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Brains, Brawn, and Bill Gates

How will smart city infrastructures balance present and future?

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“The current reality of smart cities is that there aren’t any,” asserts a recent Scientific American article. And it’s true. While there are a number of cities with “smart” elements, such as networked cameras and traffic signals or daylight-sensing streetlights, most of today’s smart cities are made up of smart projects within traditional infrastructures, not footings-up connectivity.

Today’s smart cities intermix digital and hard infrastructures, and the interface of elements and technologies can make smart city planning a challenge. While some experts in the field explain that creating smart cities will require communities to strike a balance between maintaining current infrastructure and incorporating the digital capabilities of the future, others are choosing to start fresh and build smart cities from the ground up.

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As an example, Cascade Investment, a firm run by Bill Gates, plans to transform a raw piece of land into a smart city built around a flexible infrastructure model. The firm recently allocated $80 million to develop Belmont, a settlement on the forefront of smart city technology, on 25,000 acres of land in Arizona. The development will include 80,000 homes; 3,800 acres of industrial, office, and retail space; and 470 acres for public schools.

“Belmont will create a forward-thinking community with a communication and infrastructure spine that embraces cutting-edge technology, designed around high-speed digital networks, data centers, new manufacturing technologies and distribution models, autonomous vehicles and autonomous logistics hubs,” says Belmont Partners, the Arizona real estate investment company involved in the deal, in a news release.

What are your thoughts? Is the footings-up planning method realistic? What strategies do you suggest for integrating smart city technology with hard infrastructure?  DE_bug_web

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  1. I saw a lot of green on the concept drawings in the You Tube clip. Realistically there won’t be that much green space in that area due to water supply concerns.

  2. Unfortunately most of the new technology remain connected to traditional power supplies – so is tied to streetlight poles. Once the new technology releases itself from the tyranny of lines based power, then it will be in a position to softly surround every city with light, sound, reactivity, Wi-Fi etc. etc.
    Another point of issue is that electricity regulation is often far behind in accommodating these tiny points of connection with punitive charges levied for connecting to the grid.
    In other words, if you want a smart city, the first smart start is a new way of thinking about how to power the small points of connection.

  3. Laura: The digital vision is excellent, but without a distributed ENERGY infrastructure, the digital city of the future will look like any other city with a wi-fi makeover dependent on the vulnerabilities of the utility grid and/or batteries recharged by intermittent sources.
    If one has the luxury of starting with a “piece of raw land,” why not also implement an energy infrastructure which can support and grow with the digital economy. Why not include technologies like fuel cells, which are out of the high risk R&D stages but not yet commercially available, which run on natural gas and liquid fuel supply infrastructures, not the exotic hydrogen or methanol. Why not start behind the meter in homes and businesses with modular solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) which look and act like the utility grid, which means they load follow, and are designed for plug and play maintenance by the end user. Also, make sure they can use the clean, high-quality heat for cogeneration tasks which save money like heating water, and even powering small refrigerators and recharging the EV. For those with extra cash, add capacity and sell clean power back to the utilities, knowing every kWh from a fuel cell displaces a kWh from coal. What an opportunity for Mr. Gates to develop infrastructure as a service which could also work in a developing country !

    1. Thank you, B.P. Lee for the technical arguments for Mr. Gate’s undertaking. That there’s a private, investor-billionaire willing to finance humanity’s advance into the modern world of “Smart City” construction should be a dream come true for the thieves and sycophants in Washington, D.C. Aren’t today’s republicans always on about how “the wealthy” will “create jobs,” and how taxing top income earners will stifle economic progress and the golden opportunities lost to a redistribution of wealth? Ah, but what’s this? Mr. Gates can’t begin to pursue his objectives without having to “pay” the associated punitive fees in order to “play” with the existing, long-entrenched interests sleazing in the shadows of our antiquated, power-delivery systems. Ironically, those who would be served the most–the US public (not to mention the rest of the planet’s organic and inorganic systems)–aren’t able to celebrate this momentous gambit by Mr. Gates, because we’re focusing on making sure our self-dealing politicians and their megalomaniacal donors can’t pass new tax “reforms” that will lock-in further disparities in global productivity to profit only themselves. Bring on the future, Mr. Gates! Show the world that you’re not a one-trick pony; that you’re willing to spend every bit of your fortune, remaining talent, and energies building a truly, smart city that enables us to leave behind our obsolescent, outdated designs of civilization from the ground up. In doing so, we may finally cross the nexus as a species, and move away from the specter of our self-inflicted annihilation due to both our old hates and current practices to hold on to them.

      1. In that light, it would be interesting to have Mr. Gates and Mr. Musk team up to do a make-over of Puerto Rico. They could sure use their ideas and what is presented here.

  4. Since most of the world can’t just start over and doesn’t have a spare county to play with how will this apply to the real world? I am pretty sure that simply demolishing London or the US east coast to implement his dream would meet with some resistance.

    It is a cute little project and a neat experiment for Mr. Gates & Co. I hope they think it though an do their experimental planning & data collection well so something useful will come out of it. If they do it right this could be a really useful test bed project.

  5. The technology and transportation systems sound amazing, and do represent the future.
    Renewable energy does seem that it would be an integral part of any “smart city”, especially where solar potential is so great. While it is Mr. Gates’ money and, therefore, his prerogative, any claim to be the city of the future would need to be legitimized by closing resource loops (energy, water) so the place is not as much of a sink in those regards as existing cities are. At its core, building a city in the desert is fundamentally unsustainable from a water resources perspective, unless thoughtful and extensive measures are taken (e.g., treated wastewater serves as the sole supply for landscape irrigation). Nonetheless, this prototype city appears an improvement from suburban sprawl.

  6. While I agree there will be many challenges that will limit the scope of the project – having a test bed @ this level, will highlight those limitations and hopefully other innovative dreamers can remove those obstacles. I seem to recall a previous Forester article on Water Batteries for HVAC in the desert climates (like Arizona) leveraging off-peak electricity production to reduce cooling costs/power demands during peak hours. If nothing else – should be an informative exercise.

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