The Sidewalk Labs proposal in the competitive bid for the project floated all kinds of technological dreams: a thermal energy grid that would be carbon neutral, sensors that separate waste from recycling, modular buildings that convert from retail to housing, monitors that track noise and pollution, self-driving transit shuttles, shared-ride taxibots, adaptive traffic lights, delivery robots, heated bike paths and sidewalks that melt snow on their own.
In theory, each of these ideas would be best tested across more than just one building or street, and all of them would be more easily implemented together. Once you cover your traffic lights in sensors, it’s easier to turn them into air-quality monitors, too; as long as you’re redesigning streets around driverless cars, you can also think about what the delivery robots need.
Credit Sidewalk Labs
The prospect of a city designed by technologists, at least as a thought experiment until now, has made some nervous, urbanists especially. The tech industry is better known in its Silicon Valley backyard for contributing to rather than solving urban problems like unaffordable housing and traffic. And its corporate campuses are mostly models of how not to build cities, with mega office parks (and spaceship designs) dependent on cars and detached from their neighboring communities.
There’s no small contradiction in having tech founders muse about how to build better cities from places that bear little resemblance to lively cities at all.
The tech industry also thrives by working in ways that can be incompatible with public-sector city building. It’s hard to “move fast and break things” in government, and public funds don’t allow for the failure rates that venture capital does. New tech products are often targeted to early adopters, and they spread to the rest of us later. But you can’t do that with innovations in public service; if the tech savvy get the nicer bus routes or the new Wi-Fi kiosks first, that raises equity issues for the rest of the city.
There’s also the hitch that cities are inherently organic and unpredictable. They resist omniscient engineering. And past efforts at doing that — whether through the urban renewal of individual neighborhoods or the wholesale development of utopias — have invariably failed for that reason.
Many intractable urban problems are in fact not engineering problems at all, including the ones that most look like it. Housing is very expensive in a place like San Francisco not because we haven’t developed the right engineering methods to build it more cheaply. Unaffordable housing is largely a political problem — we haven’t developed the societal consensus to build enough of it.
Sidewalk Labs, to its credit, has internalized many of these criticisms. The company, formed by Google two years ago, has pointedly been based in New York City and not Silicon Valley. It’s staffed by both technologists and government alums. Its leader, the former New York City deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff, openly acknowledges the gulf between technologists and city government types. And Sidewalk Labs says it wants to bridge the two.
Credit Sidewalk Labs
“We all collectively see cities as about friction: good friction and bad friction,” Mr. Doctoroff told me not long after Sidewalk Labs started. “Good friction is serendipity, it’s opportunity, it’s diversity, it’s seeing 40 different nationalities on the subway as you commute in the morning. Bad friction is congestion, it’s pollution.”
The technologist’s temptation may be to try to build a city from scratch, with none of that friction. And especially without the greatest friction of all, politics. In Toronto, Sidewalk Labs is looking at something between a blank slate and New York City: a sizable plot of land to develop that’s still part of a city large enough that any successful ideas could ultimately spread.
Because it’s looking at a neighborhood and not just a typical developer’s parcel, Sidewalk Labs can play with all the infrastructure that connects those parcels — the utility grid, the street network, the sidewalks. But there would be no point in doing all that if there weren’t thousands of people nearby ready to move in, as is the case in rapidly growing Toronto. (Google also announced Tuesday that it would move its Canadian headquarters, which are in Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.)
The challenge now amid all the carbon-neutral, internet-enabled robot-monitor sensors will be to keep those humans in mind.