Urban Moonshots & Misses

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There are an increasing number of automakers opening technical centers in Silicon Valley to develop new mobility products and services. While it makes a lot of sense to open a new satellite R&D station in the world’s digital technology center, unfortunately the focus is mainly on new transportation, and not the larger future of designing our next cities. The only company focusing on new city design seems to be Google, but ironically, I wonder if the Internet search giant will find the best talent to work with?

One of the most-celebrated urban mobility designers today is Jaime Lerner, the architect and mayor of Curitiba, Brazil. He created a high-performance bus rapid transit system that greatly enhances personal movement in his city, and has become a model that has been studied by countless public transit agency officials over the years from around the world. I find this quote from Jaime highly relevant: “A mobility system is not only a system of transport, it’s the whole understanding of a city”.

Last year I was pleased to learn that Larry Page, CEO of Google, was interested in big challenges facing humanity and was looking to create a “Google 2.0” project to design a new efficient model city (among other projects). Then, an associate of mine told me recently he would be participating in a Google Sustainable New York City (NYC) “Moonshot” development meeting. This got me excited as I was sure Google had finally connected to the most amazing and potent sustainable city designer I know: Michael Sorkin.

Michael Sorkin is a New York-based visionary architect, urban designer, author, and professor. He has been boldly reimagining a new sustainable city DNA for 40 years. He’s taught at Cooper Union, Carleton, Columbia, Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Nebraska, Illinois, Texas, and Michigan, and currently directs the graduate urban design program at CCNY. He thinks more deeply about this future than any innovator I know, and sees a city in terms of “respiratory” functions (food, water, air, climate, movement, construction, energy, waste, and manufacturing). He’s created 46 urban master plans around the world (his latest in Xi’an China), 53 significant works of architecture, 44 exhibitions, and written (or edited) 18 books. He is the sustainable city guru.

With limited funding, but extraordinary levels of passion, Michael launched a moonshot (called “New York City [Steady] State”) a few years ago with his Terreform Center for Advanced Urban Research (terreform.info), a multidisciplinary non-profit organization, to envision a fully sustainable New York City, with entire streets and avenues converted into greenways and farms. His team of 8 renegade younger architects, urban designers, environmentalists, and social scientists are reinventing NYC in a highly bold and comprehensive manner. The initial work has looked at the opportunity for local food production and even promotes the idea of using NYC subways for freight movement. This is an effort that allows new mobility companies to see the larger picture and how the role of mobility will change significantly from today. 

Several weeks ago, a new venture was announced: Sidewalk Labs (sidewalkinc.com). It’s a new company founded with a $500-million initial investment from Google, and will be led by Dan Doctoroff, a trained lawyer that has been both a CEO of a major company (Bloomberg) as well as Deputy Mayor of NYC. Dan brings interesting hybrid experience, from supporting the creation of a new city park (Highline) to an extensive (unsuccessful) effort to bring the Olympics to NYC. Sidewalk Labs first announced business is focused on an innovative new public WiFi service.

While I don’t know all of the leaders involved in Google’s recent sustainable NYC moonshot, it did include NYC-based Jack Hidary, who has served as a Google X advisor for some time. Jack recently ran for NYC mayor, he’s supported the Automotive X-Prize, and back in 2008, co-created the Cash for Clunkers program, which offered $3-billion in incentives to consumers to buy more-efficient cars. 

I later learned Michael Sorkin was not invited to Google’s sustainable NYC moonshot meeting. I was shocked! I guess when a company decides to disrupt an industry they don’t know much about, it’s hard to figure out who to work with, and who not to. Larry Page’s/Google’s ambitions seem highly meaningful but I find some irony when the most powerful SEARCH company on the planet can’t find a NYC-based sustainable city design guru—located just a few miles away. 


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Dan Sturges is mobility design consultant for team red and has been supporting “transformative” transportation projects for nearly 30 years.  He trained as a car designer, worked as an entrepreneur to bring to market a new intermediate vehicle category. He supports a wide range of vehicle design and mobility planning efforts for both government and corporate entities.