by Blake Hudelson
April 02, 2017
from Medium Website

From social networks that connect us with friends across the globe, to smartphones that can provide anything with a few taps, many of Silicon Valley's top companies have created a lot of change over the past decade.


Some of this change has been groundbreaking, while some has been more invisible.

The reality is that many of these groundbreaking companies  -  Google, Facebook, Amazon  -  have found their success from pretty unexciting things like clicks, likes, and shares.

Recognizing that these companies can provide much more value to the world than well-placed ads, some are taking their money and using it to explore more critical issues involving,

  • cities

  • energy

  • space

  • education



The Importance of Cities

In an age of hyper-innovation, our cities have been particularly slow to keep up with the rapid technological growth we've experienced in the past few decades.

Currently, 2 out of 3 people live in cities and billions of people aren't able to reach their potential because their cities are not giving them the opportunities necessary for success.

Whether it's prohibitively high housing prices, traffic-clogged streets, or polluted air and water, the way to create exponential positive change is to create better cities.

As disruptive technologies start to move beyond our pockets and into the larger infrastructures of our cities, we're starting to see ideas that could have major impacts on how we live and interact with one another.


Initiatives like Google's Sidewalk Labs and the impending rush of self-driving cars are seeking to update century-old "operating systems" that our cities run on.

After a few years working under the radar, Google's smart cities research unit, Sidewalk Labs, is ramping up to tackle some of our most significant urban problems.


Sidewalk Labs has noticed something critical: many of the people who are doing the planning of our cities aren't very tech savvy, and the technologists building the software that is affecting our built environment aren't very knowledgeable about cities.

That's where Sidewalk Labs comes in.


Over the next few years, Sidewalk Labs will enable new forms of civic innovation while bridging the gap between technology innovation and traditional urban planning.

Image by Sidewalk Labs

The "smart city" is an idea that has been around for a while but is still a relatively ambiguous term.


To an organization like Sidewalk Labs, the smart city would be the collective effect of many technologies including the,

  • Internet of Things

  • new digital fabrication techniques

  • new services that connect and build trust between strangers

As these technologies progress in tandem, the effects will be enormous  -  like the sort of change cities experienced with the advent of the automobile or the electric grid.

The one public project that Sidewalk Labs has launched so far is LinkNYC, which is a network of kiosks that provide 'free' Wi-Fi and gathers actionable data on the surrounding environment such as,

  • air quality

  • traffic patterns

  • noise levels

  • pedestrian activity

The NYC Planning Department is able to connect to the kiosks and use this data to make more informed infrastructure and planning decisions.

It's no secret that Google has a huge amount to gain by helping cities become "smarter".


As it starts to roll out its own self-driving car program, it will already have a huge amount of data about cities that can be used to inform traffic models and look for new business opportunities.



LinkNYC by Sidewalk Labs




Rethinking K-12 Education

Citing an ongoing frustration with the lack of innovation in our public education system, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have decided to use their influence (and bank account) to build a new type of school.


"The Primary School" in East Palo Alto seeks to help lower income kids improve their learning experience and get more attention than they would in their financially-strapped neighborhood schools.


In addition to its experience-based curriculum and personalized learning approach through software, the school will offer free healthcare for all students from birth until graduation.



The Primary School

The Zuckerberg's earnest effort to create a better educational model began a couple years ago when they started to use engineering resources from Facebook to help a Bay Area school improve its learning software.


Personalized Learning Plan (PLP) software is still in its infancy, but it works by giving students materials that pertain to their interests that they can complete at their own pace.

In most public school classes, there is typically a third of the class that are high performers and a third of the class that are low performers.


The teacher is then forced to teach in the middle, which benefits nobody. PLP technology frees up classroom time for teachers to mentor students directly, as well as allows students more time to collaborate with or teach each other.

Facebook has said it isn't planning to get into the education sector, but it might find it hard to stay away if other companies don't step up to the plate.



Personalized Learning Plan Software




The Techie Space Race

Amazon has mastered the art of the sale and is now worth over $400 billion.


But Jeff Bezos seems to have goals bigger than perfecting the checkout flow. His space exploration company, Blue Origin, is trying to be the first company to provide affordable space travel to the general population and compete with SpaceX to help humans explore beyond our little blue planet.

In the short time that Blue Origin and SpaceX have existed, they have helped bring innovation back to the stagnant space industry.


Operating their companies more like tech startups, they have created much needed competition to the staid defense companies like Lockheed and Boeing, which have controlled the aviation industry for decades.

In only a few years, Blue Origin and SpaceX have been able to create reusable rockets, provide NASA with supplies at a fraction of the cost of other companies, and start offering more affordable space exploration options.



Blue Origin

Elon Musk continues to push forward with his plan to put humans on Mars by 2026 and help humanity become a multi-planetary species.


He's sunk billions into creating SpaceX, with the eventual goal of creating a permanent settlement on Mars.

Critics have asked why he doesn't focus his efforts on improving life on Earth first, but his interests look much further into the future than our lifetimes.


His ultimate intention is to "back up the human race's hard drive" in case of some catastrophe hitting Earth in the future.

Yes, it sounds crazy, but in an age of companies looking for quick profits at the expense of our planet, it's refreshing that someone is looking beyond the near term.

Even Stephen Hawking has talked about the importance of humans leaving Earth:

"Although the chance of a disaster to planet Earth in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, and becomes a near certainty in the next thousand or ten thousand years.


By that time we should have spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race."
Stephen Hawking

The colonization of other planets can be compared to the colonization of the US's western states.


In the early 1800s, it wasn't possible to rapidly move people or goods until the Transcontinental Railroad came along to connect existing cities to the frontier.


Similarly, SpaceX and Blue Origin realize that frequent and dependable supply routes are integral to any permanent settlement, so they must lay the initial foundation for future space settlements.

There is definitely much to be gained from things like satellite launching, asteroid mining, and space tourism, but I like to think that companies like Blue Origin or SpaceX have more noble goals than making a few more bucks.


Plus, profit with a purpose is a bit sexier than revenue from clicks and likes...