Google wants to build entire cities. Well not Google but Alphabet, Google’s parent company, through their smart city spin-off Sidewalk Labs.
Sidewalk Labs describes itself as “an urban innovation company devoted to improving city life for residents, businesses and city governments, in particular by developing and incubating civic technologies”. Now, one year after its establishment, the company seems to be on the verge of selecting an urban location to completely reinvent as a Tech-topia.
The Sidewalk Labs project would make way for self-driving cars, more efficient electricity and water delivery systems, and high-tech housing units for tens of thousands of residents and workers. Reports suggest that New York based Sidewalk Labs is set to pitch a proposal to rebuild part of a struggling American city as a new high-tech smart city.
Announcing the new company in June last year, CEO, Dan Doctoroff said: "We are at the beginning of a historic transformation in cities. At a time when the concerns about urban equity, costs, health and the environment are intensifying, unprecedented technological change is going to enable cities to be more efficient, responsive, flexible and resilient. 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".
Doctoroff has some experience rebuilding cities already. He is a former New York City deputy mayor who rezoned swaths of the city for urban housing and development projects, including the area of Manhattan’s West Side currently being redeveloped above railroad tracks, Hudson Yards. "That is why the combination of Google, which focuses on the technology, and, me, who focuses on quality of life, urbanity, etc., we think is a relatively unique combination”, Doctoroff said to the Wall Street Journal.
Alphabet CEO, Larry Page seems fully committed to the project. "By improving urban technology, it's possible to significantly improve the lives of billions of people around the world. With Sidewalk, we want to supercharge existing efforts in areas such as housing, energy, transportation and government to solve real problems that city-dwellers face every day”, said Page. “Every time I talk with Dan I feel an amazing sense of opportunity because of his passion for all the ways technology can help transform cities to be more liveable, flexible and vibrant. And when you combine that with his experience as an investor, in NYC government, and as CEO of the large information company Bloomberg LP, I can't imagine a better person to lead these efforts".
In its first year Sidewalk Labs has already been responsible for New York City’s new payphone-replacement machines. The LinkNYC kiosks that beam out Wi-Fi internet, provide directions, and perhaps most surprisingly also make telephone calls. Considering the company’s New York headquarters and Doctoroff’s experience in the city, it was widely suggested that Sidewalk Labs was keen to initiate its full project in a New York district. However, complex political, financial, regulatory limitations have led the firm to look further afield, to a city which will welcome them with open arms and flexible regulations.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Doctoroff has been scrambling in recent months to put together a proposal to purchase a large swath of a city (potentially one that is struggling economically) to be rebuilt to house tens of thousands of residents. In essence, Sidewalk Labs, and by extension Google, would become the landlord to people residing within this refurbished, tech-rich mini-city.
“Developing a city would be a great idea", Doctoroff said in an event in February, while noting "I can't tell you anything". Weeks later, the idea had grown into an official pitch, codenamed "Project Sidewalk", that Doctoroff planned on presenting to the Alphabet CEO. If approved, Alphabet and Sidewalk Labs could begin soliciting bids from municipalities later this year. So what would a city designed by Google… I mean Alphabet… I mean Sidewalk Labs, look like?
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A intriguing article entitled Welcome to Google Island written by Mat Honan of Wired, back in 2013, paints a picture of a technology enabled utopia that simultaneously scares and attracts. While fans of hit US sitcom ‘Parks and Recreation’ may refer to the suspiciously named ‘Gryzzl Corporation’, who launched an experimental smart city project in the small town of Pawnee, Indiana, in the seventh and final season of the show. Fictional speculation may even stem from futuristic urban Sci-Fi portrayals such as Minority Report or Star Trek.
However, in the short-term we can realistically assume the city would likely include features such as the LinkNYC, public Wi-Fi hubs, and dedicated lanes for self-driving cars. Also, a new product called ‘Flow’, that Sidewalk Labs rolled out in March, which is described as a "transportation platform" that uses aggregated, anonymous traffic data to help city managers identify bottlenecks or redirect trains and buses to transit-starved neighbourhoods, as well as giving drivers real-time parking information.
So the smart city vision of Sidewalk Labs is one of cheap high-speed internet access and congestion free streets filled with hybrid self driving cars. We can speculate that the high cost of home ownership issues we see in cities today might be mitigated by using new materials and innovative ownership models. While renewable energy systems would likely be used to reduce the carbon footprint of fossil fuels. For the rest we must wait and see which cities will be open to, and chosen for, this potentially revolutionary experiment into our urban future.