In the Spotlight: Rohit “Rit” Aggarwala
As many of our long-time readers are aware, we have been featuring individuals from across the transportation industry once a month in our “In the Spotlight” series for some time now. With the launch of our new website and the merge of Eno Brief and ETW however, In the Spotlight has fallen to the wayside a bit.
We’re back this week with Rohit T. “Rit” Aggarwala.
Rit is a former member of Eno’s Board of Advisors and has recently started working for Sidewalk Labs, a new project brought about by Google and Daniel Doctoroff, the former CEO of Bloomberg LP and the former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development in New York City.
Sidewalk Labs is a for-profit firm devoted to improving cities through innovative technologies and businesses, and focusing on a wide range of topics including transportation, communications, utilities, and buildings. So it’s essentially a transit/urban development enthusiast’s dream job. And Rit is now a major part of it. He was kind enough to sit down with us for a bit last week to talk about his background and new position with SideWalk Labs.
Would you mind giving a short backgrounder on yourself?
I started my career at the Federal Railroad Administration. In graduate school I got a Ph.D. and MBA; that’s an odd combination but both stemmed from my interest in transportation. A lot of what I studied was cities and the extent to which they’re shaped by transportation systems.
That led me to McKinsey & Company where I was in the travel and logistics practice and served a number of transportation clients, especially in logistics. I ended up getting a phone call from New York City Hall – from Dan Doctoroff’s chief of staff — who said they were looking for someone to lead a project called PlaNYC*.
After 4 years at City Hall I moved to California and started working for Bloomberg Philanthropies (One of my major projects was C40 Cities). I ended up doing a lot of work related to cities and the environment.
And that brought me to Sidewalk Labs, which I joined over the summer, just weeks after it was announced.
Tell me a little about how this project came about? How did you get brought on board?
Sidewalk Labs grew out of Google’s interest in cities as places for innovation. Two of its most visible projects are the addition of transit options to Google maps, and the self-driving car. At the same time, Dan was finishing up at Bloomberg and wanted to get back into the world of making cities better.
The key idea behind Sidewalk Labs is that successful urban innovation requires a mix of two types of insights. First, technology has the potential to be disruptive and change cities for the better; lots of technology firms have been saying that for years. But the second insight is that cities are complex. They operate as societies and governments. So changing cities for the better requires a deep understanding of how cities work, how they operate, and how they change. By putting those two things together, we can harness technology to create better cities for mankind. That’s what Sidewalk Labs exists to do.
You mentioned that you worked with Dan Doctoroff before on PlaNYC. Tell me a little about your experience working on that project. Are there lessons learned there that you will be applying to this new venture?
There are a lot of lessons. Dan and I think about PlaNYC every day in our work at Sidewalk Labs.
A couple of observations about that project: I said that cities are complex and that was a key lesson of PlaNYC. Whenever you look at something in a silo, be it transportation or zoning or safety, you are only getting a small component of how the city works. Anything you do will have impacts on those other things.
So if we had come up with just a long-term transportation plan or a long-term energy plan for New York City, it would not have been as thoughtful or creative as PlaNYC was, because we would not have been dealing with a full set of tools. And so I think that’s one key take-away: anything you change in a city will affect many things that seem to be unrelated, so you have to try to solve as a system, not as a set of parts.
Another take-away: a city is a social animal. We make a grave error whenever we only look at a city as a piece of infrastructure or as a government. We have to think about urban change as social change, as much as an infrastructure or governmental change. It’s when those three things work in concert with each other that we get change that is both positive and effective.
The third take-away derives from the first two: changing cities for the better is difficult. Disruptive change can be very positive but it can also have negative impacts because everything is so interrelated, and so human. Think of the history of the automobile. Today, urbanists talk about how terrible the automobile was for cities; but when you look at the city before the auto, you had horse manure everywhere, transit monopolies that people hated, and other problems. The automobile seemed to solve those problems. It was a liberating technology but then it turned around and destroyed the city. So whether we are talking about autonomous vehicles or new ways to build skyscrapers, our key question is how do we harness this next generation of technology change to be beneficial to cities and to minimize those unintended consequences?
Anything you change in a city will affect many things that seem to be unrelated, so you have to try to solve as a system, not as a set of parts.
Will Sidewalk Labs be developing new technology? Or will you be focusing on policy and research?
Sidewalk Labs is a for profit innovation company. Our business model is to invest in companies that will be developing technology that we think is promising, or develop technology or projects on our own. We will likely engage in some research as we develop our thinking, but we are not a policy shop or consulting firm.
Can you talk about LinkNYC, your first project?
LinkNYC was actually developed by a company called Intersection – this was Sidewalk Labs’ first investment. LinkNYC was the brand name of a joint venture that won the franchise to upgrade all of New York City’s roughly 8,000 payphone booths and turn them into wireless hotspots that provide free high-speed wifi. Funding will be provided by advertising revenue. (The project is projected to bring in over $500 million in revenue by 2030)
The first one was unveiled a couple weeks ago. This is a huge step forward as we think about the streetscape as a site for technology. These converted phone booths can also serve as a sensor for understanding noise and air quality levels in a city. If you have something like that on the street you can gather a lot of helpful information about your city.
What are the biggest challenges you anticipate running into in implementing these plans?
Cities are complicated societies to operate in. The challenges we will face are the same as anyone who decides to run a business in a city. You have to think about regulations, politics, and the direct and indirect impacts of your work. Fundamentally, you have to deliver something that people want and that creates value for a wide range of people. We will need to be very sensitive to issues regarding privacy and inequality. These aren’t hindrances but they will require us to be smart and thoughtful.
Finally, where do you see transportation in 20 years?
I see major changes in two areas. Hands down, the biggest change is going to be the self-driving car. I think it has the potential to be as revolutionary for cities as the advent of the automobile was. We are just getting over the disbelief that the technology is possible and now people are starting to take it seriously. As a transportation community we have only just begun to understand what it changes both for the good and for the not so good.
I think the second thing will be around the institutional structures that deal with infrastructure. By and large, our transportation funding system has proven that it’s incapable of meeting the needs of the 21st century. It needs to be radically rethought since we have a system that was designed around building a federal highway system and those are not the needs we have right now. Whether its how we think about Next Generation Air Traffic Control technology, or how we think about passenger rail, or how transportation financing is affected by driverless cars, I think this country has some major institutional change it has to wrestle with in the coming years.
*From their website: “PlaNYC is a groundbreaking effort to address New York City’s long-term challenges including the forecast of 9.1 million residents by 2030, changing climate conditions, an evolving economy, and aging infrastructure.”