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Google Is Planning to Plan Your City

The company has more practice than you might expect.
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(Illustration: Susie Cagle)

After years of mediating our digital lives, Google is formally venturing into the physical world.

Earlier this month, Google announced it would be starting a new company, Sidewalk Labs, to invent and invest in “urban technologies” that will produce, according to its founder, “extraordinary business opportunities and opportunities for improving quality of life.”

The company has dabbled in urban planning for years, but this new investment seems to indicate those projects weren’t just for fun. As more people move to cities worldwide, the business of planning, innovating, and running those cities is poised to grow too—and it’s a model in which the “user” has no choice but to opt in.

I hate to say I told you so.

Ever since tech companies’ employee shuttle buses began attracting attention in San Francisco, locals have worried about private services for the wealthy drawing funds from public services and furthering an already deep class split. In fact, the opposite appears to be happening: Ridership on public transportation in the Bay Area is steadily increasing, with local buses and trains regularly running over capacity.

Instead of investing more in elite service alternatives—which on their own have not proven to be a great business model—more private money is flowing into the public realm.

The results of this exchange often come in the form of community benefit agreements. Municipal tax codes written in the pre-knowledge economy have left cities broke and more reliant on these kinds of quid pro quo agreements made with private developers to pay for basic public services. In most places, these agreements look like an extra street light or sidewalk improvement; in Silicon Valley, they can look like free bus rides for an entire town. But they still add up to far less than the city’s old business tax income.

Yes, Silicon Valley needs more housing, but the politics of how, where, and when are far more nuanced than Google can apparently handle.

This is where Google has essentially already built its own city within a city, learning much about planning, development, and local government along the way. Google’s interest in the physical design and function of a city seems born of pragmatism (the necessary logistics of building and running its giant campus), with a vague tinge of eco-friendly progressive ethos. Those traffic jams bring the region to a halt every rush hour—how could a self-driving car make travel more efficient? Those parking lots for thousands of workers are really expensive—how do you get more of them to bike to work instead?

Google’s Bike Vision Plan, a sprawling system of bike paths it developed in-house with the help of outside transit consultants, would have been one community benefit for the company’s proposed office expansion. It’s the kind of outrageous and innovative thing that we’d expect from a Northern European socialist democracy, not a tech giant, and it left urbanists salivating. But when Google’s office expansion was rejected, the bike plan was left in limbo.

The office plan was rejected at least in part because it included housing projects. Though Google repeatedly insists it is “not a developer,” the company also insists that the region needs more housing. If Google had relented on this point, it might have gotten more of the office space it asked for—but that’s not how Google works.

Sidewalk Labs certainly has great potential for profit: Government contracting is a massive business, and cities are wonderful, deep repositories of the kind of personal data that is lifeblood for tech companies. The company’s ability to substantively change city life, however, remains to be seen.

Tech tends to have a hard time with politics. In pushing against regulation, technologists and company founders claim they’re frustrated by outmoded government process. But a world where nearly everything is subjective and open to debate seems like a difficult operating environment for people who view their innovations as objectively better and above critique by anyone who does not have a degree in math. There’s a naivety to their worldview that might help to get things done inside a company but could prove a hurdle to progress in the public realm. Yes, the region does need more housing, but the politics of how, where, and when that housing is built are far more nuanced than Google can apparently handle. Google is right in saying that it’s not a developer. Those guys know how to do this dance.

It’s this inevitable dichotomy between data and real life that will likely define Sidewalk Labs, as it has defined the civic hacking movement, which launched with ambitious goals and now looks like a smattering of hackathons. In a New York Times story about the new company, the author suggests that “rapidly maturing” technologies will bring about a revolution in the availability of affordable housing. It’s the kind of breathless prediction you’d expect from a fresh-faced and left-leaning computer science grad who’s never seen a city council meeting.

Much of the complexity of local politics and planning comes from the locals, who have more power to hold their government accountable at a small scale. Where Google’s interests align with your city’s, the company might be a wonderful and powerful ally. That bike plan truly is a vision. But as a private entity, Google is not accountable to all the car drivers who will hate that vision. If cities choose to contract innovations out to private entities, they’ll likely encounter a disruption in the next election cycle.

With crumbling infrastructure and growing populations, cities do need innovation. But that doesn’t necessarily mean technology. The first point of disruption should probably be in the local tax code, to require companies like Google to pay more equitably into local coffers. Once they’ve invested, perhaps then they can begin to innovate.

The Crooked Valley is an illustrated series exploring the systems of privilege and inequality that perpetuate tech's culture of bad ideas.