What will the first truly smart cities look like?
The smart city is already in its infancy. In London, standard street lights have been transformed into electric vehicle charging points. In New York City, Internet connected kiosks offer access to tablets, USB charging ports and information screens for real time updates. Smart transportation solutions are cropping up across the globe to make commuters’ lives easier. But what will the fully fledged smart city look like? What requirements will these connected urban spaces need to meet, and what issues could they come up against? Bill Gates’ investment firm Belmont Partners is about to find out.
Mirage or metropolis?
This month, Belmont Partners bought almost 25,000 acres of land in the Arizona desert. Why? To build a smart city named after the company itself. The city of Belmont will use “cutting-edge technology, high-speed digital networks, data centres, new manufacturing technologies and distribution models, autonomous vehicles and autonomous logistics hubs” to create a template for sustainable city development. Smart city technology is nothing new, but the solutions in use today have been built onto existing infrastructures. Belmont differs in that it will start from scratch, building its own infrastructure from the ground up. However, as company spokesperson Grady Gammage explains, the venture is “a very long term investment”.
Before Belmont and other cities like it can become a reality, developers need to ask some incredibly simple but important questions. The first concerns the location itself. Does it have good access to resources? Could transportation links be made with other cities? Is there scope for expansion? Will there be enough people to fill the city? Another consideration is state laws. Smart cities will invariably include disruptive technology, so it makes sense to choose an area where legislation smiles upon innovation. In Belmont’s case, the results are mixed. The surrounding area has a ballooning population, serious solar power potential, and plenty of room for growth. Arizona is also far more autonomous vehicle friendly than other states, and is a popular testing ground for the likes of Ford, Uber and Waymo. This bodes well for the development of other advanced technologies. The downside is that Arizona is essentially a giant desert. By 2050, 40 per cent of the vital Colorado River could dry up, leaving some areas uninhabitable. It looks like Belmont will have to contend with nature as well as an army of sceptics.
Building the ultimate smart city
Our ancestors may have had very different considerations in mind when they decided where and how to build towns and cities, but the basic needs of humanity remain the same. In this respect, it’s possible to predict what the future of smart cities will look like. The smart city infrastructures in place today are already creating innovative transport solutions, pollution monitoring, and smart security systems, and these will continue to advance. Perhaps more importantly, the people living in smart cities will need access to food, water, and housing. The smart city is likely to be home to precision agriculture methods like vertical farms. Inhabitants will expect consistent access to the groceries they want, which will be enabled by connected production and supply chains. Water facilities will need to track and respond to demand precisely, as will the energy providers that power smart homes. Ultimately, by the time that Belmont is built, so much will have changed. While it’s likely to demonstrate aspects of existing smart city ideas, it will also include technological solutions that have yet to be developed. Building smart cities from scratch isn’t going to be easy, and is expected to take an extensive period of time. But once Belmont and cities like it begin to grow, they could define what it means to be a ‘smart city’.
The aim of connected urban networks is to harmonise different aspects of city life for the benefit of those living within them. But the requirements of inhabitants today will undoubtedly change. The most important job for smart city enthusiasts is to look forward and decide which systems will be needed to support technology which, in some cases, may not even have been developed yet. Just like the villages, towns and cities we live in today, these smart cities will have to grow and adapt to change. Once they no longer have to rely on incumbent infrastructure, they could rapidly expand. At the moment, all eyes will be on Belmont as a self-proclaimed pioneer.
Is Belmont a pioneering project or a pipedream? What other obstacles could slow the growth of smart cities that are built from scratch? How would you define a smart city? Share your thoughts and opinions.