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A Google offshoot is imagining cities that work like the internet

Hubs of connection.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Creating physical urban spaces that run on data—in ways that resemble the connectivity of the internet itself—has been a dream of Larry Page’s since he publicly floated the idea of “Google 2.0” in 2014. The Google founder and Alphabet CEO’s idea is a guiding principle at Sidewalk Labs, spun off last summer.

And that dream has set the internet’s imagination aflutter in the last few days, with headlines asking, “Is Alphabet Going to Build a City?” The speculation came after Sidewalk’s CEO, Dan Doctoroff, responded to a question at a recent event held by The Information in New York about rumors that the company was exploring building an experimental city. “It’s a great idea,” he replied. “If you could create a place, it’d be a laboratory to experiment with these problems.”

But Doctoroff wouldn’t discuss or confirm any such plans and, for now, Sidewalk has its hands full with the more prosaic, painstaking slog of changing how existing cities function.  The company’s ambitions are to marry technology with government to improve city life, and to do so it is leveraging an unprecedented understanding of how everything moves around cities, using the smartphones and sensors riding around in most people’s pockets and vehicles.

One of its first efforts is a company called Intersection. Its LinkNYC program is replacing New York City pay phones with 7,500 advertising-funded kiosks that offer fast public Wi-Fi, phone calls, device charging and access to city services. They also plan to collect anonymized traffic, noise, and air quality data “to manage the city more effectively,” says Sidewalk.

Sidewalk’s next foray is Flow, the company’s new traffic management software. The idea is that by analyzing anonymized smartphone data from billions of miles of trips, cities get new insights into traffic patterns and the ability to conduct virtual experiments by changing routes. Drivers in certain cities may also soon receive Flow messages directing them to nearby parking, transit and shared vehicles.

Doctoroff, who was previously the CEO of the financial information and news company Bloomberg LP and a deputy mayor of New York City, says the company is using technology to improve everyone’s standard of living. “Our mission is basically to leverage technology to solve big urban problems” while building a “valid commercial model,” said Doctoroff in a Fast Company interview.

The company is likely under the same cost-cutting pressure as other ventures in Alphabet, Google’s parent company, to deliver moonshot results on a budget, although the “modest investment” authorized by Page at its inception should give it a long leash.

Sidewalk’s next idea will likely come from its team’s experience in Google’s mapping and machine learning units, as well as the city halls of New York and Chicago (where several of its top executives have held posts).

The irony in all this is that Google has struggled—often without success—to realize its urban vision in its own headquarters in Mountain View, California, as well as neighboring San Francisco. It took almost ten years for Google to reach an agreement to set up up free Wi-Fi in San Francisco’s public spaces—and most of the city is still not covered today. Mountain View’s city council has also rejected three of Google’s four proposed office complexes, despite a $240 million offer to build bike lanes and affordable housing as part of its expansion. That has left Google hemmed in, with just a fraction of the space it wants.

As Sidewalk has learned, “cities are hard,” says Doctoroff. “You have people with vested interest, politics, physical space…But the technology ultimately cannot be stopped.”

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