Movies, TV, and books have long tried to depict what the future of cities might look like, whether it’s Coruscant from the Star Wars prequels or New New York from Futurama. But, despite there being a plentitude of sci-fi examples from which to pluck inspiration, Google’s Alphabet is finding out how hard it is to bring a real, digitally connected city of the future to real life today.
Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs company may be looking to build what it’s calling a “digital district,” constructed on either a near-empty plot of land the company will purchase or inside of an already existing but open-minded municipality somewhere in America. The creation would give the company lots of room to experiment with new toys.
This emergence of this super-secret project raises a lot of questions, but a lot of them can be explained given what we already know about Sidewalk Labs.
Will it be built from scratch?
In its first-quarter earnings report Alphabet executives announced the company made more than $20 billion, so it has the resources to take on the project.
The bigger question: Is it worth it?
In an exclusive interview for The Information, Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff hinted the company might steer toward building from the ground up.
“Thinking about [a city] from the internet up is really compelling,” said Doctoroff, a former CEO of Bloomberg LP and once deputy mayor of New York City, with “internet up” indicating an order of importance in infrastructure. “[Existing] cities are hard. You have people with vested interest, politics, physical space.”
Disney attempted to create its own utopian town in Florida, called Celebration, just outside of the Magic Kingdom. The town drew more on the nostalgia of post-World War II America with the picket fences and clean grass than it did a technological advancement. (Tragically, the town lost its veneer of perfection when Matteo Patrick Giovanditto was murdered after allegedly sexually assaulting his killer, who was later found guilty of second degree murder.)
Abu Dhabi — the large, oil-rich city within the United Arab Emirates that has come to define “excess” — is also attempting to build its own eco-friendly, $18 billion metropolis Masdar City. The city is supposed to hold 40,000 people and display the latest in solar and clean energy solutions, even going so far as to ban cars from the city all together. The construction project outside the Abu Dhabi International Airport is still underway and is slated for completion in 2020 at the earliest. However, what Google is attempting to do is arguably even more complicated, as it combines the promise of a clean energy solutions with better health solutions and internet-connected devices networking the city.
A city raised from the ground today under the mantra of “digital first” would be a lot more future-proof than the centuries-old metropolises tech infrastructure companies have been forced to retrofit time and time again. When asked whether “ground up” is how Alphabet will build its digital district, Doctoroff said, “I can’t tell you anything.”
So it will be built within an existing city, then?
While Alphabet probably has the resources to go off and make its own digital city, it seems unlikely.
For one, Alphabet is already working with a number of cities to connect them more digitally. Google Fiber is currently operating in four cities: Atlanta; Austin; Kansas City; and Provo, Utah. It also has plans to roll out in Charlotte, Huntsville, Nashville, Raleigh-Durham, Salt-Lake City, San Antonio, and San Francisco.
The company is working with New York City to deliver LinkNYC, a connected network of tablet hubs beaming wifi signals and providing information for low-income residents or just tourists searching for a subway map.
Sidewalk Labs itself is also working with the Department of Transportation to outfit one of the seven finalist cities in its Flow program with 100 wifi-beaming kiosks. The Flow kiosks will also gather and utilize more data about traffic trends.
But, as Alphabet does have a strong history of working with existing cities and governments to produce results, that’s not the main reason the company would ultimately decide to forgo a plan of building the digital district from scratch. It’s more so that, you can build a marvelously technological city in a vacuum if you want, but you can’t expect lessons learned within it to apply to existing cities around the world.
In other words: Building a utopia from the ground up is a proof of concept of some kind, but it doesn’t give New York City, Houston, or Los Angeles any clues as to how they will adopt new technologies within their city lines. Working on the digital district tech with existing large or small cities would give more legitimacy to the idea that replicable advancements are being made.
What kind of technology will be in the digital district?
Sidewalk Labs’ website boasts some pretty lofty goals beyond what the public has already seen, and it’s likely any or all of these ideas would be considered in its digital district.
The site lays out goals to not only improve traffic problems through data and autonomous systems, as it’s already aiming to do later this year in existing cities, but it also wants to address ways to better tackle fossil fuel dependency and public health crises.
There’s not much indication yet of how Sidewalk Labs would positively disrupt the industries of health and environment, but Alphabet as a whole certainly has a wealth of initiatives aimed at fixing these problems: Think of Google’s electric self-driving car, smart contact lens invention, or genome analysis program aimed at medical discovery.
But there are also technologies involved in building out a city that Alphabet and Google have little or no experience with. For instance: It’s great to have a street of Nest-connected Internet of Things homes, but what good are they if they don’t have working sewage systems? Plumbing isn’t something that Larry Page and Sergey Brin have attempted to tackle yet. Although, if Alphabet needs someone to hook up its city’s water system, it could probably find the right people through a quick Google search. So, no big deal.
Doctoroff and a team from Sidewalk Labs are scheduled to meet with Alphabet CEO Larry Page in the coming weeks to possibly discuss the secretive future of the digital district.