Bull Session

Smart Cities and Sidewalk Labs

April 28, 2016          

Episode Summary

On this episode of The Digital Life we discuss Google’s Sidewalk Labs and its radical plans to design a smart city from scratch. Sidewalk Labs wants to work with cities to build applications that solve big urban problems and accelerate innovation around the world. However, in their pursuit of these solutions, the company is seeking autonomy from many city regulations, so it can build free of the many constraints that come with the design of streets, parking, and utilities.

Sidewalk Labs already has two solutions in progress: Flow, a transportation coordination platform in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation; and LinkNYC, kiosks with gigabit fiber connections delivering WiFi, USB charging, free voice calls, and a tablet for access to the Internet.

Welcome to episode 153 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Greetings, Jon.

For our podcast today, we’re going to discuss a little bit Google’s Sidewalk Labs, which is what I see as kind of one of the inventive spin-offs from Google’s Alphabet now. They have radical plans to design smart cities. They’ve got a few active products already, but one of the things that makes this Sidewalk Labs such a compelling or interesting initiative from Google is that they’re also looking into the possibility of building this smart city or smart neighborhood from the ground up.

They’ve got their pragmatic products right now, which include something called Flow, which helps to basically guide transportation in a city, namely, helping people find parking spots, helping them avoid traffic, et cetera, and making congestion less so that all of us commuters into the city can have life’s that exist outside of just waiting in traffic. That’s Flow. They’re working with the US Department of Transportation and it’s a smart city challenge finalist to develop.

Then in New York City they’ve got a product called LinkNYC which is a super fast internet access basically that is replacing what you’d have your old payphone booth. Now they’ve got these wonderful kiosks or what have you that you can sidle up to or sit next to or be in the vicinity of, within 150 feet or so, and basically get fiber optic access to the internet at blazing speeds. That’s LinkNYC and that works really well if you’re say sitting in a Starbucks somewhere in the vicinity of a link.

Those are two of their initial products but they do have large ambitions and those things are also going to stretch into housing, personalized services around health, basically anything that you can think of in the digital realm that relates to folks living in the city. I think Sidewalk Labs is probably interested in rolling that out.

I feel very excited about this and at the same time I know how government works. I know how cities work. I know that it’s very hard to start from scratch. It’s such a luxury when you’re designing from the ground up. I’m a little skeptical that Google/Alphabet Sidewalk Labs is going to be able to get the leeway to do what it is they really want to do.

Dirk, what’s your initial take on the Sidewalk Labs experiments?

Well I certainly think they’re interesting. I think they’re necessary. We need to re envision what life, what humanity, could be like if started from the ground up in the reality of the new digital context that is really sort of a modern development and continues to develop with a lot of technologies even beyond just the digital. You’re correct that the idea of taking New York City or Boston or Chicago or other major cities in the United States and fully integrating and benefiting from these visions is unlikely.

The infrastructure cost is too high. The existing infrastructure bill is too much and we’re, meaning the United States, at a point of not just maturity but almost languid old age in a certain way. We’re not looking to- New York City in the 19th century and into the mid-20th century was basically rolled down and built back up and numerous different times. The picture is taken from one point to two or three decades later it would look nothing like it. Whereas it’s largely calcified over the last 50 or 60 years with obvious exceptions with some giant skyscrapers.

The city as a whole looks very much the same. I think where there’s real opportunity, where these ideas could bare fruit, are in ways that the general public that must of us can’t envision. Specifically that’s with the new cities of the future that instead of trying to retrofit New York City to be the new gleaming paradise there will just be another city built that didn’t exist before and we have the context for that.

On one hand you have, on the East coast, these large cities that are too full or they’ve reached their capacity. Real estate prices are super high. Gentrification has pushed out service workers and people who aren’t as well off. There’s a capacity issue and that capacity issue could be addressed directly with new cities put into places right now that are sleep suburbs or otherwise strategically located in the context of the old cities.

Those can be built up with the appropriate new futuristic infrastructure from day one instead of all of the different headaches and inertia against trying to make an existing big city look and behave and be structured that way. The other one are things related to climate change. There’s a significantly non zero chance that in the decades, certainly in the centuries but probably the decades, to come there’s going to be mass migration from places like Mexico, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada North. Places like the pacific northwest. Places like British Columbia, Alberta.

These are places right now that are very nature filled. These are places with very low density and we’re going to have a lot of people needing to relocate in order to have access to fresh water. You would think someday we’d figure out how to desalinate the oceans to solve that but it’s not happening at scale right now. So, access to fresh water, access to more habitable temperatures, access to environments that can more easily support agriculture without having to move the dwindling fresh water supply we have thousands of miles and the crazy ways that we do it right now.

These migrations, these future migrations, that seem all but inevitable at this point are a perfect opportunity to start new cities right out of the ground to enable those individuals to have somewhere to live and work and exist. It will be projects like this one by Alphabet and other companies that looks at these projects sort of whole cloth freshly that will enable us to build in the United States cities and environments that take full advantage of the wondrous advances that we’ve had.

In other places of course it’s more natural. You have China, a lot of places in various parts of Asia that are building new cities right out of the ground even today. Those places will be much more natural and easy for these things to happen. Less so in the United States but I think here it will happen as well just in ways very different from how we typically scratch our head and say “Okay. How’s New York City going to do this?” They might do parts of it but largely they won’t.

There’s going to be new cities that we haven’t conceived of yet that will, I believe, bring these things to life.

Yeah that’s a good point about the brand new cities. I know that in China, for instance, Shenzhen is a relatively new city that is extremely populous and didn’t exist just a few decades ago. In contrast, in the US of course, we have cities that could very much use some revitalization, right? If Alphabet is looking for a certain autonomy from city regulations which it is. It is looking not to be constrained with things like street design or parking design or what have you.

Some of that will be able to happen in cities like New York or Chicago or what have you but then there are also cities like Detroit that has massive urban decay and really could probably use some of this fresh thinking and digital infrastructure, et cetera.

A lot of those cities don’t have money. Detroit notoriously was just recently bankrupt, may still be. A lot of the rust belt cities that really could use a refreshing and a revitalization don’t have one. I mean I came from one. I grew up in the Toledo, Ohio area and they’re always talking the revitalization. There’s no money so it’s sticky. I think we have real financial weight that’s going to make difficult really doing these things properly.

Yeah. That’s certainly a factor as well. The New York City examples of Sidewalk Labs initial forays into smart city infrastructure. Those pieces like Link NYC are revenue generating but they’re generating a small amount of revenue right now. Going forward obviously they’re planning on it generating a lot more revenue. Right now it’s advertising on the kiosk which can only go so far. The potential of course in New York, as you pointed out, is there’s a lot more money sloshing around there and so the idea that there could be revenue generation is not a bizarre thought whereas doing the same thing in areas of Detroit the possibilities for revenue generation are much less I’m afraid.

The point you made about the migration of humans farther north to compensate for global warming is a really interesting one especially when it comes to this smart city design. I don’t think that we’re having very many conversations just yet about what future cities or brand new future cities might look like.

There was a piece I think a couple of years ago in I believe it was Business 2.0 magazine, which definitely sets a fresh by date on my references, talking about the mega cities of the future and the idea that the urban sprawl would just eventually get so great that cities like Boston, New York would just sort of merge together in one massive city, a la William Gibson, the sprawl, or something like that.

There is the thought that perhaps all the lovely land between New York and Boston could be that fresh new city that you’re talking about to take on a much larger population. Business 2.0 future cities aside, that’s a really fascinating question especially in light of population growth, the need for employment, increasing need for affordable housing, all these things that Sidewalk Labs wants to solve. Perhaps they’ll be solving it and starting from scratch but just not in the established cities of today.

Of course this all fits into the larger smart cities trend which we know is happening across the country. We’re already seeing small experiments start to happen and as the internet of things becomes embedded into our environment. In Boston I know we have a massive need for municipal services to be better coordinated especially not this winter but the previous one. There was so much snow that smart deployment of city resources would have been much appreciated to dig people out.

I do see that the overlay of smart services on top of existing infrastructure. That’s valuable too. While it’s very nice for the technologists and the designers and data scientists, whatever, at Sidewalk Labs to want to start from the ground up there’s a lot of value that we can still receive just by building on top of the ancient infrastructure that already exists in a place like Boston.

Yeah. It’s a continuum right? You have on one extreme the Sidewalk Labs ideal of what something perfectly built from zero to best practice would look like. On the other extreme you have whatever is the least powerful, least interesting feature of everything Sidewalks Labs did. They just plugged into some existing environment and everything in between. It’s all a matter of just doing what we’re able to do. I think unfortunately that we’re just not going to be able to afford, in a lot of existing cities, to do as much as we could and should if the intent is to really up level our quality of life in the context of the most modern technologies.

Listeners remember that while you’re listening to the show you can follow along with the things we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one “L” in The Digital Life and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterword if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.

If you want to follow us outside of the show you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?

You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. That’s @ D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R or email me dirk@goinvo.com.

That’s it for episode 153 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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