We’ve all known Google for its role in the Internet search industry. But recently, the tech giant has taken to the streets (literally). Google’s parent company Alphabet has launched its subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, with an aim to design and build “urban innovations to help cities meet their biggest challenges.”1
Initially, Sidewalk Labs’ core product was smart city technology. Recently though, it has shifted its product development focus to building a city itself. In early 2017, in partnership with the city of Toronto, Sidewalk Labs began drafting and building from scratch, Quayside. Located on the Toronto Waterfront, Quayside is being designed as a neighborhood that will achieve “precedent-setting levels of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity.”2
To make this goal a reality, Sidewalk Labs is relying on the method of open innovation. The company believes that sourcing ideas from local citizens about the design of the city and best use of the land is the key to the project’s success.
This line of thinking makes considerable sense. For Sidewalk Labs, open innovation is important because their product simply may not be its best without it. One study found that generating city planning ideas from citizens with certain characteristics (ranging from city planning expertise, to experience with innovation, to high dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs) can lead to the creation of more socially-beneficial ideas than would be created without those citizens’ inputs.3
Open innovation can also help with idea selection. That same study found that after the idea generation phase, all citizens – regardless of personal characteristics – do prove highly capable of selecting the most socially-beneficial idea when presented with various top options.
Sidewalk Labs seems to have recognized these potential benefits and chosen to fully embrace the open innovation megatrend. As they develop the city’s plans in the short-term, the company is creating a variety of forums to allow for open innovation. They are hosting regular Neighborhood Meetings, town hall-like sessions where business associations and local organizations can share suggestions and concerns about the city. They are holding “Design Jams” that allow small groups of citizens to brainstorm ideas for specific parts of the city’s plans. In addition, they are holding “Public Roundtables” that allow citizens to work alongside Sidewalk Lab employees in refining final aspects of city designs.4
But the company’s use of open innovation does not appear to be stopping there. They are currently in the process of issuing research grants to university students and faculty to identify trusted ways to make cities even more sustainable and equitable. For Sidewalk Labs, this tactic is a long-term investment that will inform their future product development, as they expand to build more cities down the road.
City planning through open innovation though is a method with its share of challenges. Some problems that can arise are: motivating everyday citizens to participate in idea selection, and making decisions when ideas from diverse stakeholders conflict.
Here are some steps I recommend to ensure the company is gaining the benefits of open innovation while managing those downsides, in the short and medium terms.
Firstly, Sidewalk Labs should make barriers to participation as small as possible for everyday citizens. Specifically, they should make it easy for citizens to know exactly what their role is and when they should participate. Their currently website lists many ways for citizens to “Get Involved.” However, this list may be overwhelming to those first learning about the project. To improve, the company could also list on the site tips on where to get involved for different types of citizens. For example, citizens just wanting to “vote on which project to implement” should be able to see specifically which events to attend and when.
Secondly, Sidewalk Labs needs to have a decision-making system in place for times when open innovation fails. If gridlocks arise in the idea selection process, likely due to competing citizens’ interests, Sidewalk Labs product development will not be able to move forward without a system to resolve those conflicts. My recommendation is not on which type of system to install, whether a final vote by Sidewalk Labs, the city of Toronto, a run-off vote among citizens, or another process – but rather, I encourage the company to simply create one as a backup, and make that system explicit to all stakeholders upfront.
One final question I would pose to others: With so many choices to be made in city development (transportation modes, parks, housing mixes, energy use, types of businesses, etc.), can open innovation be used efficiently to generate ideas for all of them?
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- Sidewalk Labs. (2018). Sidewalk Labs. [online] Available at: https://www.sidewalklabs.com/ [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].
- Reints, R. (2018). A Google Company Just Got Approved to Build a ‘Neighborhood of the Future’. [online] Fortune. Available at: http://fortune.com/2018/07/31/sidewalk-toronto-quayside-approved/ [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].
- Sidewalk Toronto. (2018). Get Involved. [online] Available at: https://sidewalktoronto.ca/get-involved/ [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].
- Schuurman, D., Baccarne, B. and De Marez, L. (2012). Smart Ideas for Smart Cities: Investigating Crowdsourcing for Generating and Selecting Ideas for ICT Innovation in a City Context. Journal of theoretical and applied electronic commerce research, 7(3), pp.11-12.