It's been a very long time since the world's biggest internet search company focused only on code. Now, as Google works to bring us adorable autonomous cars and balloon-powered internet, it has a new project that bridges the physical and digital worlds: Sidewalk Labs, an incubator focused on solving urban problems through technology.
The startup's first project: Scaling up and spreading LinkNYC, a New York City project that's turning old pay phones into public wi-fi spots with lightning-fast free Internet, free phone calls, USB charging, and wayfinding stations so people can more easily find the nearest subway or bus.
"I really do see this as a logical first move for Sidewalk," says Dan Doctoroff, former deputy mayor of New York City for economic development and former chief executive of Bloomberg L.P., who is now leading Sidewalk Labs as CEO.
"What we're looking to do is bring technology into the physical world to cities to take on really tough problems—whether that's cost of living, energy consumption, urban equity, the efficiency of managing government, health—there is a litany of challenges that technology can and will be doing more to address."
Sidewalk Labs invested in Control Group and Titan, two core members of the team behind LinkNYC, and helped them merge into a new company called Intersection. "We think it represents a new model for connectivity, municipal services, and civic engagement that we really want to be able to bring to scale," Doctoroff says.
Doctoroff, who helped champion the High Line while deputy mayor, sees LinkNYC as an idea that could also easily spread to other cities around the world and be customized for each. "One of the great things about New York is that when people see things happening in New York, they tend to focus on it and often emulate it," he says. "There are 36 'High Lines' in development or that have been opened now around the world."
LinkNYC is also something that can move to scale relatively quickly and affordably, something that Sidewalk Labs values—the incubator hopes to occupy a space between the top-down smart cities projects from companies like Cisco and IBM, and smaller civic hacking projects that might happen as one-off installations.
"Civic hackers are really inspiring, and the driver of a lot of change in the industry," says Colin O’Donnell, a founding partner of Control Group. "We like to take a similar approach, but we work at the scale of thousands of systems. ... At the same time, we're not a top-down, big taxpayer contract company coming in to do a massive project that's going to take many years and many millions of dollars to complete. We're sort of taking that hacker ethos and applying that experience of scaling systems to cities."
LinkNYC also represents technology that could solve multiple problems at once, like more equitable internet access and better access to public transit information. For Google, one of the reasons to launch Sidewalk Labs was the need for tech solutions that work at an intersection like this. Ultimately, the startup will be looking at urban challenges broadly to find other multi-pronged solutions, as Larry Page explained in a blog post:
Many cities around the world have already made a lot of progress in some of these areas—for instance, developing dashboards to measure and visualize traffic patterns, and building tools that let residents instantly evaluate and provide feedback on city services. But a lot of urban challenges are interrelated—for example, availability of transportation affects where people choose to live, which affects housing prices, which affects quality of life. So it helps to start from first principles and get a big-picture view of the many factors that affect city life. Then, you can develop the technologies and partnerships you need to make a difference.
"We'll leverage the core skills that we have—both the technology and understanding of how cities function—to provide the solutions cities need," says Doctoroff. "And hopefully helping them provide services that they never dreamed they could have."