns over data concerns . . .

Saadia Muzaffar
Toronto, Ontario
October 04, 2018
Waterfront Toronto, and my fellow Digital Strategy Advisory Panel members,
It is with deep dismay and profound concern that I am resigning from Waterfront Toronto’s
Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, effective today.
When I was asked to join the panel, my hope with this esteemed group of experts and
city-builders was that we would be able to provide Waterfront Toronto with our advice on how to
best engage in this high-potential and complex opportunity, and to help them gauge whether or
not the proposed package of solutions from Sidewalk Labs is a sound and prudent deal in the
short and long term for the City of Toronto and its residents.
In the last eleven months of the (now) approximately fifteen month consultation period,
Waterfront Toronto’s apathy and utter lack of leadership regarding shaky public trust and social
license has been astounding. There is a growing list of squandered opportunities to take
ownership of the narrative that would clarify the boundaries between who is in charge of how
this “partnership” unfolds; bewildering for a public corporation that has historically done such a
thorough job of bridging with the public by truthfully engaging them in co-design and responding
to their concerns and advice regarding the development of Toronto’s waterfront. And while a
“smart city” venture might be new for Waterfront Toronto, we have example after example from
New York, Seattle, and Westminster in the UK, to name but a few, of the lessons learned from
Alphabet/Sidewalk Labs’ foray into selling tech solutions to cities, and the resulting serious
reservations put forth by those standing up to safeguard public interest.
My gravest concern is that while the panel is showing up in good faith, I have yet to see
evidence that Waterfront Toronto shares the urgency and concern that has been raised in
multiple fora – as evident through how the public meetings continue to be run, who is running
them, and what is consistently left unsaid and unaddressed. The most recent public roundtable
in August displayed a blatant disregard for resident concerns about data and digital
infrastructure. Time was spent instead talking about buildings made out of wood and the width
of one-way streets, things no one has contested or expressed material concern for in this entire
Waterfront Toronto’s senior leadership is consistently dodging important questions from
concerned residents and the media. The leadership has yet to comment on recent reports that
Sidewalk Labs is asking potential local consultants to hand over any intellectual property that is
developed to the Alphabet-owned company – and in cases where that’s not possible, to give
Sidewalk Labs an exclusive, royalty-free, worldwide licence to use it – a brazen departure from
Waterfront Toronto’s position on intellectual property as “TBD” in the shared planned

development agreement, and a slap in the face of their professed goal of “encouraging local
Each of the public meetings so far has been a massive lost opportunity to honestly and
meaningfully engage with the public on things that it is rightfully concerned about. Instead of
admitting that this project is much more complex than perhaps Waterfront Toronto realized at
the outset, when it did not widely consult with the public prior to issuing the RFP for Quayside;
and therefore warrants pause, reflection, and decisive courage focused on public safety and
value-creation for innovative Canadian companies first – we find ourselves forced into a
disorienting loop where resident and local, national, and global tech community concerns are
ignored, and willful misdirection has thus far been endorsed through Waterfront Toronto’s
As a panel member who entered this engagement with great enthusiasm and even greater
hope, this resignation is a difficult decision for me to make. As the only person of colour on a
panel that doesn’t even have Indigenous representation to my knowledge, representing public
interest for a city as diverse as Toronto, I do so with a very heavy heart. My intent from day one
of this engagement was to contribute through my experience and expertise as a technologist, a
Toronto resident, and a passionate advocate for public good. In the absence of even a single
public record of any of our panel meetings and the myriad concerns raised within, I cannot in
good conscience continue to participate in this advisory role when this continuation may imply to
the public that I endorse and approve of Waterfront Toronto’s consistent inaction and approach
on both the process and this project. I don’t.
In the last public roundtable meeting in August, a resident shared their serious concern with me
about the fact that official Sidewalk Toronto materials and soundbites thus far do not address
the blast radius of making mistakes on a city-scale. That is, a city’s infrastructure has an
obsolescence of many decades, it is not like a new phone that we can change in a couple of
years if we find it to be problematic. I emphatically agree with their concern. Broad licensing that
does not prioritize digital rights of the public can mean that surveillance infrastructure and
valuable public data can lay latent for long periods of time, and avoid scrutiny easily, tucked in a
foreign-owned company’s proprietary vault. The question we need to be focused on is not how
can we build a better monopoly-tech-company led, surveillance-based city (puzzlingly,
something even some of my fellow panelists are lending their organizational credibility to) but
the fact that we have enough evidence to know that we don’t want to build that at all. There is
nothing innovative about city-building that disenfranchises its residents in insidious ways and
robs valuable earnings out of public budgets, or commits scarce public funds to the ongoing
maintenance of technology that city leadership has not even declared a need for. As a
technologist I know there are other ways to do this and I will be committing my future efforts to

further developing those alternatives with community partners to ensure the City of Toronto
thinks about all of its options, not just this option.
If Waterfront Toronto truly believes that the goal for developing Quayside is to encourage local
innovation and build a livable, affordable city that prioritizes public safety and interest, then no
progress on this venture is possible without its leadership standing accountable to the residents
on whose behalf it has been given the responsibility to act, and do so with humility and courage.
And there is no version of being a good steward for the people of Toronto, where Waterfront
Toronto does not ensure that both the data and the digital infrastructure in all its developments
is controlled by our public institutions.

Saadia Muzaffar
Toronto, Ontario