Bill Gates has purchased 25,000 acres of land in Arizona for his Smart City of Tomorrow. It is one of several such efforts but the only one where I think there is potential for something like what Walt Disney conceptualized in Florida when he first imagined EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow). I was fascinated by EPCOT when the vision was first articulated and worked for Disney for a time back then. Walt Disney was betrayed by his attorneys and by his own health so his vision for a future city became an amusement park that wasn’t even a pale shadow of what it could have become.
I think Gates could do what Disney could not, because he has more control over the outcome, and because technology has advanced to a level that makes the overall vision more viable.
Creation of Arcology at Scale
With these two ideas, we are talking about arcology at scale. In its ultimate form, this is a self-supporting system consisting of buildings, transport, people, utilities and services. While we often think of an arcology as a single structure, and nothing says you couldn’t build a massive structure much like a castle or fort (and will build space stations and Mars outposts), the underlying concept is one of a self-sustainable entity where people live and work far more safely, happily and efficiently than in a traditional city.
The best approach would likely be a largely clean slate concept based on the technologies we have today and anticipating those of tomorrow so that it wasn’t obsolete at completion. You see, one of the huge problems with building something at this massive scale is that in the time it takes to complete the city, much of what was built into it will become obsolete. This suggests a massive move to modular designs and the avoidance of mistakes made by traditional cities like utilities that are cheaply buried and not provisioned for economical upgrades.
If you look at a relatively recent city like New York, much of the buried infrastructure is failing and the cost of upgrading it exceeds, significantly, what the city can afford to budget, placing it on an unacceptable path to near total failure. Avoiding this outcome is critical to this effort and since we can and do design buildings to anticipate this problem now, we can and should build our cities of tomorrow to anticipate this as well.
What Has Changed
One of the important things that has changed is our ability to work remotely, which makes cities like this possible. In the past, you had to build near industry that would employ people and since the industry came first and raised prices, this industry-based approach resulted in cities that grew organically and were poorly designed to anticipate the future or even natural disasters, much like we recently saw in Houston.
But with the influx of electronic service industries and remote work, you can now arguably populate a remote city and have that population attract the industry. This is a major advantage that Gates has and that Disney did not.
In addition, with the influx of autonomous vehicles, particularly with the advent of heavy lift drones, you can do interesting things regarding logistics in a city that we just couldn’t do in Disney’s time. Add something like Elon Musk’s Hyperloop and you have a way to move people very quickly to existing transportation hubs, likely more quickly and cheaply than if they were to drive from a more conventional home.
This would allow you to make the city far more useful to far more people. For instance, it could be an ideal central location for people who travel often, being far easier to get into and out of while still providing a safe, secure, inexpensive place to house families. This would clearly encompass those who travel electronically, as well.
Wrapping Up: A Real Tomorrowland and Maybe Magic
This got me thinking of the movie Tomorrowland. While the movie clearly lost its way, the concept was compelling. A place that was optimized for people with a blend of beauty, functionality, safety and technology optimized for productivity and comfort. Part of Disney’s vision was just a little bit of magic, the promise of something better than reality. With VR, AR, AI, and other technologies designed into Gates’ concept of the city of tomorrow, there is the potential to create something truly magical and amazing, something that could redefine the world of tomorrow into a better place and carry forward Disney’s vision into a better world. I think that is where Gates wants to go, and I’m hoping he will be successful getting there.
Maybe I’ll make my wife happy and buy a place there (this time of year, Arizona looks a lot better to her than Oregon).
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+