Top executives from Google are reportedly weighing a pitch from its “smart city” spin-off Sidewalk Labs about taking over a section of a preexisting city and rebuilding it with a particular focus on technology, efficient infrastructure, and self-driving cars. According to The Wall Street Journal, Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff has been scrambling in recent months to put together a proposal to purchase a large swath of a city (potentially one that is struggling economically) to be rebuilt to house tens of thousands of residents. In essence, Sidewalk Labs — and by extension Google — would become the landlord to people residing within this refurbished, tech-rich mini-city.
GOOGLE AS LANDLORD?
Doctoroff, a former New York City deputy mayor and chief executive at Bloomberg LP, first dropped hints about his desire to build a new city from scratch at an event hosted by The Information last February. Developing a city “would be a great idea,” he said, while noting “I can’t tell you anything.” Weeks later, the idea had grown into an official pitch, codenamed “Project Sidewalk,” that Doctoroff planned on presenting to Alphabet CEO Larry Page. If approved, Alphabet and Sidewalk Labs could begin soliciting bids from municipalities later this year.
So what would a city designed by Google look like? It would likely include features such as LinkNYC, the public Wi-Fi hubs that are currently being installed around New York City. Dedicated lanes for self-driving cars also seem like a pretty sure bet. In March, Sidewalk Labs rolled out a new product called Flow which it described as a “transportation platform” that uses aggregated, anonymous traffic data to help city managers identify bottlenecks or redirect trains and buses to transit-starved neighborhoods, as well as drivers get real-time parking information during their commutes.
Google originally created Sidewalk Labs with the purpose of reimagining city living through technology, with the idea that New York City would serve as the company’s lab. But there are obvious limitations — political, financial, regulatory — to that concept, which would explain why Google is now interested in looking beyond the Big Apple to test out its ideas.
This could actually be the realization of a long-held dream by Page, who as far back as 2013 mused about “set[ting] aside a part of the world” for experimentation. That off-hand comment at Google’s I/O conference spurred a fanciful take in Wired about what a “Google Island” may look like.