Emerging Tech

Google Takes It to the Streets

Google last week announced the formation of a new company that will develop technology to improve city life for residents, businesses and governments.

Google has teamed up with Dan Doctoroff — former Bloomberg CEO and ex-deputy mayor of economic development and rebuilding for the City of New York — to advance the effort. Doctoroff will be CEO of Sidewalk Labs, which will be based in New York.

Doctoroff will contribute his experience in building and managing cities, and Google will provide funding and support.

Sidewalk Labs aims to tackle the biggest challenges cities face, said Google CEO Larry Page, including making transportation more efficient, lowering the cost of living, reducing energy usage, and helping governments operate more efficiently.

Reactions to Sidewalk Labs

Comments on Larry Page’s blog post ranged from ecstatic praise to requests for jobs to criticism to the way-out.

“Larry, can you ask them to develop very little self-driving robots to remove dogs’ excrements and other sh*t from streets?” Andrei Lopatenko wrote.

“Always glad to see Google trying things like this,” commented George Tokunbo. “When you say everyone, I hope that’s not just about solving first-world-problems of six-figure-salary techies. I want to hear more ideas about how to help the homeless. And by help, I don’t mean just move them out of sight.”

Google should encourage Sidewalk Labs to “stitch hypercube rotational and wormhole portals between [Google] Maps and Calendar and back again, to help city residents plan out and check-function the availability of their day with dramatic realism,” suggested Adam Clay5man.

Malik Al-Malik pointed to the Cities Alliance’s Guide to City development Strategies, which includes recommendations on the following topics:

  • Livelihood, such as job creation, business development, and sources of household income;
  • Environmental sustainability and energy efficiency of the city and the quality of its service delivery;
  • Spatial form and its infrastructure;
  • Financial resources; and
  • Governance.

Life as Google Might See It

Sidewalk Labs probably will create “things that are highly and much more completely instrumented — then tie that instrumentation to automated city management systems, services and planners,” suggested Rob Enderle, principal at Enderle Group.

“The benefit for Google is that the resulting information would be invaluable to people that want to sell you stuff,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“If they get to critical mass, it would be nearly impossible to displace Google — which would, for all practical purposes, be abstracting the government and directing it,” Enderle warned. “With Nest, Google has our homes; with [self-driving] cars, our transportation; and now with this, they’ll get pretty much everything else.”

Questions about Sidewalk Labs’ Vision

Apps in and of themselves don’t make a city more efficient; they can serve only as an overlay to infrastructure, and much of the infrastructure in most established cities in the United States is crumbling, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 report card for America’s infrastructure.

We’ll need to invest US$3.6 trillion in infrastructure projects by 2020 to remedy this problem, it says.

Sidling Into a Crowded Market

Lots of companies, including IBM, have been involved in smart cities projects for years, and their efforts are more extensive than Sidewalk Labs’ initial aims.

“We’ve seen a lot of cities doing proposals for smart lighting in which they require a full IP network for the next 10 to 20 years, noted Jim McGregor, principal at Tirias Research.

“They want to automate the city and link all the databases together so they can plan out traffic patterns, revenue models, where they should put parking spaces, and so on,” he told TechNewsWorld.

One such city is San Jose, which has begun piloting an Internet of Things project.

Google, Apple, Microsoft and other companies are motivated to get into the smart cities market, McGregor said, because “they’ll have the databases and consumer information, and we’ll get locked in to them.”

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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