Google’s Sidewalk Labs Aims to Make Cities Smarter

Published on June 22, 2017 | by Lidija Grozdanic
© CityBridge
Tech giants are more frequently coming up with products that target urban environments. Google’s new startup, Sidewalk Labs, has already hit the streets of New York City and rolled out several products that promise to make urban infrastructure and public spaces more efficient.

Our cities are changing rapidly, thanks to the advent of smartphones, driverless cars, data sensors, connected vehicles, and public Wi-Fi. Thanks to technology, commuters and urban dwellers in general have more options that help them navigate cities and tap into real-time data to find parking and public transport connections. These advances in digital technology in urban environments also allow experts to reinvent cities and optimize their infrastructure.

Google’s latest spin-off, Sidewalk Labs, creates new tech products that will address the problems of city life and improve transportation, social services, health and public safety. Owned by Alphabet Inc., parent company of Google, this “smart-city” venture is building an integrated platform for urban innovation that spans technology, data, policy best practices, relationships, and capital. Sidewalk Labs has hired a team of experts – engineers, city planners, and entrepreneurs – to create these digital products and amass a wealth of knowledge that will allow them to analyze and optimize how city dwellers live, work, commute and use public services.

The enterprise plans to create companies in partnership with entrepreneurs, and work with successful management teams seeking public-private partnerships to help take full advantage of the biggest urban opportunities. Through the use of ubiquitous connectivity, real-time sensors, precise location services, distributed trust, autonomous systems, and digital actuation and fabrication, Sidewalk Labs hopes to solve urban problems such as high costs of living, congested commutes, public health crises and fossil fuel dependency.

Some of the main areas will be performance-based code, advanced materials, and new ownership models for modern affordable housing, digital mobility system which will manage limited road space to improve transportation equity and air quality, personalized social services and new business models, renewable energy, and smarter storage for distributed energy management.

In 2015, Sidewalk Labs acquired companies Control Group and Titan forming a subsidiary called Intersection, which operates with city governments to design media platforms that create public assets and offer advertising options to clients. Interserction’s most recognizable product to date is LinkNYC, a first-of-its-kind communications network that will replace over 7,500 pay phones across the five boroughs with new structures called Links. Each Link provides fast, free public Wi-Fi, phone calls, device charging and a tablet for access to city services, maps and directions.

LinkNYC by Google's startup Sidewalk aims to provide free wifi and make cities smarter.
© CityBridge

Thanks to advertising, LinkNYC is completely free. Its innovative digital OOH advertising network is expected to generate more than a half billion dollars in revenue for New York City and provide clients with an optimized, context-aware platform which can reach more people in New York City.

Another flagship platform, Flow, uses aggregated, anonymous traffic data to help city managers identify bottlenecks or redirect trains and buses to neighborhoods with poor transit. It uses technology to stitch together available parking, reducing the time drivers spend circling and the amount of land devoted to parking. This aims to allow cities to better understand where, how, and why people are traveling in order to plan stronger transit networks, and explores the options people have in transportation, the choices they make, and the information that factors into them.

Sidewalk Labs has also been working with 10 cities in the Smart Cities Challenge organized by the US Department of Transportation, which provided $40 million in federal funds to the winning application to modernize their transportation infrastructure through the use of state-of-the-art digital technology. The challenge received seventy-eight applications in total and last June, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that Columbus, Ohio, has been selected as the winner. Sixteen other applications still received some funding and Sidewalk Labs plans to work with these cities to implement and improve Flow, with the possibility for the cities to buy the product.

“We’re taking everything from anonymized smartphone data from billions of miles of trips, sensor data, and bringing that into a platform that will give both the public and private parties and government the capacity to actually understand the data in ways they haven’t before,” Daniel L. Doctoroff, Sidewalk’s chief executive, told The New York Times. Doctoroff is a former deputy mayor of New York City and former chief executive of Bloomberg.


The shift towards “smarter cities” is become a more widespread trend, with new technologies and data gathering being tested across the world in order to optimize urban infrastructure. We are excited to see how these solutions affect our daily life.

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