Lat­est Google project: rein­vent cities

Its Side­walk Labs will de­velop tech-based so­lu­tions to ur­ban living prob­lems.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS BEAT - By David Pierson david.pierson@la­times.com

Google Inc. has an­nounced the tech gi­ant’s lat­est moon­shot, a new com­pany whose mission is to rev­o­lu­tion­ize ur­ban life.

Side­walk Labs, based in New York, will de­velop new tech­nolo­gies to make trans­porta­tion more ef­fi­cient, lower the cost of living, re­duce en­ergy use and help city gov­ern­ments along the way.

Google’s lat­est big idea comes at a time when the com­pany’s stock has not im­pressed in­vestors and un­der­scores its pen­chant for ig­nor­ing groans on Wall Street as it con­tin­ues mak­ing big bets on projects that could take years to pay off.

Google shares have gained 25% in the last two years, well be­low the Nas­daq com­pos­ite in­dex’s 46%. On Thurs­day the shares fell $2.08, or less than 1%, to $534.61.

The Moun­tain View, Calif., com­pany was in a sim­i­lar po­si­tion two years ago when in­vestors were scratch­ing their heads over Cal­ico, a health com­pany the tech gi­ant launched to ad­dress prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with aging.

That led to head­lines such as “Google Moon­shots — In­no­va­tion or Des­per­a­tion?” in Forbes, which won­dered if the search en­gine’s foray into smart eye­wear (Google Glass), Web-con­nected helium bal­loons (Google Loon) and driver­less cars were noth­ing more than Hail Mary passes.

Per­haps sens­ing a po­ten­tial back­lash to Side­walk Labs, Google Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Larry Page ac­knowl­edged that the project de­vi­ated from the search en­gine’s mon­ey­mak­ing ven­tures.

“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,” Page wrote on his Google Plus page, re­fer­ring to the com­pany’s se­cret in­no­va­tion labs and the health project.

Side­walk Labs will be headed by Dan Doc­to­roff, for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive of Bloomberg and also a for­mer New York deputy mayor for eco­nomic devel­op­ment and re­build­ing.

“While there are apps to tell peo­ple about traf­fic con­di­tions, or the prices of avail­able apart­ments, the big­gest chal­lenges that cities face — such as mak­ing trans­porta­tion more ef­fi­cient and low­er­ing the cost of living, re­duc­ing en­ergy us­age and help­ing gov­ern­ment op­er­ate more ef­fi­ciently have, so far, been more dif­fi­cult to ad­dress,” Doc­to­roff said in a state­ment. “Side­walk Labs will de­velop new prod­ucts, plat­forms and part­ner­ships to make progress in th­ese ar­eas.”

Big cities, too, have be­come in­creas­ingly in­ter­ested in tech-based so­lu­tions to ev­ery­day ur­ban chal­lenges. Sev­eral cities, in­clud­ing New York and San Fran­cisco, have made large in­vest­ments in tech re­cently.

Los An­ge­les, for ex­am­ple, main­tains an open data por­tal that pro­vides dig­i­tal ac­cess to mu­nic­i­pal records and statis­tics. The city also works with apps such as Waze and Google Now to pro­vide things such as traf­fic alerts and in­for­ma­tion on city ser­vices in real time.

Still, much more can be done, Page said.

“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,” he wrote. “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.”

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