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Google's New Startup for Cities Needs to Go Far Beyond Tech

Google's New Startup for Cities Needs to Go Far Beyond Tech
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Along with creating sci-fi eye glasses, beaming high-speed Internet from balloons, and building self-driving cars, Google now wants to help make life in the city better and more efficient.

On Tuesday, Google unveiled a new independent startup called Sidewalk Labs with the goal of making technology that can fix difficult urban problems like making transportation run more smoothly, cutting energy use and lowering the cost of living.

The company will be based in New York City and run by Dan Doctoroff, the former CEO of Bloomberg and former Deputy Mayor of Economic Development and Rebuilding for New York City. The partnership is similar to how Google funded and incubated anti-aging startup Calico, and Google’s moonshot lab X, Google’s Larry Page told the New York Times.

The population boom and increasing urbanization is one of the biggest global changes shaping the planet. The world is expected to have over 9 billion people by 2050, most of whom will live in cities.

On a pure technology level, I’m surprised that Google would elevate these ideas to the level of its moonshot lab or a high-risk startup that’s trying to “cure aging.” These trends are solvable and are already happening today.

I expect — and hope — that given Doctoroff’s background, much of the innovation would be focused on policy and urban planning. Whatever emerges would have a tech component rather than being pure tech products. Rapidly developing cities like San Francisco need much more policy and urban planning innovations than they do the latest technologies.

There’s actually already many startups and big companies alike that are building technologies for cities, making them smarter, more connected, more data rich, and more efficient. Companies like IBM, General Electric, and Cisco Systems are using sensors, wireless networks and algorithms to make city infrastructure operate more efficiently. Silver Spring Networks already builds networked smarter city lighting systems.

The push to make buildings more energy efficient is already being tackled by a variety of startups including FirstFuel, WegoWise, and Retroficiency. Meanwhile, homeowners can conserve energy by using systems sold by Google’s Nest, various telecom companies and cable service providers like Verizon and Comcast, and startups like Tado.

More efficient public transportation is a hard problem to solve, but still startups are focused on it. Urban Engines launched last year to use data, algorithms and behavioral economics to make urban transportation operate more efficiently. The startup can take data from easily accessible, low cost sources — a bus card or a subway card — and use algorithms to infer how commuters are behaving. A city can then react to the traffic flows, like adding more buses at certain times of day.

When it comes to alternative transportation, there’s really more options than ever before. You can grab an Uber, a Lyft, a Sidecar, a Scoot (electric scooter share), or book a Zipcar. But are all these options making cities operate better over all, or just more easily for those wealthy enough money to pay for them?

At the end of the day, urban development needs much more than technology innovation. It needs new ideas for policy and planning that will make booming and crowded metropolises truly better and more efficient for everyone. What we don’t need are cities that are merely outfitted with sci-fi technology that only make life better for some of us.

Google’s Sidewalk Labs has just gotten started, and it’s unclear exactly what they’ll be working on. But they should bring a lot more to the table than just technology.

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