Can Google’s Sidewalk Labs help your city?

Google announced Wednesday that it is founding and funding Sidewalk Labs, a company dedicated to improving urban living through technology and partnerships.

Virginia Mayo/AP Photo/File
The Google logo is prominent at the Google headquarters in Brussels, seen here March 23, 2010.

With smart eyewear and self-driving cars crossed off their to-do list, Google is tackling a major new real-world project: cities.

The Silicon Valley giant on Wednesday announced the creation of Sidewalk Labs, a start-up dedicated to improving transportation, cost of living, and energy use in US cities.

The New York-based initiative, helmed by former Bloomberg chief executive Daniel Doctoroff, is the latest in a series of public-private tech collaborations seeking to improve city life.

“We are at the beginning of a historic transformation in cities,” said Mr. Doctoroff, who has served as deputy mayor of economic development and rebuilding in New York City, in a press statement. “Unprecedented technological change is going to enable cities to be more efficient, responsive, flexible, and resilient.”

As of 2014, more than half the world’s population lived in cities, a number that is expected to rise by another 2.5 billion by 2050, according the UN. In the United States, more than 80 percent of people live in urban areas.

As cities grew, however, so did their problems: Waste, pollution, congestion. In response, city planners, along with tech companies and individual designers, have begun leveraging technology to find solutions, including building apps to make urban life more efficient.

Take Los Angeles, which in 2013 became the first major metropolis in the world to synchronize every one of its 4,500 traffic lights in an effort to fight traffic. New York City uses mobile sensors to monitor air pollution, helping commuters, pedestrians, and cyclists avoid the smoggiest areas.

Similar initiatives have appeared across the globe, from an app in Paris offering real-time information about crowding on the next SNCF train, to a public transit project in Nairobi.

Big corporations are also investing in smart cities: IBM, for instance, collaborated with researchers at Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology in 2010 to develop transportation solutions for Stockholm. Last year, Cisco partnered with Hamburg, Germany, in a series of pilot projects around smart street lights, infrastructure sensing, and other urban technology.

Sidewalk Labs will work in “the huge space between civic hackers and traditional big technology companies,” Doctoroff told The New York Times, building technologies to improve energy use and adjust commuting habits.

Google CEO Larry Page compares the new initiative to Calico, a Google-backed venture that seeks to extend the human lifespan, and Google X, the company’s experimental research branch. He recently wrote, “While this is a relatively modest investment and very different from Google's core business, it’s an area where I hope we can really improve people’s lives.”

As the vague language suggests, Google has yet to specify how Sidewalk Labs will function or generate profit. But advocates of smart urban living systems are optimistic.

“It’s great to see an ambitious private sector initiative like this recognize that cities are important,” Steven E. Koonin, director of New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress, told the Times. “And there are technology opportunities, but they are complicated.”

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