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Sidewalk Labs hires 'dream team' to tackle city design in the self-driving age

Google spin-off wants to build its own products

Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Google's "smart city" spin-off Sidewalk Labs just hired a team experts whose goal will be to create a new line of technology products that can fix the many problems of city life. Last year, Sidewalk Labs acquired a company called Intersection, which is now in the process of installing hundreds of high-speed Wi-Fi hubs across New York City. The hope is that this new team of engineers, city planners, and entrepreneurs can roll out a host of similar attention-grabbing ideas over the next few years to convince cities that technology is their ultimate savior.

Case in point: Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff tells The Verge that is company is working in close collaboration with 10 cities participating in the US Department of Transportation's "Smart Cities Challenge," in which dozens of medium-sized cities compete for $40 million in federal funds to pull their transportation infrastructure out of the Dark Ages. He wouldn't say which cities his company is helping, nor would he describe the fruits of that collaboration except to say Sidewalk Labs was using "real-time data" to help cities better understand daily street activity. DOT is expected to announce the finalists of the competition on March 7th.

Helping 10 participants in the smart cities challenge

So what about Sidewalk Labs' "dream team?" Craig Nevill-Manning, the founder and former director of Google's New York City-based engineering team, was hired to head up the company's engineering department to build prototypes and new products for cities. Joining him will be Anand Babu as chief operating officer. He previously led efforts in Google's special projects team focused on cities and transportation and led product incubation within the search giant's machine intelligence team.

Sidewalk Labs is also bringing on a policy team, led by Rohit Aggarwala as chief policy officer. Aggarwala previously headed the sustainability practice at Bloomberg Associates and led the creation of the city's PlaNYC sustainability project when he served as director of New York City's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Josh Sirefman, another Bloomberg veteran who helped lead the effort to build an applied sciences university on Roosevelt Island and who now heads his own planning firm, will be chief development officer.

They will all serve under Doctoroff, former CEO and president of Bloomberg LP and deputy mayor for economic development under (you guessed it) Michael Bloomberg. Doctoroff wouldn't reveal what products his new team was working on, saying they were not operating under any particular timeframe. But he highlighted self-driving cars as one area where Sidewalk Labs could help cities better prepare for the future.

"That's not going to happen at real scale for a while," he said of autonomous vehicles. "But that doesn't mean you can't be putting into place the infrastructure today in order to solve real-world problems like parking, lane changing, and traffic enforcement, where that infrastructure utility you put in today can't be a critical component of that future view. And so we are beginning to think about things, and actually beginning to build or in some cases acquire products to enable us to get to that place over time."

"the smart city movement is historically overhyped"

So far, Link NYC, the gigabit wireless network, is the most recognizable product to emerge from Sidewalk Labs since its formation seven months ago, and that was through the merger of an outdoor ad company and design firm to form Intersection. Doctoroff said buying other companies would continue to be part of Sidewalk Labs' mission, but hoped the new executive team can help lead the creation of a whole suite of new products, things that can help solve intractable city problems like the lack of affordable housing, government red tape, and poorly designed street life. But if that sounds like a lot of pie-in-the-sky promises, Doctoroff acknowledges that "the smart city movement is historically overhyped."

"In part, it's been hard to deliver on, because there really is a gulf between the technologists on the one hand, and let's call them the urbanists on the other," he said. "Where the urbanists and the planners don't really understand technology, the technologists don't really understand cities."

Sidewalk Labs hopes to bridge that gulf, he said, by hiring both engineers and veterans of municipal government to make the smart city movement less of a theory, and more of reality. And then turn it into a profitable business. "We're in this business to make money," Doctoroff said.