The city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel or an ant-heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban forms condition mind. (Lewis Munford, “The Culture of Cities” 1938)
It was only a matter of time before Google, the company that wants to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, the company of the “moonshots”, decided to go after one of the most attractive, and potentially rewarding spaces for innovation: cities.
It was obvious because cities are a natural mystery, a complex problem which has attracted the attention of the most intelligent and most curious people along history. Google could not afford to miss a challenge like cities. Because cities are full of untapped business opportunities. Cities are where the people go in search of a new life or better opportunities, and therefore where the money goes, and will continue to go for the rest of this century. Cities are where most ideas come to life.
By tackling intransigent urban problems, Google would have an unprecedented opportunity to contribute to wealth creation, human wellbeing, and if executed properly, to improving its public image.
And this week it has been announced. In a brief post Larry Page says (emphasis added):
… a lot of urban challenges are interrelated—for example, availability of transportation affects where people choose to live, which affects housing prices, which affects quality of life. So it helps to start from first principles and get a big-picture view of the many factors that affect city life. Then, you can develop the technologies and partnerships you need to make a difference.
So I’m very excited about +Sidewalk Labs, a new company we’ve announced today (…) Sidewalk will focus on improving city life for everyone by developing and incubating urban technologies to address issues like cost of living, efficient transportation and energy usage.
While this is a relatively modest investment and very different from Google’s core business, it’s an area where I hope we can really improve people’s lives, similar to Google[x] and Calico. Making long-term, 10X bets like this is hard for most companies to do, but Sergey and I have always believed that it’s important. And as more and more people around the world live, work and settle in cities, the opportunities for improving our urban environments are endless. Now it’s time to hit the streets and get to work!
The company will be led by Dan Doctoroff, former CEO of Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor of Economic Development and Rebuilding for the City of New York. As explained in the press release:
Dan led a wholesale reimagining of New York City’s physical and economic landscape as the City’s Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding. He spearheaded the effort to revive New York after the attacks of 9/11 through a five-borough economic development strategy which included the most ambitious land-use transformation in the city’s modern history; the largest affordable housing program ever launched by an American city; and the creation of PlaNYC, New York’s pathbreaking sustainability plan.
Since leaving New York’s City Hall, Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire 108th New York mayor, is funding urban innovation, and Dan has been member of Board of Director of Bloomberg Philanthropies. Now, announcing the new company, Dan said:
We are at the beginning of a historic transformation in cities. At a time when the concerns about urban equity, costs, health and the environment are intensifying, unprecedented technological change is going to enable cities to be more efficient, responsive, flexible and resilient. We hope that Sidewalk will play a major role in developing technology products, platforms and advanced infrastructure that can be implemented at scale in cities around the world.
As someone who has been following ideas about cities for quite a few years, I can only admire these guys and say congratulations and good luck.
Clearly, only exceptional people can see and unveil impossible works of art in the dirty sidewalks of today’s cities!