Invariably at every panel discussion and keynote address this past week at CES there was talk of how smart cities growth will influence policies, transportation, cities and towns, our industry and our planet. The issue was given a drone-propelled boost when back in November Bill Gates’ company announced it was investing $80 million into a “Smart City” in the far western suburbs of Phoenix. Mt. Lemmon Holdings bought a 24,000-acre track of land in the town of Belmont that would theoretically include tens of thousands of smart homes to be built along with the accompanying smart infrastructure, public schools, office and retail space. And if you think that this will be some small gathering of solar power homes then think again. The area is roughly the size of Paris and nearly the same projected population base as nearby Tempe, one of the largest Phoenix suburbs.
The possibilities are endless. Is this finally the future that the cartoon The Jetsons envisioned back in the 1960s? Their peek into the 2060s included flying cars, robot maids, pop up phone screens and 5-second dinners. It all sounded crazy back in the days of the Kennedy Administration and perhaps we can’t whip up a chicken piccata in 3 seconds but many of these projections are either just on the horizon or are in use in some form or fashion currently.
And it’s not just about the in-home experience. Is this where Amazon’s delivery drones will finally be used in full force? In addition, with Phoenix being the testing ground for the Waymo autonomous cars will we find Belmont city streets filled with driverless vehicles? Can kids be driven to soccer practice without either mom or dad firing up the Range Rover? Will picking up grandma or grandpa at Sky Harbor Airport no longer involve sitting in massive traffic jams during peak travel time but instead only involve plugging information into an app and waiting for the old folks to arrive for Thanksgiving dinner. In addition, Phoenix has 300 days of sunlight a year, making their solar power supply almost endless. That will be corralled for use in traffic lights, outdoor signage and office spaces, to name but a few.
It will be interesting to assess the pros and cons of starting a Smart City from scratch rather than the retrofit that many cities around the world are trying. Singapore, for one, has succeeded because they had the time to map out a plan and follow through. Houston, New York and Columbus have won accolades for their achievements in water management, energy consumption and transportation, but none of the current Smart Cities started from the blueprint phase. After all, it’s much easier to bake a new cake rather than to try to add creme filling into an existing one.
But that last point was not how Ford CEO Jim Hackett sees the future as during his CES keynote address he announced that the automaker will work with the Bay Area tech company Autonomic to build a platform that will enable existing cities to use their Transportation Mobility Cloud to build out infrastructure communications.
The Transportation Mobility Cloud will support location-based services and will provide real time alerts on traffic and EV only areas to ease congestion and improve air quality. Ford’s group of smart mobility offerings are growing, primarily last mile shared commute service Chariot, GoBike and its forthcoming autonomous ride hailing fleets. If successful it could provide a massive opportunity to invade a white space for the automaker.
Getting back to Belmont, ultimately what will determine success or failure of Gates’ project is, quite simply, whether people move to the city and, possibly more importantly, remain there. Smart technology is wonderful if it will ultimately improve peoples’ lives. Will this enable them to shorten their work week? To work remotely? If there will truly be the number of new businesses moving into Belmont then there’s a strong possibility of workers’ commutes diminishing precipitously.
In addition, what effect will solar power have on energy bills and air quality? There has to be some advantage to 120-degree heat in the summer months. And will the quality of the town’s school systems, infrastructure and healthcare benefit from being smart? Again, it’s easier to start anew than to try to fix something that’s currently broken, and if Arizonans see that Belmont rates near or at the top of the list for the best hospitals and schools in the state then watch for the influx of new arrivals into town.
If the positives of a Belmont project outweigh the negatives, and only time will tell if it will, then the answer to the above questions will be a resounding yes. If so, then Bill Gates’ already profound legacy would then take a giant, solar-powered step forward.