(Image: Sidewalk Labs)

Reimagining cities from the internet up

Over the past year, Sidewalk Labs conducted a detailed thought experiment on the future of cities. Here’s what we learned, and how we hope to accelerate urban innovation.

It’s been a little more than a year since Alphabet (then Google) and I launched Sidewalk Labs. Larry Page and I shared a view that a combination of digital technologies — ubiquitous connectivity, social networks, sensing, machine learning and artificial intelligence, and new design and fabrication technologies — would help bring about a revolution in urban life. Their impact will be as profound as the steam engine, the electric grid, and the automobile, the three previous technological revolutions that have largely defined the modern city.

There can be little doubt that the struggles cities are facing are only intensifying. Here in the United States, hundred-year-old infrastructure is crumbling. Rents are rising faster than wages. Reliable and affordable access to jobs is out of reach for far too many people. And public confidence in government’s ability to relieve these problems and provide brighter opportunities has reached an all-time low. All these trends are fueling the pessimism and the ugly, divisive politics that we’ve been experiencing. Of course, America is not alone in this.

The recent U.S. election has left many urbanists wondering how much support the federal government will offer local government during the next administration. The truth is, none of us knows what the coming years will mean for federal support for cities, and while times of uncertainty tend to spark fear, they also present moments of opportunity. Local governments have always been great laboratories of innovation, and now more than ever they need to tackle the big challenges facing cities with a new generation of ideas and actions.

I’m an optimist toward the future of cities. When we established Sidewalk Labs, we did not delude ourselves into thinking that the answers to big urban problems would be obvious, or that the integration of digital technologies into the physical environment would be simple. Cities are big, complex, and messy places. Urbanists and technologists speak almost completely different languages. Even in the simpler eras when the three previous technology revolutions unfolded, the process of bringing railroads into town, upgrading sewage systems, lighting up cities, and accommodating cars took a generation or more. All of these hurdles help to explain why the venture capital community invests so little money in urban technology.

But we believed that cities don’t have time to wait. Looking at history, one can make the argument that the greatest periods of economic growth and productivity have occurred when we have integrated innovation into the physical environment, especially in cities. The steam engine, electricity grid, and automobile all fundamentally transformed urban life, but we haven’t really seen much change in our cities since before World War II. If you compare pictures of cities from 1870 to 1940, it’s like night and day. If you make the same comparison from 1940 to today, hardly anything has changed. Thus it’s not surprising that, despite the rise of computers and the internet, growth has slowed and productivity increases are so low.

So our mission is to accelerate the process of urban innovation, and over the past year we’ve been exploring ways to do just that.

A thought experiment

Larry Page wrote at the time of our formation that it was critical “to start from first principles and get a big-picture view of the many factors that affect city life.” So we started by conducting a detailed thought experiment: What would a city look like if you started from scratch in the internet era — if you built a city “from the internet up?” What I mean by that is a place where ubiquitous connectivity is truly built into the foundation of the city, and where people use the data that’s generated to enhance quality of life.

Over the past year, our team of urbanists and technologists convened some of the world’s leading experts across key areas of urban life. We explored innovation across mobility, infrastructure, the built environment, governance, even social policy, focusing on fundamental problems largely overlooked by the tech world to date.

In the process, we wrestled together with the technologist-urbanist divide. Our technologists pushed the teams to think big, challenge conventional assumptions about how things work, and leapfrog slow change. Our urbanists reminded us of the importance of data privacy, the complexity of land use, the greatness of diverse communities and vibrant streets, and the many other externalities that are ever-present in dense environments.

We also studied every prior or current effort to integrate technology into new cities or urban districts. All too often, such efforts took a top-down approach — forgetting that cities aren’t primarily about tech-infused buildings or shiny new tools, but the people and communities whose character makes the place so unique. We recognized that you can never truly plan a city. Instead you can lay the foundations and let people create on top of it.

In that sense, we drew inspiration from great platforms like the web, which thanks to open, flexible foundations has enabled creation from people around the world. In a city built from the internet up, we imagined a flexible physical layer (such as street grids, open utility channels, and upgradeable digital infrastructure) with adaptable software (such as privacy rules, regulations that lay out approaches to city management, and principles of governance) that would empower people to build and change “applications” much faster than is possible in cities today.

We also explored a wide array of innovations that might be possible over the next five-to-10 years. More important, with the luxury of time and unlimited imagination, we explored the impact that each idea might have on the others to see how — and if — they work in harmony and what benefits they could bring to every dimension of quality of life.

Take self-driving cars and other autonomous vehicles. We did detailed estimates of the cost reduction to the average resident when “mobility as a service” was offered, and we examined the impact on public space from the elimination of parking and separated roadways. More parks, pedestrian paths, and bike lanes mean more active lifestyles and potentially significant healthcare savings over time. Safe streets mean busy parents can feel confident that their children will be able to walk home from school alone. Better access to open space and less need for onsite storage as a result of cheap autonomous delivery mean some residents won’t require as much living space, reducing housing costs.

This one technology alone has enormous consequences for safety, health, productivity, and cost of living. We looked at so many others: among them, upgradeable buildings made possible by outcome-based codes, exchange-based thermal grids, automated trash systems, even new approaches to health care. We pursued them to their logical first-, second-, and third-order consequences.

Our thought experiment was just the start of an ongoing learning process about the nature of urban life. But we’ve reached some broad views about the type of place you might get if you reimagined a city with ubiquitous connectivity designed into its very foundation. We think you get a place that gives people more of what we love about cities with less of what we don’t. A place that’s adaptable, constantly evolving with changing demands, technologies, and tastes. A place that’s personalized for our needs and desires. A place that’s shareable in a million new ways. A place that’s more transparent, with greater trust among neighbors and greater faith in government. A place that feels like a city but functions like a local community.

In short, you get a place where these virtues, which all great cities already strive to provide, are the norm and not the exception.

Embracing labs

Out of this exercise, we developed a set of hypotheses for new tools that promise real value to cities today, and which also illuminate the path toward a fully connected future. But we know that cities can be unpredictable places. That’s why we love them! And that’s why we’re first creating a series of labs to work in close partnership with local communities to develop tools that meet their challenges.

Led by entrepreneurs-in-residence, these labs will consist of hyper-focused, cross-disciplinary teams of policy experts, engineers, product managers, and designers — a full range of urbanists and technologists. They’ll be empowered to advance an idea into a functional prototype that can be tested in the real world, drawing on the Sidewalk team for business development, talent acquisition, communications, and administrative support. Our hope is that many of them will eventually be spun into new companies that create useful tools, products, and services for cities. And, of course, there will be times when we conclude that the best thing to build is nothing at all, or that it’s time to refocus on a new hypothesis.

These labs won’t go it alone. Sometimes their efforts will develop through pilot projects designed with city agencies or in partnership with organizations, like Sidewalk’s current effort with Transportation for America to tackle mobility challenges. Other times we might hold competitions, recognizing the success of contests like the U.S. DOT Smart City Challenge. The aim is to keep these labs open: engaging the public, sharing what we’ve learned, and refining our ideas.

Initially we plan to have as many as eight or nine labs, which will be created within the next six months to a year. The first set of them will include the following:

  • Build Lab will focus on housing affordability, exploring new approaches to the construction of cheaper and more flexible buildings, such as the use of innovative materials, digital design, and automated fabrication.
  • Care Lab will focus on health challenges faced by low-income city residents, exploring new models of integrated health care and social services delivery, including place-based interventions, value-based reimbursement, and better ways to connect patients to a network of caregivers.
  • Manage Lab will focus on the pressures faced by budget-strapped cities, exploring the potential for data from city agencies, businesses, residents, and sensors to deliver better tools and services (such as digitized curb inventories) and improve the efficiency of municipal processes.
  • Model Lab will focus on the challenges faced by communities as they attempt to build consensus on affordability, sustainability, and transportation needs. It will explore the role of new modeling tools along with online collaboration and communication.

In the coming months we also expect to start labs focused on citizen engagement, shared living, and better access to public space.

Flow as our mobility lab

Flow is a great example of how we hope the process will work, evolving from a lab to an early-stage company.

Flow started with the observation that better data about what’s happening on streets can help cities coordinate the use of limited road space more effectively, relieving traffic congestion and expanding job access. The rise of smartphones, connected vehicles, and real-time sensing gives cities powerful new tools to help reach that goal. To explore the potential, the Flow team partnered with the U.S. DOT Smart City Challenge to understand specific mobility challenges cities face in their daily effort to help people get where they’re going faster and more affordably.

One of the most common challenges we heard about was uncoordinated parking systems, which can create unnecessary congestion as well as poor land use that leads to higher rents. Now Flow is exploring pilot parking concepts with multiple cities to connect drivers with parking spaces at the start of a trip, stitch together virtual networks of lots and garages, and digitize curb infrastructure like street-parking signs. If Flow can help make parking more efficient in the near term, cities can minimize their parking footprints and repurpose this space for people in the future.

Over time, we hope to build on Flow’s data and analytics platform to expand its scope to a variety of other applications that enhance urban mobility.

Ubiquitous connectivity

As I mentioned, the foundation of a city built from the internet up is ubiquitous connectivity. Eventually, everyone who lives in a city will have, through a variety of devices, high-speed access to pretty much everything else. But we aren’t there yet. In New York City, nearly 3 million people lack access to broadband. That’s why LinkNYC is so important to us. Led by our portfolio company Intersection, LinkNYC offers free gigabit Wi-Fi and other services—like access to maps, 311, 911, phone calls, and fast phone charging—to the residents of and visitors to New York City.

More than 750,000 people have already signed up for the service — a big step toward closing the digital divide. That’s not to say it’s been easy. Getting the Link network into the ground involved great cooperation with multiple city agencies, utilities, civil construction contractors, and others. Again, cities are complex places.

But systems like Link also give us great tools to understand how ubiquitous connectivity can enhance urban life. With thousands of fiber-connected access points and real-time displays, over time these types of on-street networks could help cities manage their complex environments. And by connecting communities in a responsible way, cities can start to address so many of the challenges they face: providing more job opportunities and local economic growth, greater access to information for school students, healthier streets and public spaces, and heightened civic participation.

It’s the first step toward the true integration of the physical and digital that will enable the fourth revolution in urban technology to emerge.

Urban districts

Ultimately, the future of cities lies in the way these potential solutions fit together. Technology has failed to solve many real-world urban challenges, and policy has failed to capitalize on the full potential of digital innovation. Cross-cutting problems require integrated solutions, ideally at the scale of actual communities. And yet there isn’t a single city today that can stand as a model for our urban future.

So as our thought experiment into the future of cities evolved, we turned it into a feasibility study. We extensively modeled the impact of a community deploying a wide range of innovations on an integrated basis across a large-scale district in real-world conditions. Our calculations suggest that applying urban innovations at scale can reduce cost of living by 14 percent compared with neighboring metro areas. It would put everyone within a short walk of a park. It would cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to two-thirds. It would save the average resident an hour of time every day.

The local benefits to residents who live there, businesses that locate there, and the jurisdictions that host such a district could be extraordinary. But the wider benefit would be showing the world what’s possible, in terms of both creating new urban districts and improving existing ones. When cities see other places do interesting things, they’re far more likely to try them. I saw that first hand with bike-share, which we brought to New York after seeing how well it worked in Paris. In the span of just a few years, hundreds of cities have launched bike-share projects, turning a local innovation into a global movement.

Moving forward

A large-scale district holds great potential to serve as a living laboratory for urban technology — a place to explore coordinated solutions, showcase innovations, and establish models for others to follow. Sidewalk is having conversations with community leaders about what truly integrated urban solutions might entail, and we’ve already fielded inquiries from communities around the world interested in exploring such a partnership. (Turns out internet rumors can be good for something.) We might even hold a competition or challenge to motivate broader participation among mayors and local leaders.

Whatever we do, we know the world doesn’t need another plan that falls into the same trap as previous ones: treating the city as a high-tech island rather than a place that reflects the personality of its local population. With this holistic vision in mind, our labs will continue to stress-test our hypotheses about the role of technology in cities. There are no magical fixes to tough urban problems. Anything we try will require lots of discussion, refinement, and adaptation. Responsible innovation at the city scale requires self-reflection and a willingness to make adjustments based on local feedback.

And building a pilot, or a product, or even a district isn’t the end goal. It’s making the commute for the tired waiter in Detroit shorter. It’s making rent for the Bay Area couple cheaper. It’s making health care for the family in Atlanta less stressful. It’s working with cities to help improve lives today while inspiring them to see what’s possible tomorrow.

Follow what Sidewalk Labs is thinking, doing, and reading with our weekly newsletter, or on Twitter and Facebook.