Earlier this month we covered Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation wing of Google’s parent company Alphabet. A company, which has as yet done relatively little but, promises to change the very way we live and work. While Sidewalk Labs plans are still somewhat shrouded in mystery, what we do know lets the imagination flow.
Announcing the new company in June last year, former New York City deputy mayor, former CEO of Bloomberg LP and Sidewalk Labs CEO, Dan Doctoroff said, “We are at the beginning of a historic transformation in cities… We hope that Sidewalk will play a major role in developing technology products, platforms and advanced infrastructure that can be implemented at scale in cities around the world”.
More recently rumours have surrounded the company’s plans to “build and entire city from the internet up”. The thought provoking line paints a picture of a smart city where information technology is the principal infrastructure because it governs everything from roads, to sewers, to sanitation.
“Thinking about [a city] from the internet up is really compelling,” said Doctoroff, in an exclusive interview for The Information. “[Existing] cities are hard. You have people with vested interest, politics, physical space”. Building cities in general is hard, certainly a mammoth task for a young start-up, but perhaps not so mammoth for a company with the backing of Alphabet who announced $20 billion earnings in its first-quarter report this year.
“The people who do planning in cities don’t really understand technology, and technologists actually really don’t understand cities”, Doctoroff said of the task ahead of Sidewalk Labs.It seems the company will act as the bridge between the two, and have a huge influence on the way we live in cities. Imagine highly efficient, green, tech-rich, connected cities. Millennial cities.
So what do we know about Googlopolis?
It will either be built from scratch or take over an appropriate, existing city district. When asked whether “ground up” is how Alphabet will build its digital district, Doctoroff said, “I can’t tell you anything”. While building from scratch seems the easier option, at least technically and politically, a brand new city would have to work hard to attract businesses and residents, and the model of the city would not be very transferable to existing cities.
It will be connected. “Our view is access to Internet at high speeds is as fundamental a right as electricity or water”, Doctoroff said, speaking at Fortune’s Brainstorm E conference this month in Carlsbad, California. “Ubiquitous connectivity is fundamental to the smart city of future”.
To date, Sidewalk Labs most public project has been the converted phone booths that make up the LinkNYC connectivity hubs that beam out Wi-Fi internet and provide “civic and consumer applications” at no cost. The new city, or district, will likely take connectivity to an unprecedented level, and put Google services at the forefront of all that happens in that urban area.
It will probably have autonomous vehicles (AV). “Autonomous vehicles will be a reality. They used to be science fiction, but I expect before too long we’ll see AVs in service as taxis in some urban areas. And if we manage them right, they will be great for cities, making streets safer, reducing congestion, and freeing up so much of the valuable real estate we use on parking today.”
Google seem likely to come up against Uber once its self-driving cars get on the road, expect in the Google city which is likely to have AV specific lanes favouring Google AV taxi’s. Even Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk all but admitted this last year on a conference call when he coyly suggested that operating a ride-hailing service would make sense once it could produce autonomous vehicles at scale.
It will change urban housing. AVs on a wide scale would free up large plot of prime real estate previously used for parking, at least in the existing city option. Either way Sidewalk Labs has eluded to improving housing.
“We are still building buildings the same way we did in the 1920s. Building techniques could be a significant area where tech has the potential to radically reduce costs, whether it is in new designs, new materials, and new construction techniques”, said Doctoroff.
A Wall Street Journal article on the topic was more direct suggesting that, “Alphabet is putting the final touches on a proposal to get into the business of developing giant new districts of housing, offices and retail within existing cities”.
So it seems fair to assume that, in the new city, Google (or Alphabet) will be at the heart of everything. Some might see that as utopian, where a seemingly good-natured corporation is making things happen. Others may see it as frightening, considering one corporation would assume so much control. The famous mantra of the GOOG IPO was “Don’t be evil”, but it only goes so far when you remember that Alphabet is a public company and as such, has a responsibility to GOOG stock holders.