Designing a digital city, part two: 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. 

Craig Nevill-Manning

Read part one here.

Ben Fahy: Do you have any other predictions around how we'll live? Will we be moving panels around our houses to fit our own day?

Nevill-Manning: Buildings do change. If you think about the downtown buildings, they do change in their use over time, from light industrial warehouses to sometimes residential, to commercial and so on. And even during their lives in a particular use, you want
to move around the floor plans and so on. We think we can make that much more flexible. So maybe as your family grows, you need another bedroom, you don't necessarily have to move out of the building. You can actually rearrange things within the building to enable you to stay in the same neighbourhood. That derives from a number of potential technologies. One has been around for a while – modular housing. Building out of modular components, and then be sort of mixed and matched. There's a really interesting technology around low voltage power. If you look around at most of the things that you plug into the wall, a lot of them don't require high voltage. They often have a transformer brick attached to them and then low voltage coming out the end. Can we actually have more low voltage supplied within buildings? That would mean that you don't necessarily have to have an electrician to move a
wall around because you don't have high voltage cables embedded. 

Will we even have power lines?

I think so. People are working hard on wireless power, but that's one technology that doesn't seem quite ready for prime time, unless it's the wireless power that says, "I put my phone down on a particular spot on the table and it charges." I think that at longer range, we haven't seen successful applications. But I wouldn't rule it out, to be honest, in the decades ahead. 

What's the time frame for this? I know tech companies like to move quickly and Google certainly does. But cities don't really move quickly, they evolve over time. At the moment, the idea of smart cities is largely traffic lights and maybe a few sensors in some of the more developed cities. Lots of cameras obviously around, but at the moment there's a lot of expectancy and hype around it. Is the substance going to come soon do you think? Are we in the trough of disillusionment at the moment?

Well, I think in terms of smart cities more generally, I feel like there's a little bit of a false start. In the sense that a number of companies said cities should be smarter. Here are a bunch of sensors. Let's sprinkle them around the city and we're sure they're going to be useful for something. And it wasn't really driven by improving quality of life. In some cases they were but in general I think it's good to take a step back and say, “what are we trying to achieve?” And in this case of Sidewalk Labs, having a bunch of technologists like myself be in a room for all the working day with a bunch of urbanists, we think about quality of life and what that means for sustainability or for exibility or for mobility and accessibility. And then we work back to the technologies that we think will be helpful, and so I think we're going through that now. 

So it's becoming a bit more useful?

I think so, and the technology might necessarily be a million miles different, but it'll be used in much more considerate way. I think one good example you mentioned is cameras. In various past instances, cameras were scattered around and people didn't always consider the privacy aspects of that. It's good to start from the point of view that people's privacy is sacrosanct and they shouldn't be being spied on by the city, and starting from there you can think about if you want to use cameras for understanding the ow of vehicles in a city for example, through an intersection.

Can you do that without actually transmitting any of the actual footage from the camera but rather can you – and this has only just technically plausible – have a device that is a camera and processor all in one? And all the processing is on the device, and
then the only thing that's transmitted back is, say, counts of cars every ve minutes. Preserving everybody's privacy but still giving you the upside of being able to understand whether there's congestion and whether there are near accidents and so on.

That's something that has been talked about a lot with Google's motivations. Sidewalk Labs is a different company, but Google’s business model is based around collecting data and using it to make money. So who will own the data in the city environment? Will you own it? Will the city own it? What's your take on the data issue?

We are different from Google. And it's true that Google uses machine learning data to target ads. But that's not part of our business model. We're developing a city and it's not at all clear that any other business models from Google apply to Sidewalk Labs. Our business model is more around building real estate, we'll sell some of that real estate, we're operating a city and so on.

In terms of the data itself, there's a really strong open data movement within cities that has gained momentum over the past decade. And I think what everybody realises is that data about what's going on in the city, and it has some value. But it has value to a whole bunch of different players and so it is good to make this data open and available and then see what people do with it. Rather than try to make money of the data stream itself. So there are a lot of discussions that we're currently having with the city of Toronto, the residents. Nothing's been decided, but that's a pretty active area of discussion. 

In terms of what you see coming, what are the things that excite you most?

I think the self-driving car piece, not just because of mobility, but because of the way it changes the way you think about how you actually design cities and how flexible they can be and how you use the land. I think another big area is sustainability. We want to make this place, for example, planet positive. We want to make sure we're taking carbon out of the atmosphere, essentially. And there are a bunch of approaches to that that we need to use in parallel. One of them is just being more efficient about heating and cooling and lighting and so on. Building systems that can use machine learning to improve the efficiency of heating and cooling and those other energy uses. I think there's a lot of headroom there. So that I'm pretty excited about. And this is this is going to sound kind of brazenly futuristic, but...

That's what you're there for.

Exactly. But robotic delivery of goods around the city. So, either with real robots or maybe it's drones, the technology's going advance quite a bit, I suspect, in the next decade and beyond. But, again it's not so much that you're going get your packages from some online merchant faster, although that will happen, it's also about having to own less stuff. So, imagine I have a cordless drill, I use it maybe 10 minutes a month, but when I use it I rarely need it. I kind of need it for those 10 minutes. But maybe I don't need to own it especially when I need it I can get it for a few minutes' notice.

Especially if you don't have to deal with anyone to pick it up or you don't have to have that awkward transaction.

Yeah, so maybe I share it with a bunch of people or maybe there's a sort of a central reservoir of cordless drills. But imagine, if I could say to some sort of digital assistant, ‘I really need a cordless drill’ and then five minutes later I open my closet in my apartment and there's a cordless drill. Behind the scenes there's a robot that delivered it and scurried up the elevator and put it in. Maybe there's a closet in my apartment that has a door on the other side that robot puts stuff in. And so it's really, really seamless. Now, I don't need to own one so I'm saving some money. I don't need nd room in my apartment to store all the stuff that I needed occasionally. I don't need to remember where I put it. All that stuff sort of goes away and so there's a whole bunch of efficiencies there. It's not just that we're being lazy, although it will make life a little bit easier. It’s about using resources more effectively. We're not buying a cordless drill in most of the apartments around the city and finding some way to store them, we're just making smarter use of the resources. 

So we may be going back to having a series of pneumatic tubes around the city, like we used to have in the office?

If you've been to C1 in Christchurch, they deliver hamburgers by pneumatic tubes. 

Have you still got your café?

Yeah, we have a little New Zealand café in New York City, called Happy Bones. It’s quite small. It's only about 450 square feet, so 45 square metres or so. 

Cities last a long time and so I think one of the big, almost meta-challenges of cities and technology is how do you design things so that in 30 years' time somebody doesn't look back and say, "Those guys are crazy." 

On the topic of Christchurch, what do you think of the process that they've gone through? I wouldn't call it a clean slate, but a lot of people talked about the opportunity to create a new smart city. From what I've heard, that hasn't really come to pass. What's your impression of what Christchurch has become?

I haven't been to Christchurch in a few years, so I haven't got it updated on what's been going on there. I really like the look of the plans, they stepped back and considered the overall structure of the downtown and how to create new parks which is great. I do think that technology has advanced a lot since the earthquake in 2011. Honestly, if you started fresh with Christchurch today, you might make even slightly different decisions. For example, self-driving cars were much less developed than they are today.

But that also brings up this really interesting challenge, in general, which is that technology's going to continue to evolve, right? We know all about self-driving cars and drones and to some extent, robots, what's going to be possible in 10 years, 20 years, 50 years? Cities last a long time and so I think one of the big, almost meta-challenges of cities and technology is how do you design things so that in 30 years' time somebody doesn't look back and say, “Those guys are crazy. They completely built everything around assuming that drones were going to be the big thing and it turns out there was a much better idea just around the corner and now everything's kind of designed for that old, out of date technology.” I think there's some amount of humility that you have to have when you're thinking about planning things. 

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