Google’s biggest, craziest ‘moonshot’ yet

Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs is trying to create an entire new city to test technology. What could possibly go wrong?

Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs is trying to create an entire new city to test technology.

Google is nothing if not ambitious. It’s famed “moonshot” projects have taken on notoriously large projects, from extending human lifespans to drones that can stay aloft for years at a time. But this one takes the cake.

According to the subscription tech news site The Information, Alphabet, Google’s holding company, is trying to get CEO Larry Page to sign off on “Project Sidewalk.” The Information describes the effort as an attempt “to create an area in the U.S. that serves as a test bed for new technologies from superfast internet to autonomous cars. … An area that could accommodate hundreds of thousands of people has been contemplated.”

Hundreds of thousands of people? That’s not an “area”—that’s a city!

Big ambitions, bigger questions

The very concept of a project on this scale instantly raises a number of questions: Where would this brand-new city go? What would it involve? Who would design and build it? Who would live there, and what would their lives be like? And most important, what could possibly go wrong?

The Information story, sourced from “several people involved in the effort” who go unnamed (Sidewalk didn’t comment), says sites near Denver and Detroit are being considered and that some 100 city planning experts, researchers and technologists are involved—with connections to home-building giant Lennar, Harvard, McKinsey and the Institute for the Future.

The plan would be to use the “district” to more easily test a wide variety of technologies and approaches—including solutions to cybersecurity and privacy issues—without having to deal with legacy technologies, infrastructure and politics.

Be careful what you wish for

It all sounds like a techie paradise, sort of like San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, only with faster internet and without all those pesky homeless people and other urban realities. (Apparently, this project leaves those issues to the Luddites left behind.) Based on America’s long history of planned Utopian development schemes, we can be sure that it would attract a vibrant, eclectic mix of community-minded people and institutions and not turn out to be a cold, sterile, soulless environment of empty streetscapes where colossally self-absorbed people communicated only via apps and bots.

As for all of those rules and institutions that make innovation in messy old real cities so hard? I’m sure Alphabet has a better plan that will put the rights and needs of citizens first, ahead of the corporations investing billions of dollars in the project. And I’m equally sure that any solutions developed in Project Sidewalk would be easily applicable to the rest of the world. Because after all, everyone is eager to leave their existing lives behind in favor of one expressly designed and managed for them by Google and McKinsey and company. 

Actually, when you think about it, probably lots of people would jump at the chance. After all, all those cults and fringe groups have no problem attracting recruits, so why should technology be any different? Of course, those other communities often end up making headlines for the wrong reasons. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen here.

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