Last June, Google spun-out a new company called Sidewalk Labsaimed at finding new ways to improve cities through technology.
Since then, Sidewalk was the lead investor in Intersection, a new company which powers the free, ad-supported Wi-Fi hubs that have sprouted up in in New York City. The initiative, called LinkNYC, offers a blazing-fast connection, as well as USB ports for phone charging and tablets to let people make phone calls and check maps.
And now, Sidewalk has bulked up its team with some big new hires.
Sidewalk CEO Dan Doctoroff spoke to Business Insider to discuss the company’s vision and initiatives, including high-tech parking spots and streets, and plans to integrate self-driving cars in cities.
A team equipped to deal with this “unique beast”
Sidewalk wants its staff to bridge the gulf between the technologist and the urbanist.
To create its dream team, Sidewalk “poached” the founder of Google’s New York City office, Craig Nevill-Manning, to lead its engineering division, and Ananda Babu, who used to run a Special Projects team at Google that focused on cities and transportation, as its chief operating officer.
It also hired Rohit Aggarwala, who has experience with New York City’s office of long-term planning and sustainability, to be its chief policy officer, and Josh Sirefman, who worked with Doctoroff when he was NYC’s deputy mayor, as its chief development officer.
Sidewalk Labs / Business Insider
That combination of tech knowledge with urban government experience will be the key to Sidewalk’s success, Doctoroff says. The Sidewalk team is about 20 people strong right now, but its span is much bigger when you account for all the folks at Intersection (~100 designers and engineers), who it works with very closely. He expects that Sidewalk will affiliate itself with more companies as time goes on, whether through acquisitions or investments.
“Dealing with cities is a unique beast, so we’re building a hybrid team that combines technology expertise with experience with cities, to offer solutions that are sensitive to the unique urban environment,” he tells Business Insider.
Making cities smarter
The goal is to use its “distinctive competitive advantages” — its engineering chops, city regulation knowledge, unique datasets that it can get from Intersection or Google Maps, and its well of money — to build products that will help solve big urban problems.
For example, Sidewalk is developing a product it’s calling the “completely connected streets” platform, which would collect ground data from streets and sidewalks to inform decisions about things like parking, lane-changing, and traffic-enforcement. He suggests that hubs like those used for LinkNYC could play a role in that.
Sidewalk is working with ten cities to make sure that they incorporate this product into their entries for the Department of Transportation’s “Smart City Challenge” (cities are competing for up to $40 million ≈ Health industry 2011 political donations”>[≈ Electronics/communication industry 2011 political donations]in funding for the best data-driven way to make city transportation better).
Data from that platform could eventually be valuable for self-driving cars.
“That’s a good example of how our long-term vision can inform a product,” he said. “Anyone who tells you they know the future with any degree of certainty is delusional, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t think deeply and develop a set of hypothesis can guide your view of what you do today.”
Sidewalk ultimately plans to make money in different ways. In the LinkNYC model, the Wi-Fi hubs don’t cost the city anything, and Intersection makes money from ads. Doctoroff also envisions subscription models for data platforms, selling products outright, or taking a commission.
“We’re in the early days of a technology revolution in cities,” he said. “We’re going to be working on lots of different things at the same time.”