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Designing a digital city, part three: Sidewalk Labs' Craig Nevill-Manning talks technology, infrastructure and flexibility

Craig Nevill-Manning has overseen projects such as Google Maps and Google Shopping and furthered Google's philanthropic efforts in disaster zones. Now, as head of engineering at Sidewalk Labs, he shares his insights into what makes a flexible city, the challenges of technology and what excites him the most in the final part of this series. 

Read part one here.

Read part two here. 

Ben Fahy: Humans are not particularly good at predictions and we don’t seem to think long-term enough these days. In Auckland at the moment there are quite a few issues around sewage going into the harbour after it rains, gridlock, housing unaffordability, but it's still a very popular place. The infrastructure isn’t keeping up with the growth. Are these problems just part of life in the city? Can you actually solve those things?

Craig Nevill-Manning: There are probably things you can put in place to future-proof yourself a little bit. And some of these things are easy and doable and some of the things, those things are very, very hard. One of the things we've learned on the software side is that you can upgrade it over time. The fact that your phone every so often says, "Hey, it's time for an upgrade. I've got the latest version of the software." And suddenly your phone is a little bit more capable than it was before. That's maybe a little bit of a stretch to think of a city as a phone because that's really not the same thing. But there's probably some truth to the idea that if you can have things more software-run, software modifiable that you can probably adapt a little bit better. For example, the solution from the people who've tried to solve congestion in the past is to build more roads. Oh, the motorway's congested, let's add another lane. It turns out when you add more lanes to a freeway, you end up with what's called induced demand. More people drive and a few years later it's just as congested as before if not worse.

It might be the case that the better solution is to understand the flow of traffic in a much more fine grained way using sensors and so on. And then have a way of feeding back to drivers and to vehicles, so that people can make better decisions about whether they're driving or not. Enable, for example, public transit to take an express lane and so on. You already see this to some extent with Google Maps and Waze and so on taking the data from people using those devices and feeding them back and saying, "There's a crash up ahead, you should take a side street." There’s more opportunity for those software solutions to enable the cities to constantly upgrade themselves not from an infrastructure point of view, but from a technology point of view. 

And that's your theory on the city as a digital platform, in a way. Having the data owing through a city and using that effectively?

Exactly. If I'm a software developer and I want to build an app on a phone, if I'm building it for iOS or Android, there's a whole bunch of pre-packaged APIs, these interfaces that programmers use to make it easy to do certain things, to use certain features of the phone. The questions we're asking are what are the APIs for a city? What should be the standard things that, if I want to build a better transportation system, or a more efficient way of heating buildings, what are the APIs that I should be able to take for granted that provide the information about what's going on in the city at an aggregate level? 

One of the phrases that I saw used was around turning Toronto into one of the most measurable cities in the world. For Google and lots of other digital companies, analytics are really important to guide decision making. Is that something cities need to do better?

I think most cities already measure themselves. They keep track of things like congestion and usage, but there's an opportunity to make that even more effective. As soon as you say measurement in a city you always raise the spectre of surveillance and lack of privacy so I think you need to be very careful that you're not measuring so much detail that you're actually gathering personal information. You need to keep it in the aggregate, in a way that's unpersonalised. But when you can measure something better you can decide which trade-offs to make in a well- informed way. 

I guess there's another tension here between technologists and urbanists, and it’s that urbanists are often looking at the human stuff; the interactions, not the algorithms. Dan Doctoro [the CEO of Sidewalk Labs] was asked about the High Line in New York. It took a long time to get through, and a lot of people didn't want it. It required people who had a vision and it wasn't based on an algorithm or data, it was based on a weird human desire to bring an idea to life. Have you found that difficult, and have you moved in the direction of urbanists – to look more at human responses and that kind of organic approach to design? 

There are certain things that measurement and algorithms are useful for and, to your point, a whole bunch of other things that really require human empathy and experience and understanding and relationships. I honestly think if you walked into Quayside in Toronto and said, "Oh my goodness, look at all this technology," I would consider that a failure. You want to walk into a place and say, "Oh wow, what a great neighbourhood. Look at all this stuff going on. Oh, we should check that place out, I've heard it's great." And it's about the people, it's about the energy, it's about the creativity on the street. In the background somewhere, it is technology making that more efficient and safer and so on, but that's not the goal. It's kind of like the sewers under the street that make sure that the right stu happens with waste in the city. Nobody pays it much attention most of the time. It just has to work. But
it enables all of these other things in the city and keeps people healthy and so on. I think that's the way to think about the way technology should be used in the city. 

Another criticism of the smart city is that it's aimed towards wealthy cities or wealthy suburbs? How do you stop more inequality being created with these technologies?

We really set right up front the goal that this would increase affordability and would be an inclusive place. For example, in Toronto, we want this neighbourhood to reflect the diversity of the greater Toronto area, which is incredibly diverse. It turns out that Toronto is actually probably the most diverse large city in North America. Immigrants make up 50 percent of the population, which is amazing. And long may that continue. And so one of the things we have to figure out is how do you make this place feel like it was built for each of the folks that live in Toronto, that they can see themselves living in this place. Part of that's affordability, but there a whole lot of other cultural aspects of that. Where you want to build a place with diversity and attract a diverse set of residents, a diverse set of visitors. And we hope that some of these technological approaches will actually help on the affordability front. If we can drive down the cost of getting around, if we can drive down the cost of heating and cooling homes, etc. There's a good opportunity to pass that on to people who might not otherwise be able to afford to live in downtown. 

I think adding parking into a development adds around 30 percent to the cost.

Right. 

So you take that out and the cost comes down. And we're having that debate in Auckland at the moment. There are some progressive developers who have said, "We're going to have a couple of shared cars and there's no car parking." And then they get complaints from the locals because they think the residents will take up their parks on the street. But there’s demand for that type of development and they tend to inspire more public and active transport. There are some things that need to be broken for the city to get better and more efficient.

I think your point here and earlier on when you were talking about the High Line is that this back and forth between people within a city is critical. It's very rarely the case that somebody's first idea is the perfect idea. And these things get shaped by that public discussion. And sometimes the idea turns out to be a terrible idea after that discussion and it doesn't go ahead, but even in the case where it does go ahead, it's often significantly modified. And so you have to have that public engagement and public discussion because I think that's what ends up creating great places. 

Sometimes efficiency is the enemy of great places isn't it? You want that randomness, and that serendipity. Whereas you look at the tech mindset, they are often trying to limit human interaction. But the more you interact with friends or people in general, the more likely you are to live longer. That kind of thing is being thought about more now, with more shared spaces within developments and better placemaking in public spaces. Instead of putting fences up, actually trying to talk to your neighbours and create communities. I don't know how often you get back to New Zealand, but do you see anything that we're doing over here that is standing out, that you would say is world-leading or is just interesting?

In general, New Zealand is incredibly friendly. I get back there once a year, but whenever I have visitors from the US who go to New Zealand and come back, they say, "I can't believe how friendly everybody is." So there's a baseline of people being pleasant to each other, interacting, like you say, in public spaces and so on. Combine that with New Zealanders' comfort with technological change, so many technologies get tried out on a small scale in New Zealand before they get tried out in the rest of the world. I think about Eftpos and so on in the ‘80s. So I think that New Zealand cities are going be up with the fastest cities in terms of adopting new technology. In terms of those spaces, I think that Christchurch is a good example of where there's been a lot of thought about the new downtown in a modern age. And presumably it won't be perfect, but cities never are. They're always in the process of becoming something else. But I think New Zealanders are generally thoughtful about that. 

Do you have a favourite city?

I chose to live in New York, so I'm a big fan of New York. But honestly, cities are so diverse around the world. Toronto's amazing in the sense of its international aspects and diversity, sort of the Canadian-ness of Toronto. I love visiting cities. In fact, when we go away on vacation, it's almost always to some city elsewhere in the world. I think cities are endlessly fascinating. 

There's a huge urbanisation happening all around the world, people are moving into cities. Once Toronto is up and running, how big is the opportunity for Sidewalk Labs? And will you attempt to take those insights into other cities?


The whole point of this project is firstly to make a fantastic place within Toronto, but then, as you intimated, take those ideas and seed other cities around the world with them. Once the ideas have been de-risked a little bit and it’s clear that they can work and have a positive impact, cities do tend to adopt things relatively quickly. So we're hopeful that happens. And you're right, urbanisation is happening at an incredible rate around the world, so it's actually super important that we do a really good job of designing cities and take advantage of all the technological opportunities there. That's our hope, that the longer term impact of this won't be just in Toronto, but that it will be in cities around the world. 

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