A driverless mini-bus serves passengers on a medical campus in Berlin, Germany, in March 2018. (Kay Nietfeld/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

A guide to where things stand on this most promising — but highly uncertain — technology.

If we know one thing about how technology is changing urban mobility, we know that autonomous vehicles are going to be a revolutionary force.

If we know two things, however, it is that we don’t know much beyond that about AVs. How they’ll be adopted, what affects they’ll have on cities, when they’ll arrive, what we should be doing about them — all of these outcomes are highly uncertain. This uncertainty often leads to irrational optimism, unnecessary pessimism, or a misplaced focus on things that aren’t as important as they might seem.

To offer a measured introduction to where things…


Holly Whyte’s pioneering use of video footage to understand parks, plazas, and sidewalks informed his 1979 plan to save Bryant Park (above) from under-crowding. (Teri Tynes / Flickr)

Making the most of city parks and the public realm means learning more about how people use them.

Public spaces make urban life unique. While suburban destinations often try, they can’t recreate the vibrancy, spontaneous interaction, and diversity you find in Millennium Park, Rittenhouse Square, Grand Central Terminal, or on Piccadilly. In part, this comes from the fact that urban dwellers spend far more of their time in shared spaces than people who live in lower-density areas. So there’s no question that making these spaces work well is critical to the long-term success of cities.

It’s a problem, then, that we know much less about what goes on in the public realm than we do about most other…


New design innovations can dramatically reduce the need for fossil fuels to help heat or cool a building. (District Energy St. Paul)

New design innovations can dramatically reduce the need for fossil fuels to help heat or cool a building.

This post was co-written with Sidewalk Labs Advisor Jim Kapsis.

In response to the Trump administration’s recent announcement to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, city leaders have boldly reaffirmed their commitment to local climate action. Cities have long been vocal climate advocates through efforts like C40 and Climate Mayors, but as former D.C. energy director Sam Brooks recently pointed out, they still have a long way to go to achieve their ambitious targets.

It’s well understood that in most U.S. cities, the largest area of energy consumption is in buildings, which is one reason that energy…


(Maciek Lulko / Flickr)

Digital technology can be good or bad for cities. Which way it goes depends on how well technologists and urbanists work together.

Last week, I shared the results of an effort we undertook at Sidewalk Labs to think through the first principles of urbanism. To recap, we concluded that urbanism is basically density. Yes, yes — big shocker. But the more significant takeaway is that what makes cities more or less attractive over time is how the efficiencies of density balance against the costs of density. Call it, if you will, the trade-off between good friction and bad friction.

The efficiencies were these:

  • Density enables much lower consumption of resources and time.
  • Density enables higher asset utilization.
  • Density entails frequent physical interactions.


(United Nations Photo / Flickr)

Before we can predict how technology might shape cities, we have to identify the essential efficiencies — and costs — of urban environments.

I’ve always thought of myself as an urbanist. I’ve studied urban history. I’ve been an official at a big city government. I’ve helped lead a global organization of mayors.

So it’s a little surprising that today I find myself part of a technology firm, Sidewalk Labs. Our mission at Sidewalk is to develop technology that makes urban life better, in part by bridging the gap between technologists and urbanists. Our CEO, Dan Doctoroff, likes to point out that urbanists and technologist don’t speak the same language. So often when I walk into my office I feel like a stranger in…


Habitat III, to be held this October in Quito, Ecuador, is a moment for the world’s governments to define a vision of the future of cities; above, a preparatory meeting in February. (Luis Astudillo C. / Cancillería del Ecuador / Flickr)

The New Urban Agenda is an opportunity to bridge the gap between urbanists and technologists, radically improving the lives of people in cities worldwide.

This commentary originally appeared at Citiscope.

The world of technology rarely seems to focus on the United Nations. And although the U.N. has made efforts to use technology, the world of diplomacy doesn’t tend to connect well with the tech world.

This is an understandable divide. Global diplomatic institutions often move at a glacial pace compared with that of the technology industry. Further, the consumer-focused tech world can seem irrelevant to the very serious, typically very low-tech issues that occupy much of the United Nations’ time.

But there is one current discussion where this gap could result in a terrible…


(Graham Hill / Flickr)

Today, in New York City, the world’s leaders will sign the landmark climate change accord they agreed to last December in Paris. At the same time, New York City will release its annual progress report on sustainability, and its greenhouse gas inventory for 2014.

The two acts are intimately related. They remind us not just how important good data is to good policy, but how difficult it can still be to get actionable data at the city level.

It’s been clear for a long time that cities are critical to the global fight against climate change, both because they account…

Rohit T. Aggarwala

Head of Urban Systems@sidewalklabs

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