LinkNYC from Google’s Sidewalk Labs
Harvard University President Larry Summers spoke to a crowd of about two hundred students, alums and interested policy wonks (including myself), last year. Summers challenged the crowd by asking “if you had only one resource to choose to do a research paper, how many of you would choose the Harvard Widner Library and how many would rather just use Google on an iphone?” The room overwhelming went for the iphone option and all of its online capabilities – over one of the world’s most impressive libraries. It was a simple choice, especially for the majority of the audience who were under the age of 25.
The elements shaping the future of mobile technology and digital communications are many, but one thing is clear, they will continue to improve and become more ubiquitous and more indispensable. One question is how will digital influence our outdoors, including: how we navigate; how we experience nature; how we learn and become better prepared for a successful outdoor experience; how we tap into humanity’s collective efforts to advance sustainability; and how we combat climate change, to name a few.
Google’s latest venture, Sidewalk Labs is ready to help advance cities by bringing together 21st Century technology with cutting edge design. Sidewalk Labs hopes to “pursue technologies to cut pollution, curb energy use, streamline transportation, and reduce the cost of city living.”
I saw the first evidence of Sidewalk Labs ambitious project in New York this past week. Their kiosks lined several streets – including on 3rd Avenue where these photos were taken. LinkNYC will offer free public Wi-Fi and phone calls, a tablet for web browsing, USB charging for mobile devices, and way-finding tools. These shiny kiosks will become great resources for NYC residents and visitors, and an incredible leap from the public pay phones that had been in their place for decades before.
Cities can be laboratories for outdoor innovation. Today there are nearly 15 billion objects connected to the Internet. From smartphones and tablets to PCs and cloud computing mega-servers. Over the next ten years, while these devices continue to grow, we will see exponential growth in everyday things being digitally connected. The “internet of things” will include everything from wearable technology woven into our clothing to health monitoring gadgets, from home automation to retail immediately focus on your personal preferences.
These devices will identify our habits, consumption, everyday movement, sleep and extracurricular activities. Conservation and engagement in the outdoors can be a beneficiary from this new network of everyday digitally connected objects. Cities now using data to make decisions on crime prevention and housing blight priorities, can now leverage connected devices to get citizens more active in the outdoors.
Cities can also use technology to galvanize their citizenry in support of the outdoors. Digital kiosks like the ones in NYC, digital signage or digital markers…are the future of way-finding in cities. New commercial and housing projects can be offered an outdoor suite of digital programs, interactive games, trail maps and gear lending opportunities. Existing office buildings and housing will be easily retrofitted to accommodate this new digital outdoor engagement tool. Recycling, energy use and conservation will also be able to be monitored with the new digitally connected objects around homes or office.
The disruption economy is all around us and it is fueled by technology. Über, Lyft and other ride services have overtaken taxis. Anyone with an vehicle, a smartphone and a driver’s license can quickly get started as a driver. The smartphone connection is key. The user taps in a request for pick up and in seconds gets a response from the driver and the driver’s estimated time of arrival. From the comfort of your own home or office you can follow your requested car – animated as a tiny car shuffling along nearby streets to get to you. Your Uber account pays automatically with no need to pull out cash, swipe your credit card or think about a tip. This story of disruption is spreading to every product and every industry and it’s catalyst is digital technology.
Technology provided a platform to support an incredible disruption. The outdoors is prime for its own disruptions. Cities, States and the Federal Government are strapped for resources. Deferred maintenance and aging infrastructure are commonplace at parks. So something’s ‘got to’ give. There needs to be a new way to advance our outdoor agenda and protect and promote these beautiful resources.
Technology enabled learning solutions in the era of the “internet of everything” means an unprecedented opportunity for a personalized, dynamic and ever challenging outdoor learning platform. This new platform will provide a more holistic approach to outdoor education. Learning Management Systems (LMS) are added every year to the offerings of higher educational institutions. Why can’t LMS be offered to support the same dynamic learning in the outdoors?
Technology allows us to use active learning opportunities to foster greater engagement, enjoyment and comprehension. For example by working in partnership with Cengage, National Geographic has the ability to reach tens of thousands of interested and motivated learners.
Outdoor opportunities using gamification will be part of the digitally connected ecosystem. Youth will be energized through a digital hook to the outdoors. The global gaming industry is now approaching $40 billion in revenues. It would be a missed opportunity to discount this growing trend. Making the outdoors fun resonates with everyone. But youth can be challenged through gamification on many levels. One such level is experiential and environmental learning. Using digital games to advance citizen science and citizen data collection are easy to include in an Outdoor City program plan. Mobile apps, RFID chips, trail markers with QR codes and other digital tools are important elements of a cities gaming infrastructure. Sharing of photos, uploading collected science data, and developing personalized content are all essential elements of successful digital outdoor games in the 21st Century.
Technology will also be an important driver to keep progressing in lowering carbon emissions. Personal consumption data, neighborhood consumption data and city consumption data are now within the reach of most citizens. An Outdoor City has the opportunity to aggregate these data points and incentivize lower energy use. Offsets in a carbon credit market may also be an opportunity as more nation’s think about entering a global carbon market.
The sharing economy will contribute to the continued improvement of the urban carbon footprint. As we have stated, cities are already the leaders in having a lower carbon footprint per capita. Advancing the city’s sharing economy will continue to help metropolitan area citizens to decrease their per capita carbon emissions.
The sharing economy will become the backbone of city life. With ubiquitous connections and an abundance of real-time data, sharing applications in cities will become increasingly more intuitive and cost effective. Driverless cars from Google, the explosive growth of city bike sharing programs, shared work spaces, the rise of Uber and food cooperatives are essentials in an sharing economy. A sharing economy is now an expectation of the Millennial Generation.
While new digital advances are being introduced everyday, it’s important to remember that these technologies can be wisely used to support the outdoors. From getting people connected to the outdoors, fostering community engagement, offering outdoor programming, inculcating conservation stewardship, personalizing energy management, reducing greenhouse gases or supporting the sharing economy…the 21st Century OutdoorCity can benefit from the prudent use of digital to support it’s outdoors.