Google launched its first start-up focused on Smart Cities solutions, Sidewalk Labs.
“Sidewalk Labs is an urban innovation company devoted to improving city life for residents, businesses and city governments, in particular by developing and incubating civic technologies,” says the press release.
Sidewalk Labs arrives as the world continues to migrate toward urban hubs. By 2050, the population in cities will have doubled, intensifying existing socioeconomic, public health and environmental problems. Barcelona’s City Protocol and other Smart Cities solutions from companies such as Cisco and IBM are already putting technology at the service of cities and their residents.
Larry Page, Google’s co-founder and CEO, and Dan Doctoroff, the newly appointed Sidewalk Labs CEO, describe Sidewalk Labs as an “urban innovation company”, geared to developing new technologies to improve city living by reducing pollution, streamlining public transportation, and effectively managing energy use. The company wants to create its own technology and invest in other public and private initiatives.
Dan Doctoroff was New York City’s Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding during the Bloomberg administration
“We are at the beginning of a historic transformation in cities,” said Doctoroff at the announcement of the new company. “At a time when the concerns about urban equity, costs, health and the environment are intensifying, unprecedented technological change is going to enable cities to be more efficient, responsive, flexible and resilient. We hope that Sidewalk will play a major role in developing technology products, platforms and advanced infrastructure that can be implemented at scale in cities around the world.”
Larry Page added on his Google+ account: “Sidewalk will focus on improving city life for everyone by developing and incubating urban technologies to address issues like cost of living, efficient transportation and energy usage.” Mr Page also described Sidewalk Labs as “a relatively modest investment” and one “very different from Google’s core business.”
Nevertheless, the fact that Google has decided to launch a whole new company to focus on urban issues demonstrates the importance of the smart cities movement. New technologies are continuously being developed to help cities manage their resources and improve the quality of life of citizens.
The exponential growth of the Internet of Things, including ubiquitous connectivity and sharing, and the potential of mobile technology to provide effective solutions for cities, is something that Google cannot ignore. That is why Sidewalk Labs could become another reference point for cities seeking out technologies to solve real-world problems.
“Why now? A more urban world + emerging technologies = new opportunities to make cities more livable for everyone” says the company on their Twitter account.
One of the most interesting problems facing the technology industry is getting the billions of unconnected people around the world online.
Facebook and Google think aerial drones are the answer, with plans to put hundreds or thousands of flying robots in the atmosphere to beam down data rather than building expensive infrastructure in remote regions. Given the periodic updates we get on their progress, it seems both solutions are more than a crazy pipe dream.
But they’re also not quite ready for full deployment and won’t be for some time. In the meantime, startups and nonprofits have tried to find ways to send data over the systems that have been built out in emerging markets, including SMS (which has already been adapted for uses beyond simple text messaging, like payments).
Pangea, which presented onstage at Disrupt NY, offered a solution for bringing the unconnected billions online that will sound familiar to those of us who were on the web before broadband and mobile became the norm: sending data over the infrastructure used to send voice calls.
While the concept is fundamentally the same as good-ol’ dial-up, the implementation is far more intricate. Telcos with landlines expected their customers to sometimes use their lines to connect to the Internet, whereas mobile carriers try to cut out anything that isn’t a human voice.
So Pangea took the hard route and figured out how they could deploy data within those confines. Their method involves turning data into a sound wave, modulating it to sound like a human voice to a telco’s backend, and then reverting it back to data on the end-user’s device.
Every time you want to send an email or check Twitter, it’ll make a quick (~10 seconds) call and transfer the requested data at up to 64 kilobits per second. Given the slow speeds, Pangea is only for text for now, but co-founder Vlad Iuhas says that down the road, it’ll offer the full Android experience, albeit a lot slower than most users in markets with data infrastructure are used to.
Getting access through Pangea requires installing an app on a feature phone or Android device, which is problematic when the market you’re going after doesn’t have access to data in the first place. The startup’s immediate solution is to have an initial user who commutes to a major city download the app over data, then send the app to other residents of their village or town over Bluetooth.
Iuhas hopes that carriers in Africa, Asia and Latin America will one day pre-install their app on phones (and maybe even pay for usage). The company plans to begin rolling out service in Nigeria this summer, working in concert with one of Africa’s largest wireless carriers. If that goes well, the company plans to deploy across the continent in the not-too-distant future.
Here’s a rough transcript of the post-presentation QA session:
Can you talk about the business model? It seems like a non-profit.
The way we will make money differs from country to country. Our main goal is to get our hands into as many people as possible, there are 4 billion unconnected people. We can do rev-share, sponsored data, but first we need it in hands.
Do you need a carrier deal or pre-installation?
That would be ideal, but a user could head into a city where there is data to download the app and then bring it back to people in their towns or villages.
Looking in the long-term, assuming infrastructure appears in developing countries, what does your company turn into?
Our mission is to connect everybody to the Internet as quickly as possible. When that happens, we’ll have millions of users to monetize. We’re a software company, we’ll innovate.
Will you focus on one country and try to spread virally?
We’re focusing on Nigeria, and hope to launch there early this summer.
What about the rate of growth of 3G? In five years, hundreds of millions of people will have 3G service.
In Asia that is true, in Africa the rate of growth is much slower.
How do you get people who don’t know why they’d use the Internet to be interested?
If people can go on Facebook, or Twitter, or read the news, they’ll discover the value of the Internet.
Have you talked to any carriers?
We have, we’re going to launch with a carrier in Nigeria this summer, and a large carrier is an investor.
The ideea of a platform for cities and regions to work with the developers, creative, and entrepreneurial leaders currently operating at the intersection of innovation and cities, is something we will also approach during the Danube Conference.
Stay tuned for updates soon!
“Technology is rapidly changing the city experience, disrupting, augmenting, and generally improving everyday life. Aside from the obvious consumer-facing applications (Foursquare, Yelp, Uber, etc.) municipalities are increasingly seeking to reach residents “where they are” technologically.
Want to pay for parking? Your city probably has an app for that. Want to pay your taxes, or sign up your kid for summer camp? More and more often your city may have an app that will save you a trip to City Hall. These rather simple technological advances in municipal service provision have fundamentally altered the urban user experience nationwide and globally.
These tools certainly add simplicity to the more mundane tasks, but what about something more ambitious? Can we tackle public health issues or reform how citizens interact with public safety?”