Could “Google Urbanism” Help Fund Public Space With A Cut Of Online Ad Dollars?

How online commerce can help us invest more in our physical spaces.

If you’re sitting in a public square and you see a location-based ad on your phone—nudging you to go in a local store—someone is making some money. But that company is a faceless behemoth many miles away, with no connection to the local business, neighborhood, and commerce that is making it money. So what if some of the ad revenue should go back to the public square itself? That’s the proposal of a group of designers who call themselves “hybrid urbanists,” working in both the urban and digital worlds.


“We adapted a concept from the tech sector: the controversial idea that citizens are ‘users’ of the city, and as users their presence represents a ‘resource’ that is currently disproportionately tapped into by digital platforms such as Google or Facebook, at huge financial gains, but without any benefit for the original platform that hosts their activity–this being the city,” says designer Nicolay Boyadjiev from the Strelka Institute for Media Architecture and Design.

[Image: Google Urbanism]

Just like a mining company might pay royalties to the government to extract value from the land–or drivers pay a toll on the roads they use–the business model would ask tech companies to give a percentage of ad revenue to a city. The money would be invested back into the public spaces where the ad was served, creating a virtuous cycle where better public spaces would attract more people, and serve more ads.

“This partnership would allow public spaces to help fund themselves and the city by creating a feedback loop,” says Boyadjiev. “Better and more versatile public spaces bring in more enthusiastic and varied users, generating revenue through their exposure to advertising, the same as visitors on a web page, which is then reinvested in the public spaces to make them even better, and so on.”

The designers envision that Google, or other tech companies, would partner with a city and give it new access to revenue based on location. Over time, after tracking in detail where matches are made in public spaces, Google could add assets like “context” to its database. Ultimately, the designers imagine that Google could help create a new type of smart city, complete with connected products that use its data.

[Image: Google Urbanism]

“We were skeptical of the current narrative surrounding the ‘smart city’ and wanted to change the tone of the conversation,” he says. “While IBM, Cisco, GE, and everyone else is focused and fighting for the Smart City in terms of infrastructure, we think Google could beat them to the chase by focusing on human behavior instead, which is the real essence of the city, not its pipes sensors and Internet cables.”

For Google–which is already trying to expand its reach into physical space through projects such Sidewalk Lab and driverless cars–the approach would be a way to grow their market domination. For cities, it would be a way to provide much-needed funding to public space by capturing some of its value.


“We all instinctively know that active public life in quality public spaces is one of the most important ingredients of a democratic life, and yet we felt that, beyond fuzzy feel-good calls to arms or impassioned tirades, traditional architects and urbanists are often at a loss when it comes to truly conveying the idea that public ‘presence’ is of real value to the city,” says Boyadjiev.

On a new website called Google Urbanism, the designers share the idea in detail, including a letter to Eric Schmidt. As they write:

“Think about it, what if the guy watching YouTube at his local bus stop somehow had an impact on his neighborhood? What if family picnics could secure the maintenance of a park? What if public plazas could fund their own special events? Here’s what we’re saying: If the future is truly mobile, then much of your content will be accessed in public space. For all the ad clicks on your platform, what if a piece of the pie came back to their point of origin, making our public spaces better? . . . You have the power to shape the city in ways you are only beginning to realize.”

Have something to say about this article? You can email us and let us know. If it’s interesting and thoughtful, we may publish your response.

[All Images: via Google Urbanism]

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.