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Does Google’s Sidewalk Labs Have Plans for Its Own City?

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An offhand remark suggests Google may want to build its own urban testing lab

According to The Information, Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation company spun off from Alphabet, the parent company of Google, may be in the market for its own city. Dan Doctoroff, the Sidewalk CEO, hinted at the prospect during a conference sponsored by the publication. Editor-in-chief Jessica Lessin noted that she heard rumors that Sidewalk Labs had brought on consultants to research the idea of building it's own city from scratch, and in response, Doctoroff told her "it would be a great idea," then adding, "I can’t tell you anything."

He did, however, add a few more things (from The Information):

Building a city from scratch could help the company rethink government, social policy and data-driven management. "Thinking about [a city] from the Internet up is really compelling," said Mr. Doctoroff, a former CEO of Bloomberg LP and a former deputy mayor of New York City. Existing "cities are hard. You have people with vested interest, politics, physical space...But the technology ultimately cannot be stopped."

Sidewalk has thus far been intimately involved in the project to turn New York’s unused phone booths into ad-supported wifi hotspots, and released Flow, a data sensor system and transportation coordination program that would combine real-time congestion and foot traffic information with other data to help cities create better transit routes.

A city would, of course, be a big step up, but also offer an unparalleled testing ground. And while it’s just rumors and hints at this point, it’s not too outlandish to think that tech companies such as Google have a vested interest in urban infrastructure (the company’s autonomous cars have driven more than 1.3 million miles since 2009, and its buses for workers are now a permanent part of the San Francisco transportation network).

This kind of thinking—the "technology ultimately cannot be stopped"—touches on the dual nature of the tech company. On one hand, the "Don’t Be Evil" multinational has a utopian streak straight from the ‘60s, as Nikil Saval wrote in a recent article about the tech world’s counterculture roots. At the same time, this is a big organization focused on the bottom line, and finding ways to monetize data and get more eyes on screens for more ad revenue. Google's futuristic campuses, especially the unbuilt BIG/Heatherwick dome, stand, as Saval said, as "the triumph of privatized commons, of a verdant natural world sheltered for the few." Google doesn't have the best record of getting big, futuristic buildings constructed; it would be interesting to see how it tackled the challenge of creating a city, and how a space that big would reflect the company's values and ambitions.