Nearly 4 billion people currently live in cities globally and by 2050, it is estimated that more than two-thirds of the world population will live in urban areas. Urbanisation, however, does not come without costs: problems related to waste disposal, traffic pollution, and high energy consumption all have a major impact on the environment and accelerate climate change. To counteract the impact of urban areas, people are now betting on smart cities. The trend has taken off in recent years, with wealthy individuals investing millions of dollars in land acquisition as well as some of the world’s most avant-garde metropolises starting to implement smart technologies. The Bill Gates smart city concept is one prime example; is it worth investing in it and could it lead the way for other cities to follow?
The Bill Gates Smart City Plan
In late 2017, Microsoft co-founder and tech billionaire Bill Gates opened the debate about the need to invest in smart cities. The billionaire philanthropist made headlines worldwide when he purchased a 24,800-acres desertic area near Phoenix, Arizona in the US for USD$ 80 million. He is planning to build one of the world’s first smart cities from the ground up. The futuristic city – which will be named Belmont after real-estate developer behind the project Belmont Partners – will be a “forward-thinking community with a communication and infrastructure spine that embraces cutting-edge technology”, as the company explained in a statement. It will rely completely on smart technologies such as high-speed digital networks, data centres, high-speed public Wi-Fi, hi-tech manufacturing facilities and autonomous vehicles.
Despite not much being done besides the land purchase in 2017, Gates’ plan has the potential to lead the way for other smart cities to be built around the globe, with experts predicting that by 2050, there are going to be 88 such cities worldwide.
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Many question the choice behind opting for such a location and experts agree that the decision was not left to chance. The large area purchased by Gates is mainly undeveloped desert land, making it an ideal location for such an experiment. Indeed, the total lack of structures and infrastructures will make it possible to develop and shape the new urban centre in a unique and privileged way. The huge desertic area will be devoted to offices, commercial and retail spaces, industrial space, open space, schools and around 80,000 residential units that will host around 200,000 people.
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Is it Worth Investing in Smart Cities?
The market of smart cities has grown exponentially over the past few years and experts estimate that it will reach a market value of USD$670 billion by 2030. Companies such as Microsoft and Cisco have invested millions of dollars in urban innovation through smart software, which comprise Information & Communication technologies (ICTs), Big Data and the Internet of Things (IOT). In a statement released ahead of the 2021 Smart City Expo, Microsoft Executive José A. Ondiviela said that the company believes there is a “huge opportunity for technology to help cities become more responsive to their residents, reduce the environmental impact of transportation and utilities, improve public safety, enhance communication and citizen engagement and much more”.
Investing in planned cities has been particularly in vogue among progressive investors and futuristic designers. Bill Gates is not the first wealthy individual to have such a big ambition. Jeffrey Bern, founder of Blockchains, is considering a radical experiment in the US state of Nevada, and the former Walmart CEO Marc Lore is just the latest billionaire to have announced a project to build a sustainable city. He left his position at the world’s largest retail company to build Telosa, a smart city in the middle of Arizona’s desert, using environmentally-friendly architecture and emerging technologies.
Even turning existing urban areas into smart cities has become very attractive in recent years, with avant-garde metropolis such as Dubai, Singapore, and Barcelona, as well as nations like India, betting on innovation and seeking to implement smart technologies in already existing urban areas to digitalise every aspect of life in the city and simultaneously reduce its environmental impact.
Can Bill Gates Lead the Way for Other Cities to Follow?
Even though Belmont is far from being completed, the Bill Gates smart city has the potential to break new ground for investors and urban developers to build new avant-garde urban areas. They can also find inspiration in some of the smart technologies that cities around the world have already implemented.
Looking back at projects involving the implementation of smart technologies, there is no doubt that Asia is leading the way. In 2014, Singapore launched an intricate yet innovative surveillance system to monitor all aspects of public life, led by its vision to build the world’s first “smart nation” and establish itself as a global leader in the smart cities market. On the other side of the country, another already futuristic metropolis has made moves to turn into a smart hub. In 2021, Dubai launched the Smart Dubai Strategy. The initiative aims at turning the cosmopolitan metropolis into a cashless and paperless city by automating and digitalising several aspects of urban life, from buying tickets and paying bills, to tracking packages and visa status and even reporting violations to the police.
But the smart revolution does not stop in cities. In 2015, India presented its “National Smart Cities Mission”, a urban renewal and retrofitting programme to develop smart cities across the country with the aim to “drive economic growth and improve the quality of life of people by enabling local area development and harnessing technology that leads to smart outcomes”.
In Europe, both London and Barcelona are holders of the title of ‘smartest’ cities. The Spanish capital has implemented smart systems to save energy, from smart streetlights and garbage sensors to an innovative and fully digitalised parking system while London is planning a huge digital revolution that could potentially transform UK’s largest urban area into the smartest city in the world.
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