Whether we are talking about Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who recently announced plans to build a digital city in Arizona called Belmont, or Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google parent Alphabet, who recently unveiled the Sidewalk Toronto project, a joint effort by Waterfront Toronto and SideWalk Labs in the Canadian metropolis, Web bosses seem to have been struck by a sudden passion for town planning. Behind these projects, which are still very much in their infancy, there is however much at stake. The Smart City represents a huge future market which will soon gather pace all over the planet. Building their own cities, and injecting substantial funds, enables the major Internet players to experiment in real conditions, designing, testing, labelling and demonstrating to the wide world innovative technologies with the potential to help run the planet's megacities in the near future. However, it must be said that they are jumping on the bandwagon rather than leading the line, since a number of high-tech model cities constructed with private-sector money already exist in Asia and the American continent. So will all these projects really foster the speedy emergence of Smart Cities? From a purely technological point of view, this would appear a safe bet.

microsoft's model for a digital smart city in arizona

microsoft city

Microsoft

A full-on Smart City?

songdo: futuristic city

songdo

In South Korea, not far from Seoul, the futuristic city of Songdo has been built – at a cost of $35 billion – entirely with private funds. Its investors are GaleInternational, a US fund in the real estate sector, Korean firm Posco, which is the fourth-largest steel producer in the world, and US banking giant MorganStanley. Covering 610 hectares and stuffed full of new fully-digitalized apartment buildings, Songdo boasts cutting-edge digital technology and an impressive set of environmentally-friendly systems. This fully operationalSmart City, with 120,000 residents, is several steps ahead of its rivals. The local authority has implemented digital technology-based initiatives designed to optimise the way the city works and streamline the daily lives of its inhabitants.For example, auto traffic is managed using a state-of- the-art system. Every car licence plate is scanned as soon as it leaves its parking spot, and the data is then sent to a management platform that calculates the number of drivers on the road, or about to move out on to the road, in order to optimise traffic flows in real time. In the same vein, some 500 cameras are in place, backed up by an arsenal of sensors installed on street furniture, for the purpose of sending data on the number of buses in service and their precise location to the management platform.

In Songdo, 99% of the city's parking is underground, and household waste is taken directly from homes and piped through to the recycling plant. 
lee

Uihwan Lee

The results are commensurate with the resources that have been deployed.There are no more traffic jams. Public transport is never late and always safe.Police can access the data gathered by the sensors and cameras so as to get to an incident as soon as it occurs. Songdo also stands out from its rivals when it comes to environmental responsibility, as Uihwan Lee, Director ofCommunications for this South Korean Smart City explains: “In Songdo, 99%of the city's parking is underground, and household waste is taken directly from homes and piped through to the recycling plant. The rainwater collection and filtration system is located beneath the golf course and all the buildings have solar panels.” In addition, the city authority keeps a close eye on the energy consumption of each building with a view to limiting expenditure and pollution and redistributing any surplus. The smart grid is not in private hands but belongs to the city authority. In fact Songdo, the world's leading low-carbon city, can claim to top the list of Smart Cities, having amply demonstrated its ability to provide a connected response to urban problems. Nevertheless, the way it operates still raises some questions. As a privately-owned city in the hands of a consortium of investors, it fails to implement such democratic principles as data transparency and to foster civic dialogue.However, while some observers might be worried about the central surveillance aspects of Sondo's organisation, the town is exemplary from a technological point of view and its model may soon be exported throughoutAsia. But it does highlight one rather disappointing aspect: it seems easier to build a Smart City from scratch than transform an existing town.

futuristic smart cities built from scratch

desert

reactionzine

Building everything from the ground up

new cities in the desert

palm

In the south of the US state of Florida, former American football player-turned multi-millionaire Syd Kitson, who today heads up the real estate holding company Kitson & Partners, is bringing to lie Babcock Ranch, a futuristic fully-connected and entirely 'green' town. The electricity grid is 100% solar-powered, fed by a plant located on the edge of town, and the street are lined throughout with photovoltaic panels, each feeding one house. As the owner of this miniature Smart City covering 370 square kilometers, Syd Kitson has decided to implement a number of measures designed to boost the environmental aspects of the venture. Petrol-driven cars are not allowed insideBabcock Ranch, electric vehicles are tolerated but quotas are imposed. The idea is not only to avoid carbon dioxide emissions but also to keep the number of vehicles stable. The circular economy takes priority: fruit and vegetables are grown in nearby fields and orchards and are sold in local shops and used in the town's restaurants. If the whole approach feels rather authoritarian this is no doubt because Kitson is actually the sole owner of his town. But the results are undisputable: there is no pollution. By designing and building BabcockRanch from A to Z and implementing strict rules of operation, Kitson has achieved much better than average outcomes and demonstrated that this method works.

In the same vein, but on a very different scale, Bill Gates' real estate investment group Belmont Partners is preparing to start building Belmont, a city that will have technology embedded in its DNA. Belmont Partners has just acquired a vast area of land in Arizona, around a hundred kilometers fromPhoenix. Covering an area as large as Paris, the new town is intended to be areal laboratory for Smart City experimentation, testing out the latest technologies for self-driving cars and implementing a range of innovations involving incorporating green spaces into the cityscape, using renewable sources of energy for power and drawing on local food supply chains. BelmontPartners Director Larry Yount says that “Belmont will create an avant-garde community with a backbone of communication and infrastructures using state-of-the- art technology. These technologies range from broadband Internet to new environmentally-responsible production and distribution systems and driverless cars.

BABCOCK RANCH, southern florida

Babcock Ranch

Babcock Ranch

Bill Gates also intends to draw up a digitally innovative and environmentally-friendly roadmap for tomorrow's smart cities. And he reckons that it is easier to test and integrate the technologies which will be used in Smart Cities by building a new town rather than transforming an existing one. Existing cities usually have a long architectural legacy to cope with. In theory a blank canvas is easier to work with..

a new city standard ?

nyc

Google is dancing to the same tune.Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet's Smart City subsidiary, has announced a ground-breaking partnership with the city of Toronto to build a mini smart city focusing entirely on digital technologies. With this venture Google is clearly demonstrating its objectives in the smart city sphere. The Internet giant is planning to set up its own testing centre to hone technologies that work well in practice and can be marketed. Clearly a SmartCity is not the exclusive province of governmental authorities. If it is to work properly, the private sector will have to come in and supply the necessary technologies, points out Franck Vallerugo, Professor of Urban Economy at theESSEC Business School. “The city of the future will be increasingly based on the public and private sectors getting together. City hall will be forced to negotiate with firms such as Amazon, Thales, Auchan and Total”, he underlines.

Public-private collaboration therefore seems essential and the Internet giants have clearly grasped this fact. Making Smart Cities the norm for urban development in the 21st century will be a huge challenge. Let us hope that such cities, constructed from scratch and based on digital innovation, will in turn foster the emergence of a truly civic Smart City. After all, smart technology cannot be the only criterion for a functioning town in the years to come.

By Arnaud Pagès
Journaliste indépendant, spécialisé dans les nouvelles technologies