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Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs is eyeing a contest to build its own internet city

Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs is eyeing a contest to build its own internet city


‘A living laboratory for urban technology’

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For months, it was rumored that Sidewalk Labs, the Google spinoff focused on smart city solutions, wanted to build its own city-within-a-city to trial self-driving cars, public Wi-Fi, new health care solutions, and other city planning advances that modern technology makes possible. Today, the company confirmed that it was indeed interested in creating its own urban district “from the internet up,” and hinted that it may even make a contest out of it.

Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs, made it official in a Medium post today celebrating the company’s first year in existence. In it, he claims that by experimenting with new technologies in “real-world conditions,” there is the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to two-thirds, shorten commutes by an hour, and slash the cost of living for local residents by as much as 14 percent.

“A large-scale district holds great potential to serve as a living laboratory for urban technology.”

“A large-scale district holds great potential to serve as a living laboratory for urban technology  —  a place to explore coordinated solutions, showcase innovations, and establish models for others to follow,” Doctoroff writes.

He credits “internet rumors” with fueling heightened interest in Sidewalk Labs’ urban experiment. Indeed, the rumor mill has been churning about a mythical “Google Island” since even before the company spun-off Sidewalk Labs as its smart city incubator. This led to speculation that Sidewalk Labs was looking to purchase land on which to build a planned community that could house thousands of people. But in his essay, Doctoroff dismissed the idea of a walled-off district separated from the wider city.

“Whatever we do, we know the world doesn’t need another plan that falls into the same trap as previous ones: treating the city as a high-tech island rather than a place that reflects the personality of its local population,” he said.

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Doctoroff says Sidewalk Labs is currently speaking with mayors and community leaders around the country about this project. “We might even hold a competition or challenge to motivate broader participation among mayors and local leaders,” he added. That suggests that Sidewalk Labs will soon begin to accept bids from cities interested in hosting the company’s ambitious experiments.

“There are no magical fixes to tough urban problems.”

He also cautioned against seeing this experiment as a silver bullet for the problems of urban living. “There are no magical fixes to tough urban problems,” he says. “Anything we try will require lots of discussion, refinement, and adaptation.”

In addition to its city-within-a-city, Sidewalk Labs will also set up “eight or nine” labs within the next six months to churn out products focused on improving transportation, health care delivery, housing affordability, and Internet connectivity in cities. “Led by entrepreneurs-in-residence, these labs will consist of hyper-focused, cross-disciplinary teams of policy experts, engineers, product managers, and designers — a full range of urbanists and technologists,” Doctoroff says.

No word on where those labs will be located, but Doctoroff says he hopes they will eventually spin out their own companies, thus creating a network of tiny Sidewalk Labs clones all over the country.