While smart cities have been in the public consciousness for a long time, we’ve been writing about them here at PYMNTS since at least 2015. Up until very recently, that conversation has been largely theoretical and conceptual. We had been talking about all of the things we would do in the not-yet-defined future, where 5G technology is ubiquitous, our cities are connected and our lives are even better digitally modulated.
But in the past year or so, that theoretical world has begun giving way to a tangible one. Singapore has publicly declared its intention to become the world’s first bonafide smart city, and two years ago officially titled its efforts in that area as “Smart Nation.” The island city-state, which is around 30 meters wide, hopes to turn itself into a “living laboratory” of implanted sensors and heretofore never-seen digital function in areas like resource management, public health and transportation.
And while Singapore has the world's best-developed and most advanced progress in the race to build a truly smart city, it is fair to say the race is getting more crowded. After months of negotiations with authorities in Toronto, Alphabet-owned Sidewalk Labs has finally managed to ink an agreement with the city that will see the FinTech firm pour in C$1.3 billion ($990 million) (alongside local partners) to kick off the development.
The Toronto plan serves as a first step and a showcase for Alphabet CEO Larry Page’s vision for the city of the figure, embedded with sensors powered by data and focused on innovative solutions for those who live there.
“The city of tomorrow ought to be a community that will never be completed, but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and systems,” Page noted at an industry event earlier this year. “A city that caters to the people as a service function.”
Ideas for the Toronto showcase include things like heated bike lanes and sidewalks, affordable housing and business spaces, upgrades to the city’s transportation system, an underground series of high-tech garbage disposals to keep the streets pristine, “raincoats for buildings” and tall timber structures, among the many innovations to support sustainability and environmentalism.
It all sounds quite lovely, high-tech and futuristic – but will it actually be that way? We certainly hope so – heated sidewalks and affordable housing in treehouses sound good to us – but this vision of the future actually has a pretty long history in urban design.
And not one that is entirely glorious thus far.
The Recurring Problem With Designing the City of Tomorrow, Today
First up, we have a confession to make: We lied to you. That Larry Page quote above is a fake. He didn’t say that at an industry event, or ever.
Walt Disney did, in 1966.
And Walt wasn’t describing a movie or one of Disney’s entertainment ventures – he was describing his concept of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. And if you aren’t familiar with that name, we are willing to bet you know its acronym: EPCOT.
And no, Walt Disney’s community of tomorrow did not involve rides. Disney died in 1966 shortly after “imagineering” the idea, and the Disney corporates decided that EPCOT was better-suited to a theme park than an experiment in high-tech planned living. And while we can’t say the environmentally friendly, highly planned and technologically enhanced prototype community envisioned by Disney in the 1960s was exactly like the smart city concept we talk about in 2019, we can ask you to answer honestly:
That Disney quote totally faked you out, didn’t it?
And while Walt Disney was undoubtedly an innovative guy, he’s not the first American icon to have fully laid out a conceptual techno-utopian living arrangement that he deemed the future of the American city. Nope, that honor goes to Frank Lloyd Wright. In the 1920s, Wright’s vision of Broadacre City modeled a city that integrated technological tools to “better our lives, diversify land use, integrate organic architecture and provide innovative neighborhoods.”
And Frank Lloyd Wright was arguably cribbing from the garden city movement that popped up in the U.K. at the turn of the 20th century – a movement based on incorporating green spaces, local agriculture as part of citizens’ diets and the “just and proper use of technology’s bounty.”
So why, 119 years down the line from the first smart city sales pitch, do we still have no smart city? Why is EPCOT a theme park instead of a place you can live? Why is Frank Lloyd Wright better-known for building Fallingwater than for inventing the concept of the smart city?
Simply put, smart cities are easy to dream but hard to build. The most obvious limitation is technological: In 1900, 1935 and 1966, the human imagination was more than capable of conceiving a cleaner, higher-tech, more sustainable community – but the tech and tools to build them were rather more limited.
But something else that was limited was the imagination of the designers who had never seen the technological innovations that were to come. In 1900, there were no cars. In 1920, there was no television. In 1966, there were no computers or internet. If you were to ask any of the proto-smart city designers how their designs could accommodate citizens who travel an average of 10,000 miles a year by car, watch six hours’ worth of television a day and carry miniature supercomputers in their pockets at all times, it isn’t just that they wouldn’t be able to answer your question – they would have no idea what you were actually asking, as the information would sound like gibberish.
It is very hard to build the “X of the future” from the point of view of the present – because it is almost impossible to know what the people of the future are going to want. When EPCOT was first built, it was all block-grey concrete, because brutalist design is what the future looked like in 1972. As slick white marble became the preferred design choice decades later, EPCOT looked pretty dated by 1990.
The Houston Astrodome, when it opened in 1968, was billed as the eighth wonder of the world – a modern technological marvel and the future of all sporting complexes. But times changed. AstroTurf was futuristic in the 60s, but by the 90s it was seen as the cause of athletes’ injuries. The massive structure looked imposing when it opened, but quickly revealed itself as incredibly hard to maintain. Houston sports teams started leaving it for other smaller, more purpose-built venues. In 2006, the final tenant moved out of the Dome, leaving Houston's "lonely landmark" without a use. Citing code violations, the city of Houston shuttered the structure in 2008. It remains vacant today, though a renovation and redesign process is ongoing.
But of course, the people building this round of smart cities aren’t entertainers or architects of 19th-century British naturalism. They are technologists – and arguably the most future-oriented people in the world.
Will they be able to leverage the considerably better resources of 2019 against a challenge that has remained open for over 100 years?
Today’s Cities of Tomorrow
Given the above information, the safest answer about the future of these projects is a big fat question mark. The future, after all, is notoriously hard to predict.
But there are reasons to think this could be a bit different. The people pursuing this today aren’t making models – they are currently covering all of Singapore with sensors and figuring out how to install smart sidewalks in Toronto. When billions of dollars are exchanging hands, it is safe to say the conceptual phase of a project is over – or at least it should be.
Moreover, there is a lot of lateral pressure moving this innovation along, and making it much more of a natural progression than a new, alien idea about human societies. Consumers regularly talk to smart speakers, are used to being connected at all times via a smartphone and are increasingly interested in getting their cars connected as commerce tools. A 5G, wired-up city has direct, tangible appeal to consumers and citizens worldwide, which puts on more pressure to move this forward.
But, of course, trying to do it and doing it right are not always the same thing.
In Singapore, citizens’ rights advocates complain that measures billed as improvements in people’s lives will actually make things harder, not easier. Sidewalk’s deal with Canada was nearly derailed and ultimately had to be scaled back considerably, when concerns about data privacy sprang up around the project. Approval ultimately came down to an 11th-hour nail-biter.
Sidewalk’s CEO Dan Doctoroff said he had “anxious moments” during discussions with Waterfront Toronto, the development agency, but found Chairmain Stephen Diamond’s approach to be “tough, but very fair.”
“I probably am not the type who jumps for joy, but I am really pleased,” he said. “This is an important milestone in what we knew would be a long and twisting process.”
And if past is prelude, there will probably be quite a few more twists and turns along this particular road. If they get it right, it could be the biggest innovation since the smartphone. If not – well, the Astrodome will no longer be the most expensive future-building project that ultimately failed to keep up with the times.