Sidewalk Labs launches Link, more to come

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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?