Reading Time: 2 minutes

My book review is on Sideways: The City Google Couldn’t Buy by Josh O’Kane. This tale, told by a technology reporter from The Globe and Mail, is a complicated story that involves Google, together with multiple Canadian government agencies, with changing lists of board members, employees, contractors, other stakeholders, and regulations.

Since 2001, Toronto had been working on ways to develop sustainable and thriving waterfront neighborhoods. Waterfront Toronto was formed to coordinate efforts, which involved the City of Toronto and the governments of Ontario and Canada – together with massive numbers of environmental groups, boards, procurement regulations, and, as you can imagine, a host of other pressing issues.

The central character, if you want to call it that, is Sidewalk Labs (SL), an affiliate of Google that was the brainchild of Larry Page and Eric Schmidt. SL was formed to build a smart city and Dan Doctoroff, a “diva” who “understood the power of technology but had proven he could navigate the messy intricacies of cities” was hired as CEO. (p. 16)

After a process that some believed gave Google an unfair advantage, Toronto Waterfront selected Sidewalk Labs in 2017 to begin a process that was designed to ultimately develop twelve acres of undeveloped property on the shore of Lake Ontario, known as Quayside.

Put aside the problem that Google needed way more than twelve acres to make the project feasible and only twelve acres were up for discussion. A key issue that permeated every decision centered on data. Who owned, collected, and used it? And how was it owned, collected, and used?  Many shared the concern that Google, with its massive bank account, and extensive experience in this arena would attempt to take over all data collection and ownership. The public, and others, became increasingly concerned on many levels, from the lack of transparency, to unexplained organizational changes, to declining trust, and to the question of data.  Long-story, short – the project was terminated in 2020.

In any project, when there are many stakeholders, and particularly government agencies, stakeholder management becomes critical, difficult, and in some cases, almost impossible. In this global business environment, we face increasing levels of change, staff turnover, legal concerns, and strategy pivots, both in government and private industry. I’m not sure the best project management minds have a way to solve that problem. So I’ll leave you with some questions:

  • When private industry provides services or products on which the public depends, whether it is traffic lights, sewer lines, recycling services, or medical care, who is responsible, if anyone, for ensuring it is done ethically and responsibly? And who decides what those words mean?
  • When governments collaborate with startups, what responsibility do they have (or right?) to ensure that the startup is operating ethically and responsibly? Again, who decides what those words mean?
  • Who decides who owns consumer data, and what rights do consumers have over how their data are handled, particularly when their data are being captured by other governments, sometimes without their knowledge?

I could go on, but I won’t. But now that I’ve written this, I might re-read the book. Happy holidays, and best wishes for 2023.