(Marc Milligan / Flickr)

It’s time for urbanists and technologists to start talking

When Larry Page announced the creation of Sidewalk Labs last summer, he recognized that digital innovations have an enormous capacity to address big urban challenges like housing affordability, transportation efficiency, and energy conservation. One of the barriers to faster and wider change is a lack of dialogue between the people who live in today’s cities and the folks who build tomorrow’s technologies. Larry’s diagnosis of the problem was spot on: it takes a strong “big-picture view of the many factors that affect city life” to “develop the technologies and partnerships you need to make a difference.”

In other words, it takes talk. So I’m pleased to announce the launch of Sidewalk Talk — a policy blog and discussion forum where urbanists and technologists alike can raise issues, air grievances, spark debate, and trade thoughts on the future of cities. It’s only through a productive back and forth that we can find some common ground in the broader pursuit of improving metropolitan life through innovation.

An urban-tech divide has always frustrated the smart city movement. Think back to the promising collaboration between IBM and Portland, formed in 2011, to build a predictive model for urban planning. The idea was for thousands of algorithms to chew through a mountain of historical data and spit out imaginative policies that would serve the city for decades to come. Instead what we got was the promise that promoting active transportation would reduce obesity — an insight that “no one in bike-obsessed Portland needed three thousand equations to know,” as futurist Anthony Townsend wrote in his 2013 book, Smart Cities.

That’s not to pick on IBM or Portland or smart city initiatives as a whole. Despite these lessons, public officials and tech start-ups still struggle to speak the same language. Just read about any of the latest squabbles between local governments and Uber or Airbnb. There are all sorts of institutional barriers on both sides. On the city end, those include vested interests, risk-averse bureaucracy, private-sector suspicion, and legitimate public safety concerns. On the tech end are political insensitivities, a reflexive dismissal of existing regulations, and a reluctance to balance profit motives with civic benefits and systems.

You could take all these pain points and be pessimistic about the convergence of city life and digital innovation — a la Peter Thiel. But at Sidewalk Labs we have a more promising view. We’re convinced the world is on the cusp of a great leap forward with respect to urban technology.

A new suite of data tools has emerged with transformative civic potential. Performance-based codes and advanced fabrication techniques can enhance buildings. Autonomous systems and precise location services can revolutionize mobility. Real-time sensors and ubiquitous connectivity can provide personalized social services that will save busy residents money and time. Meanwhile, more cities are hiring chief technology officers to make sure that digital integration is a fundamental planning component — not an afterthought. The federal government is encouraging similar local foresight through contests like its Smart City Challenge.

To advance the conversation, Sidewalk Talk will blend conventional blog commentary with policy series, expert Q&As, research insights, maps and data visualizations, and eventually a podcast. Occasionally we’ll speak directly about our projects, like the gigabit WiFi network LinkNYC or the transportation coordination platform Flow. More often we’ll explore the core topics these technologies impact in urban settings: mobility, buildings, infrastructure, open data, social services, and most critically, civil liberties. We fully expect our focus to evolve over time — in keeping with the super-adaptive pace of city life.

So join in and pipe up. The world is poised for a fourth urban-tech revolution — an age of connectivity capable of reshaping cities as much as the steam engine, electricity, and automobile have in the past. New technologies will help citizens and elected officials tackle those intractable urban challenges that Larry outlined last summer, but making sure this age imposes fewer social costs than those previous shifts is critical. Bringing that powerful future forward in a responsible way begins with a discussion.