Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs wants to give cities a technology makeover


    What would you do if you could redesign a whole city using whatever technology you wanted? That lofty question is exactly what Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs spent the last year exploring and they’ve just released a blueprint for some of the ideas they’ve come up with. The overarching theme? Put internet everywhere.

    In a Medium post, Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel Doctoroff envisioned a city built “from the internet up”. Curbsides would be able to sense if it’s available for parking so that drivers never have to waste time circling the block. Also, free high-speed wifi would be available all over the city so everyone is connected and we close the “digital divide”.

    “We explored innovation across mobility, infrastructure, the built environment, governance, even social policy, focusing on fundamental problems largely overlooked by the tech world to date,” Doctoroff wrote.

    Such changes would bring a huge range of benefits like faster commutes, lower cost of living, and lower greenhouse gas emissions. And yes, we can finally dare to imagine traffic infrastructure so smart, there’d no longer be such a thing as rush hour.

    But Doctoroff makes it clear he doesn’t intend to design some self-enclosed urban district inside a petri dish. He warned such a top-down approach wouldn’t work because it forgets “cities aren’t primarily about tech-infused buildings or shiny new tools, but the people and communities whose character makes the place so unique.” So instead, he plans to integrate solutions into existing cities so that they become sort of like living laboratories.

    Sidewalk Labs wants to partner with cities to iterate on the vision over time based on learnings and feedback from the local residents. We don’t know yet what cities will get the makeover first but Doctoroff hinted at holding a competition for applications.

    In some ways the move seems to be picking up where Google Fiber left off. That project came to a surprising halt when Craig Barrett, CEO of Google Access (Alphabet division that operates Google Fiber), announced he’d be stepping down and pausing operations. Some speculated the sheer cost and effort of laying down fiber optic cables got the better of the company and that Google needed to start reining in its moonshots to better appease shareholders.

    But far from backing down on the moonshots, they seem to be doubling down on pursuing their crazy sci-fi dreams at city scale. If anything, the only notable difference from the Google of years past is the absence of ego. The tone is humbler this time around and they’re making a real effort to listen to the recipients of their technology to discover the right solution together. It’ll be interesting to see what kinds of sandcastles come out of their collective imagine in the coming years.

    Kelly Paik
    Kelly Paik writes about science and technology for Fanvive. When she's not catching up on the latest innovations, she uses her free-time painting and roaming to places with languages she can't speak. Because she rather enjoys fumbling through cities and picking things on the menu through a process of eeny meeny miny moe.