Designing a digital city, part one: 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, who joined Google in 2001 as a senior research scientist and started its first remote engineering office in New York in 2003, is one of New Zealand’s most successful tech exports. As engineering director, he has overseen projects like Google Maps and Google Shopping, furthered Google’s philanthropic efforts in disaster zones like Haiti and pushed for Māori to be included in Google Translate (five-and-a-bit years after it appeared as an option on the search engine). But in 2016, he moved to fellow Alphabet company Sidewalk Labs, which is reimagining cities in order to improve quality of life. Its vision is that “by combining people-centred urban design with cutting-edge technology, we can achieve new standards of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity” and, as head of engineering, he and his team are currently attempting to bring a slice of waterfront land in Toronto kicking and screaming into the digital era – and then take those insights and ideas to the rest of the world. Ben Fahy talks with him about a more flexible future, how autonomous cars could change everything, the role of open data, what New Zealand cities are doing well and the conflict between digital efficiency and messy humanity. 

Ben Fahy: Google's already solved a pretty complex problem: organising the world's information. Is this the next step, and is fixing cities harder than what you've done before?

Craig Nevill-Manning: It’s certainly very different. I'm going to be pedantic for a second, but while we are related to Google, we're definitely a different company. I had to quit Google, I lost my badge, and we are in a totally different office, in a different part of New York. I go to Toronto once a week, sometimes twice a week, and we're hiring a lot of people in Toronto as well. In my old life at Google, organising the world's information was a fun problem. I don’t think that’s really been solved yet, but feel like Google's made a pretty good start.

So what attracted you to Sidewalk Labs?

It feels like this gap between what's currently done and what's possible when it comes to technology in cities. And it's exciting to think about how technology could actually improve quality of life in cities, and I think there are a whole bunch of ways. And there are a number of reasons why all of this technology hasn't been applied before, and I think Sidewalk Labs are in a good position to help make that leap.

What are some of those reasons? One of the things that people talk about is that planners don't really understand technology and maybe technologists don't understand cities. Is that tension that you're playing with?

We use this phrase so much within Sidewalk Labs it's a bit cliché, but you’re right, there's a gap between technologists and urbanists. And so we think a lot about how to bridge that divide. I love cities. I'm a big fan of cities. I love New York, I love Auckland, I love Toronto. They're great places to be, but before joining Sidewalk Labs, I didn't really have a sense of what made them tick. How they worked, how you'll get things done, how you might even go about improving them.

So from the technologists' side, there's that and from the urbanists' side, in general cities have used technology in really interesting ways in the past. Think about aqueducts in Rome or the pal grid starting in places like New York City. 

I love the story of the London sewer system. In a rare example of long-term thinking, they said ‘Let's triple the size of it’ after they got the report back. They admitted that they didn’t know what the city was going to be like in a hundred years and that sewerage system was still working until relatively recently.

It's all technology. It's all things that improve quality of life, improve health, improve wellbeing in cities and so cities have done that a lot in the past. They are adopting digital technology over time. One of the challenges, one of the divides I guess, is that if you're a software company and you say ‘well, let's try this new idea’, you can launch something as a beta and get it out there and tell people this may or may not work. Try it out and give us some feedback, and then you iterate towards perfection hopefully. Or you just grab the idea and you say ‘well, that was worth trying but it turned out not to be a good idea in practise’. Cities don't have the luxury of doing that. If they don't pick up the rubbish on a regular basis, really bad things start happening. So there's a different appetite for risk for very, very good reasons in cities, and furthermore, as you know, to make a change in a physical city involves a lot of new infrastructure. It's very different from software, and so I'm stating the obvious, but ...


Cities are also similar to software in the way that they're quite iterative. Things get bolted on over time, they grow and evolve and so the interesting thing with Toronto, where Sidewalk Labs is conducting its first project, is that there's almost a clean slate. You’ve got this chunk of a city that you’re going to try all of this new stuff in. What do you think will we be looking at in five years? What's the vision of Sidewalk Labs in that area?

You're right. In many ways, this area in Toronto is a clean slate. It used to be the Port of Toronto for many, many decades. There was shipping in and out of that area. It got built up over time, and for a whole bunch of reasons, when it stopped being a port, it hasn't been developed as a neighbourhood in the city. Even though geographically it's right there, right downtown. Honestly, one of the reasons we are super excited about Toronto because we wanted to be able to develop infrastructure from scratch. Thinking about that in a new way, but we didn't want to do it out in the middle of nowhere, which would have been easier in terms of getting permission. 

Like one of those Chinese cities where they just build it and hope that two million people will eventually live there.

Right. Whereas we wanted to do it in a city in North America where there was already a great city life and urban environment so that you can essentially have that spill over into this new place rather than trying to create that from scratch. This also creates constraints because you have to do this with the enthusiasm of the city, in this case, Toronto. In terms of the clean slate, if you believe that in some small number of years, self-driving cars will be practical, and I happen to be fairly optimistic on this front, I think things are moving incredibly quickly and cities could actually look very different. So it's not a question of just how that will change how people get around from A to B, it's also about how you change the way you use land in the city. If you think about a neighbourhood where it's 100 percent self-driving vehicles and in that environment, you've got vehicles dropping people off and picking them up. If they need to recharge or they're not in use, they can go into a basement or to the edge of town and recharge themselves. There's no reason to use precious urban land for storing cars, for cars sitting around waiting for somebody to jump and drive them. 

There's a huge chunk of urban areas that is dedicated to cars. Do you know the percentage on that?

It's between 30 and 40 percent in main cities, and if you think of how valuable city land is, storing cars seems like a crazy use of that land. 

If you think about a neighbourhood where it's 100 percent self-driving vehicles and in that environment you've got vehicles dropping people off and picking them up. If they need to recharge or they're not in use, they can go into a basement or to the edge of town and recharge themselves. 

Parking is quite a lucrative industry though, isn't it?

That's right, but you can use land for other things once you don't use it for storing cars anymore. Also, they tend to be in places where all the people want to be. So, often cars are parked along the sides of the streets but if you get back that land, you presumably can make the footpath wider, you can maybe add another lane. But I think the more interesting thing is if you don't have streets and buildings already that would define what will work, what's the right answer? Is it actually making the street narrower? 

Flexibility seems to be a key theme of some of the ideas that I've seen from Sidewalk Labs, like the ability for a street to be the same size, but then it changes at different times of the day or even buildings that can adapt. Is that something that has been key from the start?

Absolutely. You tend to see cities do adapt over time and you certainly see old warehouses getting reused as artists' spaces and then as apartments and so on, but buildings and streets aren't necessarily designed to be flexible. And we think with digital technology, one direction you could move in is to appoint much more flexible streets and buildings. So that as uses change, the actual environment changes with you, and so maybe in a building that's over a number of months, but as you pointed out in a street case, it might be in the over the period of an hour. So maybe you have a street that is one way in the morning when it's rush hour, and then as a pedestrian plaza in the lunchtime. It becomes one way in the other direction for the evening rush hour, and then maybe in between actually you shut down a lane because school's getting out and it's time to drop o and pick up the kids. And we haven't quite figured out exactly how you signal all of those things. We've actually done an experiment where we just renovated a warehouse on the Toronto waterfront and in there we've got an experimental street of the future where you essentially have lights that indicate to pedestrians and cyclists that this part's sidewalk, this path's a lane going in a certain direction, and then that switches and suddenly the whole thing is a pedestrian plaza. We don't think we got it quite right in that experiment but we can start iterating on that idea when we're actually building the thing. 

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