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Alphabet's Plan To Help 70 Cities Get Smart—For Less

Smart cities are slow and wildly expensive to design. Sidewalk Labs wants to change that.

When Alphabet announced it would get into the business of urbanism—with the creation of a spinoff company called Sidewalk Labs—it was easy to imagine the company developing cities much like it develops technology products.

But a year after its creation, Sidewalk Labs is proving more nuanced in its approach to urbanism. Sure, the lab is responsible for the most ambitious digital infrastructure project New York City has seen in decades. But more technology isn’t always the right solution. "Frankly, our view is that a lot of what’s been less effective in some of the conversations around smart cities is that a lot of those conversations have been led by technology vendors who assume the answer is always ‘more technology,’" says COO Anand Babu.

Today, Sidewalk is announcing a partnership designed to change that. The company wants to help cities develop more thoughtful policy about technology, making it more affordable and more efficient, through a partnership with Transportation For America, a DC-based policy nonprofit that has worked with cities all over the country to implement better transportation policies on the local level.

Together, they’ll help 70 cities transform their transportation plans—whether from a technology standpoint, or not. But the key, Babu says, is "not immediately jumping to the conclusion that cities should install more routers and switches."

A Recipe Lab For Cities

Late last year, Sidewalk Labs and the U.S. Department of Transportation launched the Smart Cities Challenge. The premise was simple: propose a plan to build a new transportation network in your local city using "bold, data-driven ideas." The winner of the competition, which is now down to seven finalists, will receive $40 million—a princely sum for many communities whose budgets have been raked by the recession and cuts.

But what about the dozens of cities who submitted ideas but didn’t win? Whose proposals are now collecting dust? Sidewalk’s collaboration with T4A is tailored to that problem. The nonprofit will work with those 70-odd cities who submitted proposals, helping local leaders to further develop their plans and figure out "how to implement them in ways that don’t require a tremendous amount of capital or bandwidth," Babu says.

To understand why Sidewalk wants to work with T4A, it helps to know a bit about its history. T4A is actually part of Smart Growth America, a nonprofit that helped popularize a planning idea called "complete streets," a set of design and policy recommendations that, in a quietly revolutionary way, suggest that streets should be designed not just for cars, but for buses, cyclists, walkers, and more. Sidewalk Labs sees the group as the perfect partner to develop the next generation of recommendations, which are digital: "connected streets."

That doesn’t necessarily mean installing thousands of Internet kiosks or baking a sensor into every lamppost and curb possible. Right now, the goal is to work with 70 cities to understand what they truly need from technology, and ultimately, develop a set of design recommendations that any city can run with.

"One of the great things complete streets did was boil the recommendations down to a pretty easy-to-handle set of recipes," Babu says. "We hope to do the same thing with connected streets."

Why "Smart" Cities End Up Dumb

It’s puzzling: how can so many technology companies and governments be throwing so much money at the problem of smart cities, yet failing to produce a workable model of what one looks like? One high-profile example is Masdar, an ambitious $18 billion connected city outside of Abu Dhabi that is now reportedly nearly abandoned. Other critics have suggested that the monicker "smart city" is just jargon for a surveillance state.

Part of the problem is that many smart city developments have been led by technology companies designing specific plans for specific cities—and packing as much technology into those plans as possible. Those bespoke, custom technologies are expensive, Babu says, and any city that wants to use them has to have extraordinarily deep pockets—so very few cities use them.

Sidewalk’s goal is oblique to that: it wants to develop a kit of parts that apply to cities all over the country, and by getting more cities on board, make that kit less expensive: "Our approach at Sidewalk is really, ‘How do we build standard platforms, that are relevant to as many cities as possible, to drive down the cost of using any of these services?’"

Babu points to Waze as a great example of this. Waze runs a program called Connected Citizens, which allows cities to directly tap into the app to understand what’s happening on their streets, from collecting pothole data to analyzing traffic flow. "The beauty of that program is that it’s the same tools, the same dashboard, the same API that every city is using," he says. "That allows cities to share peer best practices, share customization, and reduce the cost of using and deploying tools for any one of them."

Sidewalk wants its collaboration with T4A to do the same thing. It will develop its own transportation platform, Flow, alongside the seven Smart City finalists and the U.S Department of Transportation, using their feedback to directly inform the product development process. Working with so many other cities, small and big, will help the lab develop its other technology products, like its Wi-Fi kiosk system, Link, as well. For example, Detroit might use Flow to understand how car sharing could be better deployed to get around its sprawling urban fabric, which is so much less dense than other cities. Another city might use it to better distribute bike shares across stations, or use sensors to supply bus riders with more accurate notifications based on their location on the street.

It remains to be seen whether it will eventually get into the business of true city-building, as The Information reported last month. Working with 70 different cities to understand their needs could be just the first stage in a design process—empathize with the clients. But cities are slow, unwieldy things, and it will likely be a while before we see that next step.

It’s a crucial project, because we’re standing at the cusp of immense urban changes: autonomous cars are on their way. The on-demand delivery economy is transforming streets. Bike and car shares are, too. And alongside all of that, local budgets are being slashed with unprecedented zeal.

Technology won’t "solve" any of those problems magically, but if done right, it could lessen the burden. To put it in transit terms, it’s grease on the proverbial bike chain—not a new bike.

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