Google might build its own digital city of the future




Google is seriously thinking about building its own city that will serve as a showcase for some of the futuristic technologies that it’s developed. No, seriously: Rather than deploy different tech ideas in existing towns to see if they work, Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs could create its digital city called “Project Sidewalk.”

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Nothing has been decided just yet, but Sidewalk CEO Dan Doctoroff will pitch the idea to Alphabet CEO Larry Page in the coming weeks, The Information has learned. If successful, Doctoroff will then have to choose where to base this digital city.

Sidewalk could also decide to deploy its tech in an existing city, Gizmodo says. The city would have to be big enough to accommodate hundreds of thousands of people.

Some of the projects Alphabet might be interested in testing in a large-scale city lab include LinkNYC, the new public Wi-Fi system for New York City, and Flow, a tool meant to streamline public transportation by collecting data from everything that moves. Alphabet’s self-driving cars would also find a home in such a tech city. Google Fiber and Project Fi would also probably be deployed inside the city.

There are similar projects already being implemented in the U.S. Mcity is a fake city belonging to the U.S. government, which is using it for testing autonomous vehicles. CITE, short for Center for Innovation, Testing, and Evaluation is a self-contained city that’s been built in the New Mexico desert. Furthermore, Alphabet’s new HQ and its testing facility for self-driving vehicles offer ample space for testing all sorts off wild tech projects.

Alphabet has yet to announce anything about creating its own city or taking over an existing one, so it might be a while until we see a Google city emerge. But once it does, it should definitely consider sparing some housing for the Google employees who insist on sleeping in parking lots.

When Google launched a new company to “fix cities,” speculation swirled as to what, precisely, that company would do. One idea: What if it built its own city, a laboratory vision of a thoroughly connected, techno-utopia?

Could be right.

According to a report in The Information, Sidewalk Labs, the company Google incubated in June and then turned into one of its Alphabet subsidiaries, is hatching a proposal to solicit bids from counties and states for a test bed “digital district.” Simultaneously, the company is plotting with high-profile consultants and urbanists about building out an entire city. Reportedly, the company is looking at parts of Denver and Detroit.

Here’s The Information:

The idea under consideration is for Sidewalk to create an area in the U.S. that serves as a testbed for new technologies from superfast Internet to autonomous cars, according to several people involved in the effort. Some 100 city planning experts, researchers and technologists have been involved with the project, including Stuart Miller, the CEO of home builder Lennar, Anthony Townsend, research director of Institute of the Future, Stanford professor Balaji Prabhakar and Harvard economist Ed Glaeser. The consulting firm McKinsey has also been advising.

Why build a city? A rep for Sidewalk Labs dubbed this “speculation” and refused to comment on it. An Alphabet rep declined, too.

A hunch: Its own urban district could serve as a test case, where Sidewalk Labs could point to the benefits of its new digital platform for urban governance — a toolkit that lets cities manage things like traffic and municipal Wi-Fi — as well as tech from its Alphabet sisters, like Google Fiber broadband and self-driving cars.

So far, the only project that Sidewalk Labs has on the ground is the LinkNYC initiative for public Wi-Fi in New York.

It’s a mighty feat, city-building — one that other companies (notably Disney), governments and techno-futurists have tried before. Sidewalk Labs certainly has the personnel with chutzpah for it. Its chief is Dan Doctoroff, the former deputy mayor of New York City. He has amassed an exec team and, as The Information claims, is working with an array of top-level municipal movers and shakers.

One potential revenue source for this type of district, the publication notes, would come from appreciating real estate revenues. This is a popular idea in urban development circles. Certain projects — like a transit hub or, in this case, self-driving cars — theoretically drive up future land values, and the developers reap income from that.

I had heard that Sidewalk Labs was thinking of this as a business model, but nothing was definitive. Rock and roll!




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