Google’s Next Big Project? “Urban Problems”

New Google subsidiary called Sidewalk Labs aims to improve city life by leveraging tech. Free wifi in NYC is the first project.

The next big thing at Google is, drumroll … cities! In case you missed it, there’s a new Google-backed company called Sidewalk Labs that’s describing itself as an “urban innovation company.” Its mission? “To improve life in cities for everyone through the application of technology to solve urban problems.”

What does that mean, exactly? It’s hard to say. But this is Google, so it’s all pretty intruiging.

Here’s what we do know:

  • The size of Google’s investment in Sidewalk Labs has been kept under lock and key. Google CEO Larry Page described his company’s monetary support for Sidewalk Labs as a “relatively modest investment” in a recent Google+ post and compared the venture with GoogleX, the project to create self-driving cars. Sidewalk Labs is “very different from Google’s core business,” Page wrote, nonetheless it’s “an area where I hope we can really improve people’s lives.” Given that Google’s market cap is $358 billion, it’s safe to say the investment will be sizable, even if it’s pocket change for Google.
  • A former deputy mayor of New York City is leading the new company. Daniel Doctoroff, who served under Mayor Michael Bloomberg as deputy mayor — then, as President and CEO of Bloomberg L.P. — is the head of Sidewalk Labs. He told the New York Times that the company will operate within “the huge space between civic hackers and traditional big technology companies.” Essentially, striving to form public-private partnerships with cities. As deputy mayor, Doctoroff was a key figure in partnerships that brought big economic development projects, including the High Line, to fruition.
  • There’s been one project announced so far. Last week, Sidewalk Labs announced that it’s leading the acquisition of two organizations chiefly responsible for LinkNYC — the project trying to convert payphone booths into wifi hubs at 10,000 locations across New York City. By September, the now-Google-led project will provide free public Wi-Fi to anyone within 150 feet of the converted payphone booths. At least that’s the goal. If it’s achieved, Google and New York will accomplish what Philadelphia tried and failed to do in the 2000s.
  • This could be lucrative for Google. LinkNYC’s converted-payphone hubs are projected to rake in $500 million in advertising revenue over 12 years (the hubs aren’t just WiFi signal broadcasters; they also include some interactive services and digital advertising). How that revenue will be split between the city and Sidewalks Labs is not known. But the project is valuable for Google in another way: it broadens the reach of its network. All the LinkNYC hub interfaces will feature Android technology. Presumably that will be a priority for Google for all Sidewalk Labs connectivity projects. One of the founding partners of the Control Group (one of the two companies in the acquisition) told Wired that he believes it could be a lot of projects. “Maybe we’re replacing a phone booth in New York, but it might be adding services to a bus shelter in Philadelphia or a bike share in San Francisco.”
  • There are already haters. Maybe that’s not surprising. This is, after all, the same Google that has become a symbol of gentrification in the Bay Area. It’s the same company that bypasses public transportation by busing employees to and from San Fransisco on private transit. And it’s the same Google that’s been criticized for ushering in staggering inequality throughout Silicon Valley over the last decade. Now, that Google is concerned about the public good in big cities?

Over at GreenBiz, they’re taking down Google as a johnny-come-lately in the smart cities game, citing “5 smart cities players a step ahead of Sidewalk Labs.” And Susie Cagle writes for Pacific Standard that Google might not have what it takes to navigate the nuanced world of government contracts:

Tech tends to have a hard time with politics. In pushing against regulation, technologists and company founders claim they’re frustrated by outmoded government process. But a world where nearly everything is subjective and open to debate seems like a difficult operating environment for people who view their innovations as objectively better and above critique by anyone who does not have a degree in math. There’s a naivety to their worldview that might help to get things done inside a company but could prove a hurdle to progress in the public realm.

Time will tell whether Sidewalk Labs — which launched in June — is another of Google’s pie-in-the-sky projects that may or may not materialize (like the whole curing death thing), or if the company will have a tangible impact on urban living.