Seven Urban Technologies Google-Backed Sidewalk Labs Might Advance

It's like fantasy football for civic tech fans

Will green roofs like the one on Chicago's City Hall be a technology that Sidewalk Labs works to advance? (Photo: TonyTheTiger/WikiCommons)

Will green roofs like the one on Chicago’s City Hall be a technology that Sidewalk Labs works to advance? (Photo: TonyTheTiger/WikiCommons)

Cities have a lot of problems that technology could probably solve, but thus far it’s more promise than success. Many of these problems concern data, but the sensors need to be more widely distributed and the adoption needs to grow. In other cases, it will take changes in the physical structure to solve many issues. One company that has proved it knows how to scale technology is Google, and it has backed a new company that will start taking on some of these problems and finding ways to make them work.

Google has invested in Sidewalk Labs, a New York based venture that aims to find some technologies that can make a serious difference on urban challenges. The company will be headed by Dan Doctoroff, the former Deputy Mayor of Economic Development and Rebuilding for the City of New York, according to a press release last week.

The announcement specifically addressed transit, cost of living, energy use and government efficiency, without necessarily limiting the company to those areas. It said Sidewalk would both build products, platforms and partnerships.

“We are at the beginning of a historic transformation in cities,” Mr. Doctoroff said in prepared remarks.

Many entrepreneurs and regional companies have rolled out interesting projects in urban tech space, but they have yet to achieve scale. Here are some technologies that might see powerful economies of scale if expanded quickly:

  • Poor insulation. Heat Seek NYC‘s platform can help tenants document cold buildings left drafty by inattentive landlords, but it can also help good landlords discern more precisely where their structures are losing heat.
  • Electric Car Charging. Kansas City’s power utility is scaling car charging stations from ChargePoint across its service area. Not only does the service deliver air quality benefits, it provides transit data that can provide other insights later.
  • Green roofs. Putting plants on roofs makes it much easier to cool buildings in the summer. They also do a great job of absorbing the stormwater runoff that the EPA is so irate at old cities about. The practice hasn’t really caught on here, but it’s huge in Germany.
  • Data. It’s always hard to say what a group might learn from data if they don’t start to collect it. Placemeter has built a tool for counting cars, people and bicyclists as they walk by. If cities understand how people move better, it may yield unexepected insights.
  • Incentives for sustainability. If making workplaces more sustainable actually improves bottom lines, businesses are more likely to adopt it. One researcher at the Center for Urban Science Progress in Brooklyn believes it is, but he is collecting data on both improved sustainability and productivity to demonstrate it, as he explains in this podcast.
  • The bugs in our guts. Just like humans, cities have a microbiome. In humans, the bacteria that live inside us keep us alive and balanced. That may also be true for cities.
  • Services in the cloud. Government is slow to adopt new technology because budgets are always tight. Google could help governments leapfrog services into the cloud. That said, Accela is another company that’s already well ahead of them on that front, raising more than $140 million earlier this year, according to a release.

In a post on Google Plus, Google cofounder Larry Page wrote, “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.”

Mr. Doctoroff was not immediately available for comment for this story.

Seven Urban Technologies Google-Backed Sidewalk Labs Might Advance