Google’s City-Fixing ‘Sidewalk Labs’ Is Finally Getting to Work
After a year of relative quiet, the effort by search giant Google to bring its robot-car-building, Internet-balloon-flying genius to the science of cities is finally spinning up. Sidewalk Labs, Google’s smart-cities research unit, announced this week a series of hires to bolster the project.
The team, run by former Bloomberg LP head Dan Doctoroff—a deputy mayor for economic development in New York when Michael Bloomberg was mayor—is supposed to tackle the biggest urban problems. That’s congestion, housing, energy … all the things big city thinkers are thinking about. “The people who do planning in cities don’t really understand technology, and technologists actually really don’t understand cities,” Doctoroff says. So he’s hiring people who can close the gap between traditional urban policy and the latest technology.
Like who? The team, which now counts 14 people, includes Craig Nevill-Manning, who founded Google’s NYC-based engineering group, as head of engineering. The new COO is Anand Babu, who focused on cities and transportation while part of Google’s Special Projects team. Senior Policy Director Shaina Doar worked for Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago. Rohit Aggarwala, the new chief policy officer, led the effort to create “PlaNYC,” a 2007 comprehensive plan to deal with population growth and climate change.
The idea that these folks are supposed to put into effect is that tech like the nascent Internet of Things, location-based services, social networks that build on trust between strangers, advanced computing power, and new design and fabrication technologies could trigger the same sort of change ushered in by the personal automobile, steam engine, and electric grid. That’s what a “smart city” would mean, and even though the idea has been around for a while, no one has really put it all together.
Even Sidewalk has really been more strolling than jogging. The lab has been publicly involved in just one project. LinkNYC replaces old pay phones with kiosks that provide free Wi-Fi within a 150-foot radius, as well as touchscreens to allow free local phone calls and Internet browsing.
Maybe the new hires will be able to accelerate the pace. “They really have hired an exceptional set of people who know how to make cities tick,” says Sarah Kaufman, Assistant Director for Technology Programming at the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University.
But Kaufman disagrees with the idea that urban planners are technology-averse. Cities around the country have made thousands of data sets publicly available, for example—but says one major advantage to working with the private sector is the increased flexibility of a non-public entity. Launching a project like LinkNYC in less than a year would have been nearly impossible for a public agency bound to follow strict regulations and procurement rules. Private companies don’t have those same restrictions, so they can move more quickly.
The flip side to that advantage is that private companies are used to working for a distinct set of customers. “City planners have to plan for everyone,” Kaufman says. Google serves technologically savvy customers, but cities are filled with people who don’t have smartphones, are mobility impaired, or don’t speak the local language—yet still have to get the same level of service from their government.
So what’s coming now that the Sidewalk Labs team’s in place? Well, no one outside the effort knows yet. Doctoroff wouldn’t talk about specific efforts, but says his team is getting involved in the Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. The contest invites medium-sized American cities to create comprehensive plans for how’d they’d use things like automated vehicles, on-demand services, and open data, for a $50 million prize to make it happen. Sidewalk Labs is working with 10 cities on their proposals, though Doctoroff wouldn’t say which ones.
Meanwhile, the LinkNYC project is rolling forward. More than a dozen “links” are active along Manhattan’s Third Avenue, with another dozen coming soon. The plan is to expand to 7,500 within a few years. The kiosks don’t just spew WiFi like an open hydrant shoots water; they also gather intelligence on what’s happening around them—traffic patterns, noise levels, and air quality. “No static study will match that kind of tool,” Kaufman says. And cities around the world are interested in setting up similar networks.
Creepy? Maybe, though perhaps no creepier than anything else Google does with your data. The LinkNYC agreement prohibits the commercial use of data that can identify individuals, if that makes you feel any better. And if Sidewalk Labs’ new hires bear out, leaving New York won’t be any escape. “We are going to do things all over the country, and eventually all over the world,” Doctoroff says.