Most of us now have smartphones, and here in this series we have been looking at the elements of smart homes. However there is a whole other level where changes are taking place: the Smart City. Soon they will all be talking to each other, creating opportunities that could change the way our cities operate and engage with citizens. Indeed, according to architect and thinker Robert Ouellette at Mesh Cities, cities are entering what he calls “the great urban symbiosis, a phenomenon as powerful an agent for societal change as the computer age or the industrial age before it.”

That new symbiotic relationship between city and user is powered on the one hand by personal mobile devices, and on the other by the Internet of Things (IoT). Together they give cities a very nervous system indeed, one that is responsive to human interaction in real time because of the intelligent systems now being baked into the city DNA. That means electrical grids, street lights, water supplies, traffic lights, trash cans, swimming pools, parks, and, well, almost everything in the city that provides a function or service is in the process of being digitally enhanced: being made part of the urban nervous network. 
So it should be no surprise that Google wants to be part of that urban nervous network. It has launched a new company, Sidewalk LabsLarry Page writes that “Sidewalk will focus on improving city life for everyone by developing and incubating urban technologies to address issues like cost of living, efficient transportation and energy usage.”

Google is making a "modest investment" and says that it's very different from Google's core business, but really it isn't that different at all; it is all about information. The lab will be run by Dan Doctoroff, deputy mayor of New York City under Bloomberg and a former CEO of Bloomberg. Doctoroff says in a news release:

We are at the beginning of a historic transformation in cities. At a time when the concerns about urban equity, costs, health and the environment are intensifying, unprecedented technological change is going to enable cities to be more efficient, responsive, flexible and resilient.
In some ways, it is odd that this initiative is coming from Google. There are many who believe that the Silicon Valley geniuses are seriously anti-urban in the way they build their offices in suburbia and build self-driving cars that could well be city-destroyers. On the other hand, these California suburbanites who gave us our iPhones and Androids are changing our cities almost overnight. As Simon Kuper writes in the Financial Times:
In cities everywhere, tiny or invisible technologies are replacing big old industrial technologies. That has created space for bicycles, new parks, piers and summertime beaches, all packed with people on smartphones. Steve Jobs was a lifelong suburbanite, but it turns out he perfected the city.
Kuper notes that many thought the Internet might kill the city. If you can work from a cabin in the woods or anywhere, why crowd into expensive cities? Instead, we all found the opposite to be true. "The Internet was perfect for cities. It created new networks that reinforced older urban networks." Larry Page and Google are not the first to figure this out, and Sidewalk Labs is by no means alone in trying to put the Internet to work at improving cities; there are already research projects at universities like MIT Smart Cities and civic initiatives in cities as varied as Amsterdam and Cairo.

However even if they are late to the party, Google and Sidewalk Labs can, as Doctoroff notes, "play a major role in developing technology products, platforms and advanced infrastructure that can be implemented at scale in cities around the world."

Because there is so much going on, so many possibilities and so much promise. As Robert Ouellette notes:

When cities, exploding urban populations, mobile devices, the IoT, cloud-based services, efficiency algorithms, and clean energy overlap, well, who can tell what changes our urban centres will undergo. 

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.