We can harness the private sector for the public good

We can harness the private sector for the public good

Robert Prichard is the chairman of Torys LLP and an unpaid member of the Sidewalk Labs Advisory Council

Toronto is on a roll, emerging as one of the world’s best cities. We’ve never been better or more vibrant. Economic and population growth are strong, and our diversity is remarkable. We’re attracting amazing talent from around the world.

This success brings with it challenges, including housing a fast-growing population, housing affordability, traffic congestion and a shortage of public spaces in the urban centre. Waterfront Toronto responded wisely, inviting competitive bids to bring forward innovative ideas to help develop a portion of the waterfront lands that have languished for decades. Sidewalk Labs won that process, delivering a vision of urban innovation and a willingness to fund it.

What’s not to like about Sidewalk’s proposal? Their bid, inspired by the possibilities of urban living, offers ideas to use technology to improve the quality of urban life. New designs of urban space to enhance the pedestrian experience. New forms of building to make housing more affordable and sustainable. New transportation options to improve mobility and reduce carbon emissions. New waste management approaches to raise the bar on sustainability. These will not only energize development on waterfront lands, but serve as a laboratory for urban innovations.

Many people in Toronto have grand ideas for urban infrastructure improvements, but the majority of them depend on investment from one or more levels of government. The proposed Rail Deck Park, for example, is a terrific plan to increase green space in the city centre, but it’s DOA to date because of a lack of funding. Compare this to Sidewalk: here we have a global company with tech expertise that’s willing to fund its ideas while bearing all the financial risks of failure. All it wants is reasonable financial return at the back end. Sidewalk offers action and resources with no risk to the public sector. I wish we had more partners stepping up to do the same elsewhere in the city.

Some people fear involving the private sector—and, in particular, an American company—in the heart of our city. That fear underestimates the strength of our public governance and fails to recognize that the private sector can be harnessed for good. Waterfront Toronto can do its job to guard the public interest in all of this, as can our three levels of government. My fear is not that we will have too little governance but that we will risk smothering innovation with an abundance of caution.

Our governance has already demonstrated its strength in addressing issues of privacy and data management. Sidewalk has properly been required to articulate a governance regime that will ensure the interests of citizens are paramount and not subordinated to commercial imperatives. The same form of robust dialogue should inform review of the entire 1,524-page proposal that Sidewalk has tabled.

Any review of Sidewalk’s proposal should be driven by the goal of moving Quayside forward, not raising so many obstacles that Sidewalk Labs walks away and finds a more welcoming city. Everyone agrees we need more transit, but no one else has opened their chequebook to make it happen. Everyone agrees we need more affordable housing, but no one is offering to pay for it in the waterfront area. The world needs more Toronto, and Toronto needs Sidewalk Labs to help convert our vision of urban life into a better reality. Let’s get on with it.

This story originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.

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