Latest Google project: reinvent cities
Its Sidewalk Labs will develop tech-based solutions to urban living problems.
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.”