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Thursday, October 6, 2022

The City Google Couldn’t Buy,” by Josh O’Kane

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Josh O’Kane covered over two years of Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs’ controversial ‘smart city’ in Toronto for The globe and mail, Canada’s most widely read national newspaper. On September 13, Penguin will publish Random House Sideways: The City Google Couldn’t Buy, his book reveals the inside story of the failed project and the company’s collapse. The following is an exclusive excerpt from the book.

In early 2010, Larry Page thought that Google’s innovative spirit was being suppressed. At the same time, cities like Rio de Janeiro and Songdo, South Korea, welcomed the warm embrace of huge multinational technology companies like Cisco, IBM and Siemens to upgrade infrastructure and build futuristic-looking operational centers.

It was no surprise, then, that Page saw in the fast-growing but bureaucracy-choked metropolises a new set of problems to be solved, and a multibillion-dollar market waiting on the other side: how people moved, how infrastructure was designed, how community services were rolled out.

Google didn’t have to build an operations center like IBM; it could build the city itself, wire it up to collect data on how residents use the city, and then study the patterns in that data for ideas that could become technologies to make city life easier. Then those technologies could be sold to governments around the world for a premium.

Google’s first steps into cities were small: they wired with fiber and built self-driving cars to fill their streets with the project it would later call Waymo. But under the auspices of Javelin, a secretive team Page had built to find Google’s next moonshot, he wanted to approach urban problems from entirely new angles — just as his old colleague Sebastian Thrun tried to build flying cars while the rest of Silicon Valley was developing. building was self-driving vehicles that got stuck on the ground.

Page’s team was urged to think about what constraints they could remove to make cities better. Flying cars themselves were a good start to this thought experiment; as the monorail Page had once envisioned for his alma mater, the University of Michigan, they wouldn’t get stuck in traffic. Huge stretches of highway in and around cities lie empty for most of the day.

What could cities look like if flying cars made urban design more efficient? You could live 100 miles from work if your car could fly you there in just a few minutes. The land used for highways can be reused. And if you could live in a city 100 miles from work, what would you like that city to look like?

Don’t joke about that. Larry also wants to build on the moon.”

The ideas developed with enormous ambition, says Isaac Taylor, a longtime Google special project consultant who had worked on Google Glass before taking a leadership role on the Javelin team. What if Javelin built a city on the sea, free from the regulations and restrictions of any city or country?

As a general rule, Silicon Valley billionaires like Page have long felt that laws and regulations prevented them from building a world more Star Trek.

“Instead of Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprisewe got the Priceline Negotiator and a cheap flight to Cabo,” wrote one of the partners at Founders Fund, the venture capital firm led by self-proclaimed contrarian tech investor Peter Thiel, in 2011. Coincidentally, Thiel also had half a million dollars in the Seasteading Institute , an organization dedicated to “building floating societies with significant political autonomy”.

Javelin’s urban thought experiments went in the same direction. Things like building height regulations, speed limits, and zoning restrictions get in the way of ambitious businesses on a good day. When someone with Larry Page’s unbridled imagination tries to figure out how to build cities better, rules can seem even more annoying.

“From the very beginning, there’s been a fascination with data-driven government that won’t be screwed up by bureaucrats and politicians — it’ll be rational because it’s created by software developers,” Taylor says of Google’s then-nascent interest in cities.

Down the rabbit hole

The people who took part in this study or saw it happen had different views about its intentions. Some were inspired by the spirit of Page’s vision and saw the experiment as just that: the spirit of an idea. Some were amazed at how deep the rabbit hole had to be dug to please Page. And some got caught somewhere in the middle, happy to be part of a mission that was both energetic and exhausting.

At one point, a group of them took a boat to San Francisco Bay. They had hoped to build something there, on the water. As the waves lapped around them, Taylor shared some bad news with a superior who had a direct line with Page: After consulting with lawyers and lobbyists, his team learned that as much as they thought they could build a floating city, it changed that. the bay was also kept to rules.

The full moon was visible in daylight and Taylor pointed to it. “It would be easier for Larry to build his city on the moon than here in San Francisco Bay,” Taylor said.

His superior looked at him sternly. “Don’t joke about that,” he told Taylor. “Larry also wants to build on the moon.”

When Page said he wanted moonshots, he meant it.

The Javelin team proposed a loose vision of what a Google community or city might look like.

Though prevented from building a city that would be a cross between Burning Man and Atlantis, Javelin had developed a handful of ideas during his research that would work on land. The largest was a dome — a towering, air-locked bubble of carbon fiber tendons connecting pieces of transparent film. If they could imagine a dome that would protect a city from the power of the sea, researchers thought, they could create a dome that could protect an ordinary city from Earth’s increasingly hostile climate.

The staff went to great lengths to study how to build and maintain a huge dome. They scoured the world to explore what was possible and spoke to architects and designers who had worked with dome-like structures. They studied designs that could work in extreme conditions: in the world’s hottest deserts, or in the Canadian Arctic, “in preparation for the nagging catastrophes of climate chaos,” Taylor says.

They ran scenarios to see if a dome could remain intact if a plane crashed into it as well. The team even collected raw numbers for a business model: If it cost $5 billion to build a Google-designed dome to cover a $50 billion development, the developer could easily cut costs by 10%. of building the neighborhood within, because many of its structures would not require walls or mechanisms for heating and cooling.

Life would be easier and thanks to those savings, the dome would pay for itself. Some of the team thought Google could even build a factory to produce the dome’s carbon fiber and film pieces, becoming a global leader in materials science.

Crashing to reality

Javelin’s staff searched rural communities in Northern California and even explored partnerships with sovereign indigenous nations, Taylor says, as they sought regulatory freedom to enable their visions. However, the intense, serious thought experiment eventually collapsed into reality, and the Javelin team began crafting a few different plans that could work with existing cities.

In one, they would partner with landowners in a handful of locations to build mixed-use domed neighborhoods filled with modular building units, flexible home financing models, self-driving transit vehicles and delivery drones. This, according to an internal document, would help Alphabet build excitement and “measure the city’s readiness to release regulatory scrutiny for innovative developments demanded by residents.”

In another plan, they would build a network of suburbs, lure applicants with a bidding process — one that would ask municipalities to minimize zoning restrictions and building regulations, create dedicated airspace for delivery drones, allow Google to handle construction permits, and strip landlord-tenant rules.

At another time, the Javelin team proposed a loose vision of what a Google community or city might look like, framing its benefits around the economic impact of the Great Recession and the rising cost of gas. Infrastructure should adapt to life, not the other way around, they argued. They proposed an individualistic approach to transportation, in the spirit of the monorailpods Page had proposed for Ann Arbor in the 1990s, with autonomous vehicles that would drive people around at will.

Javelin didn’t allow prescriptive views of how the world worked to stop it from thinking big. The ideas weren’t just utopian — they were, as the company liked to describe how it imprinted its proprietary blend of engineering and whimsy on the world, Googley. The team started hiring people to bring this Google vision to cities. It was soon transformed into a private company. They called it Sidewalk Labs.

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