My Three Wishes for the Sidewalk Labs' Genie

I spent 8 years at Google as a product manager, including 3 years in the Social Impact team, with a strong focus on civic innovation and cities.

Alladin, 1992, Walt Disney Pictures.

Back then, my favorite ice-breaking question was the “genie” question. Grabbing the nearest coffee mug, I would ask my audience the following:

Imagine this is a lamp.
When I rub it, a genie will emerge.
The genie can grant you 3 wishes.
What are your three wishes?

Even though I am not working for Google anymore, (a) I still am passionate about solving city problems and (b) I still believe in magic lamps.

I got very excited when Sidewalk Labs (the Google-Alphabet subsidiary focused on "addressing big urban problems") was announced.

Based on my experience in the civic tech space, here are my three wishes for the Sidewalk Labs’ genie.

Wish #1:

My first wish is for Sidewalk Labs to create or help create a software foundation to consolidate civic tech open source software. Think Apache, Linux or Mozilla foundations, but with a focus on civic tech.

Civic tech is often about piggy backing mainstream tech into a civic purpose, GitHub and Twitter being two great examples. So many civic hackers are willing to donate their time to build important software. They can easily create a repository on GitHub, but it is often not enough.

A recent blog post identified open source infrastructure software as “the Internet’s Biggest Blind Spot”. Open source tools for the civic space need funding but more importantly a home. Organizations like Sunlight Foundation, Code for America or Data Made have their own Github repositories. The Knight Foundation is also funding some interesting civic projects.

But a larger structure with resources, communities, steering and guidance from domain experts, I think, would help.

Wish #2:

My second wish is for Sidewalk Labs to launch a civic app store with open standards, APIs, trust, procurement, etc., for cities to be able to "purchase innovation" and for innovators to be paid for their work and talent.

As a startup, even with the best technology for the most pressing problem, it is hard to sell to cities, because of a set of antiquated procurement rules. Cities are forced to buy software the same way they buy pencils and paper clips (see [1,2,3,5] for some concrete examples).

A first option is to fix procurement rules, most likely through policy innovation and intense lobbying.

A second option is to create a meta-structure that meets the procurement requirements and provides a sales channel for innovative solutions. Large companies like IBM or CISCO are already doing that.

I am not a procurement expert but this might look like a well funded entity, with business agreements with lots of cities and the ability to sell technologies on behalf of smaller entities, e.g. startups.

Pushed to the extreme, this is a civic app store where:

  • a city or local government plays the role of the phone user
  • a civic innovator plays the role of an app developer
  • the civic app store plays the role of the Apple/Android/Amazon Store

To make this work, you need of course to define something like a “city stack” (think Apple’s HealthKit but for cities) with standards and APIs, to make sure the same app can be deployed in lots of cities.

Wish #3:

My third and last wish is for Sidewalk Labs to set up and fund programmes to educate civic leaders and entrepreneurs.

During my time at the GovLab, I co-taught a class with New York City Council member Ben Kallos about “Civic Tech for Local Legislatures and Legislators” for the GovLab Academy.

I currently work for Cornell Tech whose mission is to nurture “digital pioneers”. Next fall the school will offer an LLM (Latin Legum Magister, i.e. Master of Laws) program for lawyers in Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship. What about an MPA (Master in Public Administration) program in “public policy, technology and urban innovation”?

In a recent piece [7], Tom Steinberg urges to

« create a whole new generation of public technologists who can infiltrate the governments of the world and bring change from the inside. »

To invest in civic innovation, you need an ecosystem with civic entrepreneurs building the right product for the right problem and civic leaders capable of phrasing their problem, of understanding the product they need and capable of purchasing it.

My wish is your command :-)

I am sure we will see great things coming out of Sidewalk Labs.

These are my personal wishes for the civic tech space, based on my experiences and challenges at, GovLab and now at Cornell Tech.

I don’t know if Sidewalk Labs is in the “wish granting” business, but assuming they are, do you know what your three wishes would be?

Related resources

[1] Five Ways to Make Government Procurement Better, Mark Headd, October 2013.

[2] Procurement and Civic Innovation, Derek Eder, February 2014.

[3] Creating a federal marketplace for agile delivery services, 18F, January 2015.

[4] How I Stumbled Upon The Internet’s Biggest Blind Spot, Nadia Eghbal, Jan 2016.

[5] 7 Simple Ways to Modernize Enterprise Procurement, Clay Jonhson, 2013.

[6] Tech Procurement Projects: Making the Supply Chain Work, GovLab Academy coaching program.

[7] A Manifesto for Public Technology, Tom Steinberg, 2016.

[8] Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia, by Anthony M. Townsend, 2014.

Special thanks to Tom, Mike, Lauren and Gideon for comments on early versions of this post.