FutureStructure

Rumors Mount About Alphabet Building a "City" to Test Emerging Tech

The company's subsidiary Sidewalk Labs may or may not be meeting with Alphabet leadership soon to discuss such a project.

by / April 19, 2016

Cities have a history of working willingly, often eagerly, with Silicon Valley’s biggest companies to test cutting-edge tech — just look at Google Fiber’s launch in Kansas City, Mo., or Nevada’s tax break gift to Tesla to build a battery plant.

Now, one of the biggest might be going in another direction: Building its own city to test tech.

It’s all rumor right now, but tech news service The Information has reported that Dan Doctoroff, the head of Alphabet’s portfolio company Sidewalk Labs, will meet with Google co-founder Larry Page in coming weeks to discuss the possibility. In the meantime, The Information reported, the company has hired about 100 experts in city planning, technology and other fields to develop the concept.

Sidewalk Labs is the company behind the Wi-Fi-spreading LinkNYC kiosks in New York, along with the development of an Internet of Things analytics platform called Flow that will be deployed to the winner of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge.

It’s not exactly a new idea. Government jurisdictions from Las Vegas to Virginia have been scrambling to make themselves into attractive places for companies like Sidewalk Labs to test out that kind of technology, and at times, that has involved testbeds like the “fake” MCity for testing self-driving cars in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Another project, called the Center for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation that has long been planned in the New Mexico desert, remains nascent after years of hype. The plan was to build a place where researchers could test their ideas in a setting similar to the real world without actually exposing those ideas to the real world. In the case of self-driving cars, that could be important because it means that researchers could test potentially unsafe ideas without putting people in harm’s way.

Alternatively, Alphabet might simply be looking to find a part of a city it can turn into a “digital district.” That might involve a bid process with cities and counties. According to The Information, Denver and Detroit are early prospects in the company’s eyes.