Google has long ceased to be just a search engine. Its operations span media, energy, automobiles and virtually all facets of cutting tech that matters, both software and hardware. In fact, last year Google had to re-organize itself into a new umbrella corporation called Alphabet. There are Google self-driving cars, Google-made phones and notebooks, and soon there might also a be a Google city.
Part of Alphabet, one of the largest publically traded company in the world, is a little company few have heard about called Sidewalk Labs. The smart-cities research unit was quietly formed last year with the intended goal of tackling the world’s biggest urban problems, from traffic congestion, to housing, to energy.
Heading the Sidewalk Labs is former deputy mayor for economic development in New York, Dan Doctoroff.
“The people who do planning in cities don’t really understand technology, and technologists actually really don’t understand cities,” Doctoroff said.
Sidewalk is the bridge between the two, and one day its products could change the way we live in cities since these will start interacting with us. Smart grids would serve energy where it’s needed most from where it’s needed less — energy that’s renewably generated. A smart city is basically a city where information technology is the principal infrastructure because it governs everything from roads, to sewers, to sanitation.
So far, there is only one project that we know of that’s come off Sidewalk. Called LinkNYC, it’s a $200 million network of as many as 7,500 Wi-Fi kiosks in New York, known as Links. Instead of the archaic coin-operated pay phones, each link will offer free super-fast internet with a radius of as much as 400 feet, access to free phone calls within the U.S. and USB charging stations. It’s essentially a blend of communications and media, that’s designed to become functional over the next eight years. Expect some advertising, because this is Google, err Alphabet’s, main business.
LinkNYC sounds ambitious, but it’s only one project. What else is cooking? Speaking at a conference hosted by The Information, Doctoroff hinted that in the grand scheme of things, Sidewalk Labs, and hence Alphabet, wants to build its own city from the internet up. Paleofuture caught this:
Building a city from scratch could help the company rethink government, social policy and data-driven management. “Thinking about [a city] from the Internet up is really compelling,” said Mr. Doctoroff, a former CEO of Bloomberg LP and a former deputy mayor of New York City. Existing “cities are hard. You have people with vested interest, politics, physical space…But the technology ultimately cannot be stopped.”
Later he added that building a new city could help test solutions to cybersecurity and privacy issues: “If you could create a place, it’d be a laboratory to experiment with these problems.”
Most of the cities in the United States are inadequate for 21st century needs. The infrastructure was simply not designed to house tens of millions of people, and many more vehicles, nor do they efficiently harness energy and dispose of waste. With technology, you can significantly upgrade a city and its residents’ quality of life. In the long run, if you want to do something truly amazing, you have to start from scratch.
In developing countries, this sort of approach is already being implemented. For instance, there’s MSC Malaysia — a “Special Economic Zone” meant to act as a new multimedia and technology utopia in Asia — or the King Abdulah Economic City in Saudi Arabia, a $86 billion dollar planned city. Then, in the U.S., there’s Mcity which is a fake city belonging to the U.S. government where self-driving cars are being test. Elsewhere, CITE ( Center for Innovation, Testing, and Evaluation) is a self-contained city that’s been built in the New Mexico desert.
There’s something inherently creepy about a whole city built or at least planned by a company like Google which likes to collect everything about your life’s preferences. I’m sure a lot of people would like to live in it, including me, but if you thought the internet of things was limited to routers and coffee mugs, think again. It’s going to be everything and everywhere. A world driven by information, and there’s at least one company that wants to monitor (and perhaps control) this flow.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.