Smart cities have garnered quite the buzz over the past few months although the idea has been around for years. The premise behind these urban modernizations is the ease of communication and the power of automation that it can bring. Smart city initiatives are bold ideas ongoing all over the world; currently there are various discussions, talks, and conferences about how to make them come about whether building them from the ground up or integrating such technology into already existing infrastructure.

Where Smart Cities are Headed

Smart cities are more than just a bold idea – they are living, breathing, urban communities connected and networked with data-driven automated systems designed to help with mobility, economic growth, and public service.

There is a reliance on machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), as well as on internet-of-things (IoT) to help the city to run itself. This results in an environment with improved citizens’ lives, and the smart features manage some of the city functions.

Most smart city initiatives deal with mobility. Last year, Columbus, Ohio won a grant of $40 million as prize for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. The city of Columbus developed partnerships and raised $500 million in private funding for a transportation systems project.

This money raised is a relatively large initial funding for urban mobility. However, Columbus is using the funds for several projects up to 2020. The projects include a parking assist for cars to lessen the time drivers use to find a parking slot; a V2V communication system to help lessen accidents due to blind spots; the acquisition of 780 electric cars; and platooning trucks to lessen emissions. These would require technology development that does not yet exist.

Recently, Bill Gates bought 25,000 acres of Arizona land intending to build a smart city on his own, named Belmont City. Included in the smart city development would be the latest in technology, with high-speed internet and networks, with data going to and from data centers, as well as new manufacturing tech, innovative distribution models, provisions for autonomous vehicles, and logistics hubs.

Besides being the richest man in the world, Gates also has a firsthand understanding of embedding buildings with technology that does not yet exist. When he started building his Medina, Washington house in 1988, he envisioned it to have facilities which only became truly available in 2015. It is not far-fetched to say that the current smart city starts will only become a reality sometime in 25 years, or more.

In Toronto, the city is partnering with Sidewalk Labs to develop an equally astounding project, the first Google-fied city from the ground up, dubbed as a thriving hub for innovation.

Questions for a Smart City

The solution presented by Bill Gates seems to be the only viable way to have a smart city: to build from scratch. For the rest of the world trying to create smart cities, there are questions still left unanswered.

What is the aim of a smart city? Will it be to ease traffic and increase mobility? If that were the case, it would take more than just sensors and vast computing power to solve the problem. Cities are attempting integrated multi-modal solutions to make this work. Sensors and smart apps help to get the passenger to where he wants to go, using trains, buses, cars, and taxis. You can also throw a hyperloop transport in the mix.

How does a smart city affect social justice? Re-inventing the city will mean that portions of the population will have to move. This usually includes the disadvantaged. A smart city can be a utopia for its residents, and yet, it seems necessary to uproot them from low-rent projects in order to improve their surroundings. One other aspect of a smart city is the proliferation of sensors. A Big Brother server monitoring everything about the city and making decisions is a scary thought.

What are the costs of a smart city? So far, the initial costs being raised are only for initial studies. The changes in the infrastructure will be in the billions. Columbus, Ohio has a kitty of $500 million for use over the next five years, and only then will Columbus truly evolve into a smart city. The end result will be a drastic change from the cities that we have right now, with a still unimaginable price tag.

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