Let's start this week with a bit of a fairytale, shall we?
You wake up, the sun is shining through the windows that were drawn for you at the exact time you needed to say hello to the world. You remember that you need milk for that cup of coffee that you start every morning with. You throw some clothes on, walk 2 minutes down the road and you grab that milk. You greet your neighbors as you walk (it’s a small city, and everyone knows everyone).
You sit at home for a little while, flicking through the channels on the TV. A notification pops up; you’re needed at the office for the first time that week. So you go upstairs (your work clothes have been sorted to the front of the wardrobe for you), and within half an hour you’re ready to go. It takes another 3 minutes to get there (three minutes that you spend reminiscing over the pains of an hour ride on public transport) and enjoy the day.
Eventually, your co-worker decides to order doughnuts for everyone, and a minute later, you stick your hand out the window and catch the bag of glazed goodness as it drops out the sky (delivery services took to the air, there’s less foot-traffic). You spend the rest of the day in the office, ensuring the machines that check the machines are still running efficiently - you’re in the process of making machines to check them too, but innovation takes time. And that night, just before you climb into bed with the pillows that have been cooled to just the right temperature, you gaze out of the sky and watch planet Earth, as it twinkles away in the distance.
What if I was to tell you that that isn’t a fairytale? Eventually that will be reality, and you’ll be living life in a Smart City. Life will be essentially the same, but much much easier. Everything is quicker, faster, more automated. There’s no real need for human input on well…anything. Because Smart Cities used to be the pinnacle point of that made up dystopian future; the idea of 2-5 minute distances between everywhere you need to go, hoverboards a new reality, and all stress left behind in the distant past.
As you may have guessed, today’s article is about Smart Cities, because there are actually a number in production (or at least being planned) at the moment.
I’m going to start with what is probably the most well-known, after a popular video surfaced online a few weeks ago. And that City, is Saudi Arabia’s ‘Line’.
A City without Cars
The Line is a city that will be located in Neom, Saudi Arabia. It will be only 200m wide, but what it lacks in width is made up for in length, spanning 170km, accommodating 9 million people on a footprint of only 34 square km. For context, Austria has a population of just over 9 million (9,006,398 at the time of writing) and spans roughly 82,409 km². This means that the Line will hold the same amount of people, taking up less than half the land.
The idea is that residents will be able to enjoy the surrounding nature, while still having access to all necessary facilities within a 5-minute walk. To get from one end of the line to another, a 20-minute high-speed railway will be implemented.
THE LINE will tackle the challenges facing humanity in urban life today and will shine a light on alternative ways to live. We cannot ignore the livability and environmental crises facing our world’s cities, and NEOM is at the forefront of delivering new and imaginative solutions to address these issues. NEOM is leading a team of the brightest minds in architecture, engineering and construction to make the idea of building upwards a reality.
Those are the words of His Royal Highness Mohammed bin Salman; Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, who is also the chairman of the NEOM Company Board of Directors.
The vision is that The Line will be a step towards a brighter future, while still being kinder to the environment. The city will run on 100% renewable energy, and will be completely void of roads and cars. Humanity and Earth’s overall health will be placed at the forefront of everything they do.
A City based on Cars
But the Line isn’t the only smart city in production. Perhaps a little less well-known, Toyota is planning a new city on the base of Mount Fuji in Japan, and it’ll be called Woven City. As you may have guessed by the sheer creator, the City is the exact opposite of The Line; while the Line revolves around there not being a need for cars, Woven City all but focuses on it. The idea is that it will integrate automobile manufacturing (otherwise known as ‘monozukiri’ with the latest technology. It’ll span 708,000m², and initially host 360 people before expanding to 2000 people.
The city's surface will contain three pathways; one for automated mobility, one for pedestrians, and finally one for pedestrians and personal mobility. Alternatively, there will be a fourth pathway specifically for the transport of goods. This fourth pathway will be underground and also house the city's logistics network. The streets themselves will be interwoven (hence the name Woven City) with one another at the ground level.
The general theme of the Woven City can be narrowed into three characteristics: ‘human centered’, ‘a living laboratory’, and ‘ever-evolving’.
A City based on Space
The final Smart City that I’m going to bring to your attention, is Elon Musk’s. Technically, it was never specifically dubbed to be a Smart City, but you can’t deny it’s running the same race. Elon Musk announced that he strives for the creation of a self-sustaining city on Mars in 20 years. He aimed for a crew to be sent up in 2029, and stated that a ticket to said city would hypothetically cost around $100,000, a price point that he considered affordable for ‘almost anyone’.
“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great - and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about.”
Mars is one of the Earth’s closest habitable planets, and still has decent sunlight. The atmosphere is predominantly Carbon Dioxide, meaning plants could be grown after the atmosphere has been compressed slightly. Furthermore, while it may be cold there, humans are no strangers to heating things up.
Is the current ‘Smart City’ the same as before?
The main idea of a Smart City, is that it’s a city of the future. But today was last year’s future, and tomorrow is today’s future. So has the idea of a Smart City changed over time, or do the goals remain essentially the same?
A study on Smart City initiatives from Finland in the 2010s. Generally speaking, the framework for Finnish Smart Cities was based on institutional programs such as INKA (Innovative Cities) and the Six City Strategy. These programs were generally related to open data, public services, and sustainable urban development.
Furthermore, there was a focus on smart governance, mobility, and economy. There was little focus on smart environment, living, and especially smart people. This means that their idea focused heavily on a Smart City depending on its governance, and less about the people who actually lived in it. There was also a heavy focus on energy technology or energy efficiency development; reminiscent of The Line’s take on a Smart City using 100% renewable energy. In fact, Wang, Zhou, et al concluded that the best design of smart energy for a smart city needs to take advantage of the functional characteristics of smart cities. They highlighted a need for convenient services for enterprises to receive electricity and gas, and even building energy efficiency evaluation services. On the other hand, in terms of something similar to the Woven City, Finish’s Smart Mobility agendas for Smart Cities were typically based around individual services that would make public transport easier.
One point that the paper pointed out was the question of complexity; smart cities generally tend to fix current highly complex issues with simple fixes, but as a number of people have pointed out;
“Urban Smartness is beyond Technological smartness”.
Technology isn’t always the answer, and that’s precisely my issue with Smart Cities too. The idea of them is that technology will be so advanced that our life is remarkably easier. We won’t have to go out of our way to do or think something. But at what stage does that make everything different? At what stage do we become so dependent on technology, that we lose all ability to do anything for ourselves?
If you take away our drive, our passion, our curiosity, and strive for a new world…will we even be the same person? Much like the Theseus paradox; if you take a ship and replace every single part of it, when does it stop being the same ship?
When you take a human being and replace everything about them, from the way they think to the way they approach any mindless thing, will they still be human? Is humanity defined by the way we think, our endless greed, our mindless curiosity, and our strive for a better way of being?
And even besides that point, could the city even be described as ‘smart’? Honestly speaking, I don’t see it. Old habits die hard, and we’re not going to change our way of doing things at the drop of a hat. In reality, Smart Cities are a long way away from where we are right now, but if you consider the graph of innovation that has Smart Cities at the very top, the pinnacle of humanity…I don’t know if we’re exactly high enough on that graph to be able to really benefit.
And my other issue with these Smart Cities, is the question of ethics. In most cities and countries today, we have a pretty set code of ethics, both unwritten but true in our morals, or written and coded into the laws that make the foundations of society. But when a new city is created, whose ethics and laws are going to be implemented there, or will there be none at all? When looking at the Woven City, I imagine it would function similarly to the laws of Japan, but when you consider The Line and the City in Space, the answer may be a bit more of an outlier. Who is there to say what is right and wrong when you're thousands of miles away from planet Earth? And as for the Line, whose code of ethics is that going to run by? Would it be that of Saudi Arabia; because if so, I fear it may run into the same issue that the current World Cup faced - the ethics.
How will women be treated? How will those of different sexual identities be treated? The Line seems like its aimed at everyone, given that it is being advertised particularly globally. But if it's so global, then how is it going to create a set of rules and ethics that work with everyone present? There is no mention on how this City is really going to work, and besides some potential points that I stumbled across regarding Artificial Intelligence and Data management (a concept which alarms me more than I care to admit; as I do not find it necessary for a computer to have access to my everything, much less have the ability to predict my every thought) I found little. I imagine it will be explored further as the City nears its completion, but that doesn't mean I didn't think it unnecessary to mention.
Old habits die hard. Nothing is going to change if that change doesn’t start with us. If you move a section of humanity to the desert and make them start a civilization from scratch, would they not just end up with a carbon copy of what we already have today? We use what we know, and we gradually build upon it, but change takes time, and even before that, it comes with those of us willing to embrace it.
Worldometer (2022) Population by Country. Available at: https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/population-by-country/ (Accessed: November 24, 2022)
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Jones, J. (2021) Toyota’s Woven City - a future smart City prototype. Smart Energy International. Available at: https://www.smart-energy.com/industry-sectors/smart-cities/toyotas-woven-city-a-future-smart-city-prototype/ (Accessed: November 27, 2022)
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