May 8, 2018

Ideas for an Inclusive Quayside

Last week at their public roundtable meeting, Sidewalk Toronto announced a new partnership with OCAD University to address accessibility issues in their Quayside project. Rit Aggarwala, Sidewalk's Head of Urban Systems, described it this way:

“We've heard the need for accessibility. Accessibility broadly defined. People with all sorts of disabilities or other constraints on how they interact, how they get around. And to ensure that we really are at the cutting edge of thinking about how that set of needs gets integrated into our design and into the technologies that we envision for Quayside, we've launched partnerships with the Canadian Institute for the Blind and with OCAD University, that are going to explicitly look at the question of design in the public realm to ensure accessibility for all people.”

The Inclusive Design Research Centre is a research and development centre at OCAD University where an international community of open source developers, designers, researchers, advocates, and volunteers work together to ensure that emerging information technology and practices are designed inclusively. We have a mandate to practice fully participatory, community-based design, and to do all our work in the open.

Sidewalk Labs approached us about a month ago to discuss the possibility of helping them with accessibility and inclusive design for the Quayside project. Since then, we've been talking with Sidewalk, Waterfront Toronto, and people in the community (including disability advocates and civic technology experts), trying to determine what kind of role we might play in the project. We've heard a lot about how connected technologies can offer significant opportunities for people with disabilities to more effectively communicate, participate in their communities, manage their daily lives, and get around the city. But we've also heard how risky these technologies can be for people who are already often marginalized by mainstream designs—especially when "smart" devices in public spaces are combined with data-gathering regimes and machine learning algorithms that too often neglect different needs and ways of living and moving. We've heard that more transparency is needed. We don't yet fully understand the scope, ideas, motivations, and consequences of the project, nor what roles the city, Sidewalk Labs, and the people of Toronto will play in making decisions. As residents, we want confidence that our needs and perspectives will be heard and understood, and that we can actually influence the project's design directly, rather than just sharing passive feedback in pre-structured consultations. We want time to fully absorb the project's potential, and to meaningfully contribute to it.

It seems that there is a lack of shared design and consultation tools available to Sidewalk Labs, Waterfront Toronto, and residents of Toronto—tools that reflect the diversity and uniqueness of Toronto today, and that are open, participatory, and reciprocal. Co-design offers one potential way to help distribute the responsibility and vision for what our connected waterfront will become, and for how technologies should (and perhaps also shouldn't) be used to help make Quayside more humane, privacy-respecting, and inclusive of difference. But co-design also takes time; it requires diverse voices to be invited to the table; it needs to be tailored to the unique context of Toronto and its citizens; and it demands that all participants have equal access to the information that is essential for responsible decision-making.

While Sidewalk Labs have announced their partnership with OCAD University to help with accessible design, the process is still in the early stages. The University's administration signed a letter of intent with Sidewalk that expresses its interest in collaborating. Here's what it says:

“We are excited at the prospect of working with OCAD University. To allow us the time to evaluate a possible collaboration and, if such a collaboration is feasible, come back to you with a developed scope and terms for a possible initial project, we are suggesting entering into this letter of intent.

This letter of intent confirms the understanding of OCAD University (“OCADU”) and Sidewalk Toronto Employees Ltd. (“Sidewalk”) that the parties are evaluating the opportunity to work together in the area of Inclusive Design, with an initial project taking the form of co-design workshops, with possible other opportunities to follow, subject in each case to a written agreement signed by the parties, formalizing the agreement to work together and the terms and conditions of any projects.

This letter reflects the intent of the parties to evaluate a collaboration on such an initial project, subject to internal approvals, establishment of funding, and a written agreement between Sidewalk and OCADU on terms.”

Sidewalk has asked us to propose a project scope and set of activities to them. We're still in the midst of brainstorming ways to engage constructively with Quayside, and we plan to openly document these thoughts and ideas-in-progress on this website. We're particularly interested in creating, documenting, and sharing design tools that will help Sidewalk, the city, and Torontonians work together to build Quayside in a reciprocal way, along with measures that will help us all understand how and when to use these co-design tools well. Data governance alternatives, such as data cooperatives, are also worth exploring to engage with the persistent concerns that many people have about privacy and responsible use of their personal information.

Most importantly, we need your thoughts, ideas, and contributions to help determine how we can best help make the Quayside project (and other connected cities efforts) more directly participatory, inclusive, and accessible to all. Join our discussion list and share your project ideas, questions, and thoughts. We'll do the same.

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