Google unveiled its latest moonshot idea on Wednesday with a new “urban innovation” company called Footpath Labs, which has as a mission the lofty goal of re-inventing cities for the modern age.
“We want to supercharge existing efforts in areas such as housing, energy, transportation and government to solve real problems that city-dwellers face every day,” Google CEO Larry Page declared in the press release announcing Footpath Labs, which will operate as a separate company and be led by Dan Doctoroff, the former deputy mayor of New York City for economic development.
Among the problems of city life that Page believes could be fixed: better public transport, less pollution, more parks and green spaces, safer biking paths and a shorter commute.
The solution to these problems will be new technology, which will be developed and incubated within Footpath Labs.
The company will be funded and supported by Google, though it will a standalone, separate company based in New York City.
If it succeeds in transforming cities into urban utopias, a variety of existing Google projects could also stand to benefit. Here are some of the key efforts at Google that could become building blocks for tomorrow’s city:
Autonomous cars are a must for any city of the future worth living in. Google is currently testing pod-like cars that let drivers take their hands off the steering wheel and focus on other things, such as using Google’s search engine or its other online services.
It’s unclear whether Google plans to build the cars itself or licence the technology to existing carmakers.
There have also been reports that Google is working on a ride-hailing service, a la Uber. A fleet of low-emissions, self driving cars that city residents don’t actually own themselves could reduce pollution, free up more space previously used for parking, and perhaps reduce traffic accidents.
Making a trip to a brick-and-mortar store is an inconvenience that city dwellers of the future may not have to deal with. Instead daily staples and supplies could be delivered, Dumbo-like, from the sky. Google is currently testing delivery drones that can navigate themselves to your house and drop a package on your doorstep. Right now there are regulations that prohibit drones from doing these kinds of jobs, but in the metropolis of the future, anything is possible.
Clean, airborne energy
Solar energy is nice, but the city of the future needs to take it the next level. Luckily Google has just the thing: the Makani wind turbines, or “energy kites,” under development at the company’s x Labs float in the air to take advantage of the stronger and steadier winds available at higher altitudes. A similar idea was on display in the fictional “San Fransokyo” city depicted in the 2014 movie Big Hero 6.
Internet of Things
Future cities will presumably be “smart” cities, where inanimate objects are interconnected — everything from streetlights to security cameras will be interconnected. To make that happen requires a common technology, such as the Brillo platform that Google recently unveiled at its developer conference.
Governments and businesses that want to be part of the next version of urban planning need good maps. Cartography is something that Google takes very seriously. In addition to the map on your smartphone that gives you directions and the StreetView photos of every street, Google is working on high-resolution 3D maps that it creates with laser scanners mounted on cars.