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The wild origins of Larry Page’s plan for Google to reinvent cities

Before Google tried—and failed—to create a ‘smart city’ in Toronto, it considered building one at sea or under a giant dome. Or what about on the moon?

The wild origins of Larry Page’s plan for Google to reinvent cities
[Photos: Radoslav Zilinsky/Getty Images; Albin Lohr-Jones/Pool via Bloomberg/Getty Images]

Josh O’Kane spent more than two years covering Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs’s controversial “smart city” in Toronto for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s most widely read national newspaper. On September 13, Penguin Random House publishes Sideways: The City Google Couldn’t Buy, his book revealing the inside story of the failed project and the company’s collapse. The following is an exclusive excerpt from the book.

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In the early 2010s, Larry Page thought Google’s innovative spirit was being stifled. At the same time, cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Songdo, South Korea, were welcoming the warm embrace of massive multinational technology companies like Cisco, IBM, and Siemens to upgrade infrastructure and build futuristic-looking operations centers.

And so it was little surprise that Page saw, in the world’s rapidly growing yet bureaucracy-stifled metropolises, a new collection of problems that could be solved, and a multibillion-dollar market waiting on the other side: how people moved around, how infrastructure was designed, how community services were rolled out.

Google didn’t need to build an operations center like IBM; it could build the city itself, wire it to harvest data about how residents use the city, and then study the patterns in that data for ideas that could become technologies to make urban life easier. Then those technologies could be sold at a premium to governments around the world.

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Google’s first steps into cities were small: wiring them with fiber and building self-driving cars to fill their streets with the project it would later call Waymo. But under the auspices of Javelin, a secretive team Page built to find Google’s next moonshot, he wanted to approach city problems from entirely new angles—much as his old colleague Sebastian Thrun was trying to build flying cars while the rest of Silicon Valley was building self-driving vehicles that were stuck on the ground.

Page’s team was urged to think about what constraints they could remove that would make cities better. Flying cars themselves were a good start to this thought experiment; like the monorail Page had once proposed for his alma mater, the University of Michigan, they wouldn’t get stuck in traffic. Massive stretches of highway in and around cities sit empty most of the day.

What could cities look like if flying cars made urban design more efficient? You could live 100 miles from work if your car could fly you there in just a few minutes. The land used for highways could be repurposed. And if you could live in a city 100 miles from work, what would you want that city to look like?

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Don’t joke about that. Larry wants to build on the moon, too.”

The ideas evolved with enormous ambition, says Isaac Taylor, a longtime Google special projects adviser who had worked on Google Glass before taking a leadership role on the Javelin team. What if Javelin built a city at sea, free from any city or country’s regulations and restrictions?

As a general rule, Silicon Valley billionaires like Page had long felt that laws and regulations held them back from building a world that looked more like Star Trek.

“Instead of Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise, we got the Priceline Negotiator and a cheap flight to Cabo,” wrote one of the partners at Founders Fund, the venture capital firm led by the self-styled contrarian tech investor Peter Thiel, in 2011. It so happened that Thiel had also funneled half a million dollars into the Seasteading Institute, an organization dedicated to “building floating societies with significant political autonomy.”

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Javelin’s urban thought experiments were headed in the same direction. Things like building-height stipulations, speed limits, and zoning restrictions get in the way of ambitious companies on a good day. When someone with the unbound imagination of Larry Page tries to reimagine how cities could be built better, rules can seem even more pesky.

“From the very beginning, there’s this fascination with data-driven government that isn’t going to be messed up by bureaucrats and politicians—it’s going to be rational because it was made by software developers,” Taylor says of Google’s then-burgeoning interest in cities.

Down the rabbit hole

The people who took part in this research or watched it unfold held differing views of its intentions. Some were inspired by the spirit of Page’s vision and saw the experiment as just that—the spirit of an idea. Some were surprised at how deep the rabbit hole needed to be dug in order to please Page. And some were caught somewhere in the middle, pleased to be part of a mission that was both energizing and exhausting.

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At one point, a group of them took a boat out into San Francisco Bay. They’d hoped to build something there, on the water. As the waves lapped around them, Taylor shared some bad news with a superior who had a direct line to Page: After consulting with lawyers and lobbyists, his team had learned that, as much as they felt they could engineer a floating city, it turned out that the bay was beholden to regulations, too.

The full moon was visible in the daylight, and Taylor pointed up to it. “It would be easier for Larry to build his city on the moon than right here in San Francisco Bay,” Taylor said.

His superior looked at him sternly. “Don’t joke about that,” he told Taylor. “Larry wants to build on the moon, too.”

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When Page said he wanted moonshots, he meant it.

The Javelin team drafted up a loose vision for what a Google community or city might look like.

Though it was prevented from building a city that would be a cross between Burning Man and Atlantis, Javelin had developed a handful of ideas in its research that would work on land. The biggest was a dome—a towering, air-locked bubble of carbon fiber tendons connecting pieces of transparent film. If they could imagine a dome sheltering a city from the sea’s might, researchers figured, they could engineer a dome able to shelter a regular city from the earth’s increasingly hostile climate.

Staff went to great pains to study how to build and sustain a massive dome. They searched around the world to explore what was possible, speaking with architects and designers who’d worked with dome-like structures. They studied designs that might work in extreme conditions: in the world’s hottest deserts, or in the Canadian Arctic, “preparing for the gnawing catastrophes of climate chaos,” Taylor says.

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They ran scenarios to see if a dome could remain intact if a plane crashed into it, too. The team even crunched rough numbers for a business model: If it cost $5 billion to build a Google-designed dome to cover a $50 billion development, the developer could easily shave 10% off the cost of building the neighborhood inside, because many of its structures wouldn’t need walls or mechanisms for heating and cooling.

Life would be easier, and thanks to those savings, the dome would pay for itself. Some of the team thought Google could even build a factory to manufacture the dome’s carbon fiber and film pieces, becoming a world leader in materials science along the way.

Crashing down to reality

Javelin staff searched rural communities in Northern California, and even explored teaming up with sovereign Indigenous nations, Taylor says, as they sought regulatory freedom to enable their visions. The intense, earnest thought experiment eventually came crashing down to reality, however, and the Javelin team began to draw up a few different plans that could work with existing cities.

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In one, they would partner with landowners in a handful of locations to construct dome-covered mixed-use neighborhoods filled with modular building units, flexible home financing models, self-driving transit vehicles, and delivery drones. This, according to an internal document, would help Alphabet build excitement and “gauge city willingness to release regulatory control for innovative developments demanded by residents.”

In another plan, they would build out a network of suburbs, luring applicants with a bidding process—one that would ask municipalities to minimize zoning restrictions and building codes, create dedicated airspace for delivery drones, allow Google to handle building permits, and strip away landlord-tenant rules.

At another point, the Javelin team drafted up a loose vision for what a Google community or city might look like, framing its benefits around the economic fallout of the Great Recession and the rising cost of gas. Infrastructure should adapt to life, not the other way around, they argued. They proposed an individualist approach to transportation, in the spirit of the monorail pods Page had proposed for Ann Arbor in the ’90s, with autonomous vehicles that would shuttle people around at their whims.

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Javelin didn’t let prescribed notions of how the world worked stop it from thinking big. The ideas weren’t just utopian—they were, as the company liked to describe the way it imprinted its proprietary blend of engineering and whimsy on the world, Googley. The team began hiring people to bring this Googley vision to cities. Soon enough, it was spun out into its own company. They called it Sidewalk Labs.

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