Source: Post-It Note City by Shannon Mattern

Alphabet has the tools to design, build, fund, power, connect, monitor, and monetize a city, and that prospect scares people.

See also: urban planning

On Participatory Planning

”Paper and ink, models and maps: these are the accessible tools of civic engagement — and corporate self-defense.”

Sidewalk lab’s choice to use the tools of civic design and participatory planning as a defense for their actions also strikes me as extremely cynical.

But, by mandating public participation as a requirement for new development, we run the risk of turning community relationship-building into a “checklist of codified practices.” Specifically, it makes participants wary when the invitation is from an org which has money to gain and data to harvest from the participants.


Mapping as a way to “hold governments accountable … fill gaps when infrastructural and municipal services are fragmented … [and] make visible social and political processes and events that might be otherwise hidden or overlooked.” (from Crowdsourcing, Constructing, and Collaborating: Methods and Social Impacts of Mapping the World Today)

More on participatory mapping and politics: Mapping Politics in/of the Modern City: Cartography as Representation

’Participation’ as public performance to ‘signal’ democratic processes without providing the real thing.

Mapwashing: “a disingenuous use of maps, apps, and other tools of participatory planning”


If urban design can be automated, if cities can be made responsive to real-time data collected from environments and inhabitants without their explicit consent, how meaningful is our participation?

Sidewalk also proposes creating more responsive public infrastructure (e.g. benches, stormwater pipes, power grids, etc.) which collect data continuously and make ‘smart’ decisions. No opt-in or out process for this type of data collection, no consent.

How much of this can be attributed to the Silicon Value ethic of “move fast and break things”? It feels like Sidewalk is extrapolating too much (trying to pull short feedback loops from naturally long timescales of city which operates on multi-year long scales).

Is there a relationship between iteration cycle length and potential impact? Software people are used to iterating quickly without having consequence for each marginal build or project. Not the same case with cities where each change affects real people and there’s no real ‘staging’ or ‘development’ area (see Collingridge Dilemma)

Humanistic Design

Is creating people-first cities that are not driven by techno-solutionism possible? How do we legitimately involve people in the creation of these cities?

”Do we need a commercial app to do what a robust, public democratic process should do?” one quote reads. Or is rather than these democratic processes are failing so we look to alternatives?

Sidewalk feels very much talking into the void and talking to the org, not much talking with each other, no discussion groups. Yes, process and documentation matter, but if there’s no input into this feedback loop, the ideas are just self-reinforcing in an echo chamber. The problem is that large corporations like Alphabet present already-fleshed-out ideas with little room for debate so that ‘conversations’ and ‘feedback’ are largely performative.

The use of “cheerful minimalism to mask the insidiousness of multinational tech corporations with friendliness and approachability,” feels very similar to the weird vibe of the signature corporate art style and why it feels so fake

From Jasmine: With software, you can find product market fit, ignore edge cases and people who won’t make you money, etc. But with cities, you are democratically obligated to build for everyone (or at least the majority)

Labels and Quantization

Sidewalk feels like a city trying to label and quantize everything

Participants are obliged to transform complex spatial phenomena into machine-readable points, lines, and areas, adopting a logic defined by Euro-American geopolitics, settler colonialism, and property relations.

[These maps and markers], while useful and actionable, tended to “reduce complex life stories and neighborhood histories to ‘dots on a map.‘”

Data as digital desire paths? Not sure how I feel about ‘anonymized’ or ‘de-contextualized’ data, stripping down and de-contextualizing opinions (e.g. post-it notes) removes important context and nuance.