sidewalk labs

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Alphabet is best known as the parent company of Google, but the web is far from the only place it’s looking to make an impact. The company has made inroads in fields as diverse as biotech and robotics, and lately has been honing its focus on an entirely different space: city building.

Tech website The Information broke the news midway through April that Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet subsidiary focused on urban technology, is getting ready to present Alphabet’s top execs with a proposal to start developing huge new districts filled with housing, offices and retail space. People familiar with Sidewalk’s plans have said it intends to target large portions of land within American municipalities that are struggling economically.

Once it’s secured land to build on, Sidewalk will take a ground-up approach to building cities. According to The Wall Street Journal, the company’s developments will be “demonstration area[s] for ideas ranging from self-driving cars to more efficient infrastructure for electricity and water delivery.” In other words, they will be “proving grounds for cities of the future.”

Sidewalk’s efforts to incorporate futuristic elements into city life have already been seen — albeit at a much smaller scale — in New York. The company is behind the city’s recently installed “payphone-replacement machines,” which act as Wi-Fi hotspots and provide directions while still allowing for outgoing calls.

Of course, though the prospect of futuristic, tech-heavy “cities” designed by a company with close ties to Google is tantalizing, there are a few catches. For one, details are scarce on how Sidewalk’s developments will be paid for — some reports suggest that the company will allow counties and states to bid for a chance at getting one. For another, Sidewalk will require autonomy from many city regulations.

What’s more, some experts are skeptical about cities that have been built from scratch. “You can build a city from scratch and you can copy and emulate the great qualities of cities. It’s still a very artificial and sterile place,” Glen Kuecker, a DePauw University professor who has studied “smart” cities, told The Wall Street Journal.

So far, few other details about Sidewalk’s plans have surfaced, but word is that if the company gets the okay from Alphabet, it could start soliciting bids for hosting rights as early as this year.

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