Yesterday, Google announced a new incubator exclusively focused on urban issues. While more maps and apps are great, let's hope the startup can use this platform to work on a solution for the biggest problem facing cities: Housing the 2.5 billion people who are going to move into them by 2050. Google needs to create the affordable housing equivalent of the self-driving car.
With a focus that sounds somewhere between the large civic data projects of IBM and a hacker-focused nonprofit like Code for America, Footpath Labs will be a separate Google company based in New York that builds products and tools around issues facing cities. Last night, Google founder Larry Page hinted at some of those issues in a blog post: "Footpath 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."
While Google is already expending plenty of effort around transportation (Waze) and energy use (Nest), no tech company has managed to tackle the "cost of living." It's an idea worth exploring because it could mean a radical shift in the quality of life for humans living in crowded, expensive cities. And let's face it, they're all going to be crowded and expensive.
Page's post related Footpath Labs to Google X, which is where Google's autonomous car program originated. While the self-driving car program has its many critics, it has undoubtably transformed the conversation around transportation and inspired many other mobility projects. It has given us a real-world example of a technology that seemed centuries away. It has changed the way we talk about our transportation future.
Applying this same moonshot-level thinking to affordable housing could provide that same roadmap to a better future for every city on the planet. At the same time, it would be a tech solution that went beyond apps and maps — and truly engage in thorny urbanism issues like homelessness.
Affordable housing is one area where Footpath Labs could be a huge win for cities everywhere. And it would also help to solve a problem that Google itself is being blame for creating — the rapid changes brought on by a tech bubble which are forcing many longtime residents out of a too-expensive city. (I'm looking at you, San Francisco.)
So, what does the self-driving car of affordable housing look like? There are a few things I could imagine. A game-changing microunit. A way to fairly register and award affordable apartments to those who need it most. A tech tool for urban dwellers to share resources. An online voting tool that allows citizens to support new developments. A new way to buy real estate. A transparent supermaterial that somehow helps cities bust through their development-barring height restrictions. (I'm looking at you again, San Francisco.)
At its I/O keynote a few weeks ago, Google proudly unveiled a suite of data-efficient mobile tools aimed at helping the "next billion" get online. These are very simple solutions which will help many people live better lives. If these same efforts to help the developing world access and share information through their phones could somehow be mirrored in the quest to housing another "next billion", Google's Footpath Labs will have achieved something truly great for cities.