What would happen if Google Urbanism was implemented?

Strategic designer, architect, Strelka alumni and "New Normal" education tutor Nicolay Boyadjiev was interviewed by Fast Company about his Hybrid Urbanism final group project entitled "Google Urbanism". With their permission, Strelka Magazine has published the full transcript below.

Photo: Strelka Institute

The abstract from this conversation was published here.

What first inspired this idea?

At its core, the project was inspired by the incredibly unoriginal yet important belief in the critical role of public spaces in our cities. We all instinctively know that active public life in quality public spaces is one of the most important ingredients of a democratic life, and yet we felt that beyond fuzzy feel-good call-to-arms or impassioned tirades, traditional architects and urbanists are often at a loss when it comes to truly conveying the idea that public “presence” is of real value to the city. It’s as if an entire field of professionals have become passive cheerleaders of the same predictable and moralistic dialogue, without any serious ability to challenge the status quo. So we knew we had to be bold and think outside the box.

This is why we adapted a concept from the tech sector: the controversial reduction of citizens as “users” of the city, their “presence” representing a resource which is currently disproportionately tapped into by digital platforms such as Google or Facebook at huge financial gains but without any benefit for the city as the original platform hosting their activity. The idea behind Google Urbanism was hence to address the unchallenged assumption at the heart of the tech sector, namely that the value generated by users’ data and attention happens in a digital “vacuum”. Users are real people, and before being present in the digital space of tech platforms, they are always actually present somewhere in the physical space of the real world...Our project imagines a new type of “public license”, where “access to users’ presence” in public spaces could generate financial dividends for the city, similar to how licensing mining rights to private companies generates royalties for the state. But because we couldn’t do it alone, we wanted to bring Google on board...

Why did you want to build the website-- are you hoping that Google/Alphabet sees this and decides to act?

In many ways, our project is really an argument or a communication strategy to shift the general public’s perception about the hierarchy between the digital and the physical in order to create some sort of “endowment effect”: instinctively learning to care about something like our “presence” (both our physical presence and “attention”) just because we just realized that it was ours... In this sense we had to create a website that was bold and fun to interact with, for it to be engaging on a visual level and communicate ideas that very often were intentionally provocative. We even conceived of the website as a narrative device whose breadth would be controlled by an “attention slider” adjusted to the viewer’s desired attention span level. This highlights even further the visitor’s active role and willing participation within the context of the “attention economy”.

On the other hand, our audience absolutely includes Google, and we tried to be very transparent about this at every step of the way, going as far as posting our letter to Eric Schmidt as an open letter. Sure, in order to twist their arm a little bit, we liked the idea of creating a manufactured controversy, or “manufactroversy”, around an issue that is not currently particularly in dispute (such as the city’s claim to the digital value generated on the bounds of its physical public space for example...)! But our goal was absolutely not to admonish Google/Alphabet or treat them as a foreign hostile entity; rather we tried to develop a mutually beneficial solution both for Google and the city because we think there are definitely many incentives for a collaborative partnership.

How much benefit do you think partnerships like this could bring to public space? Can you talk a little more about how this could incentivize a city to build new public spaces or buildings?

To help explain this idea we make use of two analogies. First think about mining, where mining companies need a mining license from the state, in which they are temporarily allowed to extract value from the resources of the earth (which they don’t own) and for which they pay royalties to the public domain in the process. Then think about toll roads, where drivers are charged a “toll” or fee for the use of the road as a resource, which is then reinvested into the road to recoup the cost of construction and maintenance. With these analogies in mind, if user activity (data and “attention”) is the new raw material and resource of the information economy, what if the value generated from it within the bounds of public space was “proprietary” (like mining), and part of its revenue was reinvested back into its space of origin (like toll roads)?

This partnership would allow public spaces to help fund themselves and the city by creating a feedback loop. Better and more versatile public spaces bring in more enthusiastic and varied users, generating revenue through their exposure to advertising the same as as visitors on a webpage, which is then reinvested in the public spaces to make them even better, which in turn bring in more users, and so on... For the city, the real financial burden surrounding public space is often not to commission or build it, but rather to operate and maintain it on the long term. We wanted to re-imagine public space as a desirable, self-sustaining and productive typology which could even go on to generate extra funds for the city during large public events or activities. This would incentivize the creation of more hybrid public/private typologies (as the city could lay claim to some of the profits generated within their bounds by their users), going so far as to reverse the tide of privatization of public space and lead to expropriation of private space to create more sources of revenue! Cities can’t create gold as a resource, but could create more public space to “extract” value from their citizens as a resource. These types of potential scenarios, on murky ethical grounds and with unintended consequences, are incredibly fascinating!

Can you briefly summarize the advantage for Google to do something like this?

Because we truly tried to avoid our idea being discarded as yet another artist manifesto, it was incredibly important to consider the benefits from Google’s perspective and present our concept as much as possible as a sensible business decision. We know that Google/Alphabet already wants to extend its dominion onto the physical space of our cities through initiatives such as their driverless cars, their DoubleClick advertising model (which is being adapted to physical billboards in real space) or the creation of the Sidewalk Lab consultancy. We tried to use this momentum and look for ways to help them make this transition. Long story short, we conceived of a 3-stage “Speculative Expansion Strategy” which over time could help them build public goodwill and a compelling corporate narrative to justify this transition, as well as lay the foundation for an outright domination of the Smart City market ahead of all its competitors:

At the first stage, Google slightly tweaks its AD Rank formula to create a “Space Multiplier”, which is the money coming back to city once a match is made, thus effectively coming from the advertisers' rather than from Google’s pocket. This is a PR move which allows Google to create a new partnership with the city and grant it access to new mechanisms for financial revenue, but under their own terms and with external capital.

At the second stage, Google can expand the role of Google Maps to track more accurately and with more transparency in which public areas more matches are made, adding a new class of “intangible assets” such as “context” to its database. By re-imagining Google Maps as a platform made accessible to all urban stakeholders who could take advantage of this license (and even receive part of its generated dividends through various processes), Google could become a standard for bureaucratic city planning, property investment and event-hosting efforts.

Lastly, at the third stage, Google can formally institutionalize this new relationship between itself, the city and its stakeholders into a new consolidated entity focused on urban space (we call it “Google Urbanism”). Its first move could be to unroll an “Urban Toolkit”; a range of connected products for the Smart City similar to the Nest thermostat. These could capture more information in public space, make better match-making predictions and therefore generate more revenue both for the city and Google, in a mutually beneficial arrangement excluding all its other competitors.

Effectively, our idea was to present our solution to Google as an opportunity to expand their market domination over both the physical and digital realms, obliterate the competition and lead the next generation of global tech conglomerates...

Is there an opportunity for other tech companies to partner with cities in similar ways, or do you think Google is a unique case because of its size?

Google probably isn’t the only company that could do this but it was our first choice from the start for many reasons. Sure, its sheer size and reach was a factor, but more importantly it's their experimental nature and bold attitude as exemplified by their ambitious moonshot projects that convinced us that they could be the right partner. Not many corporations would tread in a territory which rattles so fundamentally the core assumption of their business model (i.e. the assumption being that the value generated by their users originates on their digital platforms rather than from a prior physical layer which deserves its fair share), and of course when all is said and done it remains to be seen whether Google is actually one of them given the potential impact of this realization on their bottom line... But still, we remain optimistic in their ability and willingness to experiment on themselves for the big-picture common good, which is the improved quality of our shared urban environment.

Finally, another reason why we chose Google as a unique case is because we were skeptical of the current narrative surrounding the “Smart City”, and wanted to change the tone of the conversation. While IBM, Cisco, GE and everyone else is focused and fighting for the Smart City in terms of infrastructure, we think Google could beat them to the chase by focusing on human behavior instead, which is the real essence of the city, not its pipes sensors and internet cables...