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Google wants to plan your city


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At Pacific Standard magazine, Susie Cagle writes about Google’s new venture Sidewalk Labs, which seeks to extend the company’s reach into the realm of urban planning. What, you might ask, are Google’s qualifications for doing this? The sprawling Google campus in Mountain View, California, which is almost a city unto itself.

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.

Illustration: Susie Cagle