Sidewalk Labs launches Link, more to come


Dan Doc­to­roff wants to use infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy to re-cre­ate the mod­ern city. “The idea of Side­walk Labs,” says Doc­to­roff, “is to rethink the city from the ground up…with the inter­net first.”

Sidewalk’s premise is that we are cur­rent­ly expe­ri­enc­ing a fourth tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion: dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy, which fol­lows the three ear­lier trans­for­ma­tions wrought by steam, elec­tric­i­ty, and the auto­mo­bile.

Dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy has deeply changed the way that we inter­act and con­nect with peo­ple, places and things. Uber and Airbnb, by he says, are suc­cess­ful com­pa­nies that lever­age our new abil­i­ties to con­nect with each oth­er, and offer only a “hint of tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion in cities to come.”

On a cool evening ear­lier this spring, an engaged crowd at the Har­vard Club of New York lis­tened to Doc­to­roff speak on “The Future of Cities.” The event was co-host­ed by Crim­son Impact – the social ser­vice arm of the Har­vard Club – and the Yale Alum­ni Non­prof­it Alliance, two alum­ni orga­ni­za­tions that help guide new non­prof­its and social entre­pre­neurs.

Doctoroff’s career has long been cen­tered around improv­ing, and devel­op­ing, New York City. He pre­vi­ous­ly served as CEO and pres­i­dent of Bloomberg L.P. and deputy may­or for eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and rebuild­ing for the City of New York under May­or Bloomberg. In 2015, Doc­to­roff found­ed Side­walk Labs, a joint ven­ture with Google that focus­es on new ways to make cities work bet­ter for their cit­i­zens.

Infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy has immense poten­tial to improve urban life, accord­ing to Doc­to­roff. He cites autonomous vehi­cles as an exam­ple: “What hap­pens when we live in a world where peo­ple get around in a city com­plete­ly using shared autonomous vehi­cles?” Doc­to­roff imag­i­nes a future where you could pay for the use of a self-dri­ving car sys­tem by month­ly sub­scrip­tion, like your cable bill; a year’s sub­scrip­tion might be thou­sands of dol­lars less expen­sive than the year­ly costs of own­ing a car, for an aver­age user. And your own car is like­ly unused 90% of the time, mean­ing an inef­fi­cient use of both machin­ery and space. With few­er pri­vate vehi­cles, vast park­ing lots and park­ing garages could become a thing of the past, mak­ing room for new green spaces, new hous­ing, or bike paths.

As engi­neer Saul Grif­fith points out in a talk at the Long Now Foun­da­tion, at 44:30, light­weight self-dri­ving elec­tric cars might even match the ener­gy effi­cien­cy of rail or street­car sys­tems.

Cities,” empha­sizes Doc­to­roff, “are shared.” And so, cities are ide­al hosts for shar­ing tech­nolo­gies. “The abil­i­ty to pool resources is low­er­ing the cost of those resources dra­mat­i­cal­ly.”

Oth­er inno­va­tions like inex­pen­sive and wide­ly dis­trib­ut­ed real-time sen­sors can play a role in mon­i­tor­ing, chart­ing, and ulti­mate­ly charg­ing for exter­nal­i­ties like pol­lu­tion — charges that will nat­u­ral­ly result in decrease in pol­lu­tion across cities world­wide.

The end­less poten­tial of tech­no­log­i­cal infra­struc­ture will not only increase effi­cien­cy in cities, but improve the qual­i­ty of life itself:

When we are all con­nect­ed and our com­mu­ni­ty expands, we can use the resources of our com­mu­ni­ty much more effec­tive­ly to solve social prob­lems and give peo­ple a greater sense of belong­ing to the com­mu­ni­ty.”

Rather than dis­tanc­ing and detach­ing peo­ple from one anoth­er and from their envi­ron­ment, tech­nol­o­gy, Doc­to­roff believes, will strength­en this con­nec­tion and allow us to inter­act with our cities in new and excit­ing ways.

LinkNYC, one of Side­walk Labs’ many ini­tia­tives, in part­ner­ship with the de Bla­sio admin­is­tra­tion, is cur­rent­ly replac­ing NYC pay phone booths with wifi cen­ters. Link kiosks provide dig­i­tal maps, video call­ing, and emer­gen­cy call but­tons, and provide a fast, free pub­lic wifi sig­nal, tar­get­ing the dig­i­tal inequal­i­ty that has become a major issue in NYC

Doc­to­roff real­izes that bold changes are not easy to imple­ment in a city, but he is opti­mistic about New York City’s poten­tial to lead this change. “You need one bold city to take a chance and oth­ers will fol­low,” says Doc­to­roff. “We opened the High Line in 2007. By 2009, there were 36 [copy-cat] “High Lines” under devel­op­ment. So some­times all it takes is one great idea, and oth­ers will fol­low.”

Editor’s addi­tion: There is a thought­ful cri­tique, worth read­ing in full, of Hud­son Yards from Shan­non Mat­tern in Places Jour­nal:

The result is a pas­sive, some­what ego­cen­tric notion of cit­i­zen­ship — even an auto­mat­ed per­for­mance of cit­i­zen­ship, where­in self-man­ag­ing envi­ron­men­tal tech­nolo­gies can “over­ride cit­i­zens if they do not per­form” in accor­dance with the rules — which restricts people’s ideas about civic action, delim­its the “rights to the city” to which they feel enti­tled, and shapes their imag­i­na­tion about what a city is and can be. 51

It’s encour­ag­ing to see enor­mous dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy resources meshed with Daniel Doctoroff’s inside knowl­edge of the work­ings of a megac­i­ty. But to con­tin­ue Mattern’s cri­tique, and add to it the most imme­di­ate­ly rel­e­vant prob­lems we face: if we’re get­ting a ‘smart city,’ do we get a Wikipedia-style city or a Google-style city?

Which would we want, and what are the advan­tages and dis­ad­van­tages of each? Can Links link cit­i­zens to each oth­er?

The ques­tion mat­ters, because as we know from our talks with glaciol­o­gists, the con­straints of physics (and the weak­en­ing cliffs of the West Antarc­tic Ice Sheet) have the final word on coastal cities. There is one piece of pub­lic data that is cru­cial to the long term suc­cess of Side­walk Labs and Google, and that is our rate of decar­boniza­tion. But we don’t talk about it enough in day to day life.

Can pub­lic dia­logue be enhanced by com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­o­gy? In Athens, cit­i­zens made deci­sions by use of a klero­te­ri­on, a machine for delib­er­a­tion; could a twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry ver­sion be built into the design of a smart city? And then, con­nect cities to each oth­er?