Daniel "Dan" Doctoroff, chief executive officer of Sidewalk Labs LLC, speaks at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., on Monday, May 1, 2017. The conference is a unique setting that convenes individuals with the capital, power and influence to move the world forward meet face-to-face with those whose expertise and creativity are reinventing industry, philanthropy and media. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Dan Doctoroff, head of Sidewalk Labs © Bloomberg

Alphabet’s far-reaching ambitions are forcing it to grapple with an unusual challenge for a private company: how to run its own city.

Google’s parent company was working on a sweeping plan to build a city from the ground up, the executive in charge of its urban innovation business said on Tuesday, in an attempt to prove that a technologically-enabled urban environment can improve quality of life and reduce cities’ impact on the environment. 

That would raise profound questions about the rules that govern such tech-centric places, particularly regarding how citizens’ data are collected, protected and used, conceded the head of Sidewalk Labs, the Alphabet subsidiary running the project.

“We actually want to build a new city, it is a district of the city, but one that is of sufficient size and scale that it can be a laboratory for innovation on an integrated basis,” said Dan Doctoroff, head of Sidewalk Labs, at a talk to the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association.

Sidewalk was “quite far along” in its search for a city with which to partner to build a testing ground for new approaches to transport, infrastructure and possibly even governance and social policy, he said.

Mr Doctoroff said he hoped the city could pioneer new approaches to data policies and even “set an example” for other places. “I think the real issues, which we have to confront as a society anyway, involve the use of data.”

“Having a place in which we actually aggressively wrestle with those issues, and we aggressively develop policies — that are the result of a really thoughtful conversation amongst privacy advocates, and members of the community, and the government as well as us, as sort of a sponsor of the place — I think that could set an example,” he said, in his most explicit comments to date on the planned project. 

When Alphabet co-founder Larry Page first suggested the idea of building a new city, his comments sparked a strong public pushback — but since then the company has quietly continued to advance its ambitious plan.

Sidewalk’s search for a location for its new city coincides with Amazon’s hunt for a new, second headquarters that would house 50,000 employees, as it expects to outgrow its big campus in downtown Seattle.

Mr Doctoroff criticised Amazon’s request for tax incentives, saying that such incentives could hurt cities in the long term by undermining their tax base. He said that unlike Amazon, Sidewalk Labs was “not looking for huge handouts”.

Mr Doctoroff, who was previously deputy mayor of New York City under Michael Bloomberg, cited more affordable living costs and carbon neutrality as two examples of making improvements in quality of life.

Founded in 2015, New York-based Sidewalk Labs is working on urban technologies, including projects such as software for public transit, or bringing free, fast wifi to cities like New York and London.

While Mr Doctoroff declined to name specific locations under consideration, he said that the effort was looking for “a fair amount of land” that had “not a whole lot on it” because existing structures would just get in the way and “there is an inverse relationship between your capacity to innovate, and the actual existence of people and buildings”.

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