By Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.
‘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.’
These words are from Daniel Doctoroff. In 2016 Larry Page (Google) invited him to be chairman/CEO of a new Alphabet enterprise, Sidewalks Labs. This company aims contributing to the transformation of urban environments through technologies that can drive efficiency, raise accountability, and foster a deeper sense of community. In others words, connecting Google’s expertise to the Smart City movement.
Choosing Doctoroff was obvious. He was deputy mayor for city development in the Bloomberg administration. He is deeply concerned with the problems of American cities and at the same time he believes in the power of science and technology to solve them. In his view the Fourth Technological Revolution will integrate five core technologies:
- ubiquitous connectivism
- social networks
- computer power
Deployed together, these technologies will significantly decrease mobility costs for citizens and for the community at large as well, personalize services and improve safety.
The ultimate end is improving the quality of life in cities and not the deployment of technology as such. Therefore Doctoroff carefully staffed Sidewalks Labs with technologists and urbanists. In his words, the first group is in general insensitive to the complexities of cities. The second group does not understand technology and protecting the social fabric of cities comes first. Both groups talk other languages and do not communicate. Doctoroff believes that their successful collaboration can make the difference between Sidewalk Labs and technology-driven Smart City initiatives. See an interview with Doctoroff on the future of cities here.
It is too early to judge whether Sidewalk Labs will fulfill these promises. The published research so far (a couple of titles is shown in this article) shows a great deal of involvement in the problems of the American cities, like the crumbling infrastructure, the lack of accessible health care, and the unaffordability of housing. The modeling of these problems, taking into account realistic population data, enables fast simulations of the impact of solutions and thus shortening of length of the decision making process. This research has revealed ingenious redesign of the public transport network, new models of integrated heath care and proposals that might significantly lower construction costs.
Sidewalks Labs does not limit itself to figuring out solutions; the company is also taking care of their implementation by creating start-ups. For instance, Flow is mapping traffic and (public) transport pattern to optimize networks and thus meaningfully increasing mobility. Link NYC is replacing the 7000 payphones with super-fast free Wi-Fi hubs, paid by advertising on the large hub displays.
In its health care research Sidewalk Labs made clear that most medical problems have social and environmental roots, for instance bad food habits and air pollution. At the same time health care in the US is more expensive than in any other OECD country and its quality, accessibility in particular, is unsatisfying. When it comes to solutions, Sidewalk Labs is focusing on e-health, for instance monitoring patients and consulting physicians at distance. At this point I became aware of a growing feeling of discomfort with the strategy of Sidewalk Labs.
Sidewalk Labs is brilliant in the realm of defining and modeling problems, freed from any reductionist bias. However, its search for solutions is technology-focused, for instance apps that offer real time affordable solutions for renting apartments or apps that shows vacant parking lots. Not to mention the free Wi-Fi facilities in New York. Flaws in the Smart City approach result partly from a technological bias in the definition of problems. Sidewalk Labs definitely cannot be blamed in this respect. But it fails to integrate technical and non-technical approaches in the the solution of problems. Exactly this is corresponding with distinction between Smart City 2.0 and Smart City 3.0 that I made recently.
I assume that the focus on technological solutions in inherent in Sidewalks Lab’s connection with Alphabet. The ultimate ambition of Sidewalks Labs is to reimagine cities from the Internet up. That is why Alphabet has created the company. In the end, Sidewalks Labs’ mission is paving the way for new services to develop or to deliver by Google.
However, cities, their administrators and inhabitants are yearning comprehensive solutions for their problems. These solutions demand an integrated approach deploying high-tech, low-tech and also no-tech solutions. Here Sidewalks Labs falls short, in spite of Daniel Doctoroff inspiring citation above. Probably ongoing discussion between the technologists and the urbanists will enable this integration in the end.
**) Featured image: Shawn Collins (cc)
***) This article was brought to you by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.