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5 futuristic smart cities to keep an eye on through the 2020s

In 1964, the British architect Ron Herron came up with his concept for a so-called “Walking City.” Herron imagined cities carried on the back of enormous, artificially intelligent mobile platforms resembling giant skyscrapers. These would, he suggested, have the ability to connect with other “walking metropolises” as and when required.

Needless to say, the idea of these sci-fi future cities hasn’t exactly taken hold in the years since. But smart cities constructed around the latest cutting edge technology certainly has. While many cities are just content to retrofit new tech — whether it’s EV-charging roads, pollution-sucking artificial trees, or autonomous delivery robots — into existing infrastructures, others are taking a bolder approach.

Here are five of the top smart cities to keep an eye on as the 2020s progress. They’ll certainly (or, at least, most likely) be keeping an eye on you. Could one of these be your next home?

Woven City, Japan

Toyota's Woven City: a Prototype City of the Future

Toyota cars are found in just about every major city on the planet. But, at least as of now, the Japanese automaker doesn’t have its own city. That could change, however, thanks to an announcement at CES 2020 about an innovative new smart city the company is building in its home country. Ground will be broken on the so-called Woven City in 2021, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda recently announced.

The 175-acre site at the base of Mount Fuji will serve as a “living laboratory.” Expect to find not just the latest autonomous cars and other automotive breakthroughs, but also connected sensor tech related to smart homes, robots, and A.I.

Woven City residents — of whom there will be around 2,000 initially — will even get their own in-house robot for monitoring health and taking care of certain basic tasks. It’s being designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, whose résumé includes 2 World Trade Center and Denmark’s Lego House.

Belmont, Arizona

Kevin Dooley

Is it any wonder that the Microsoft co-founder who is dedicating his fortune to eradicating the world’s problems would be interested in building a city of the future to help solve them?

That’s the idea behind Belmont, a proposed smart city in the Phoenix metropolitan area of Arizona, which counts none other than billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates as an investor — to the tune of around $80 million. Belmont will eventually host a population roughly the size of Salt Lake City, which has around 193,000 residents.

The site, which is currently 25,000 acres of unpopulated desert, will eventually become a bustling community with businesses, schools, and 80,000 homes. It will also offer the latest in high-tech amenities, being imagined from the ground up as a smart city. Expect driverless vehicles, autonomous delivery services, jobs in advanced manufacturing, high speed internet, and a total lack of non-Windows PCs. (Yeah, I made up that last one!)

There’s no announcement yet on when construction will start.

Neom, Saudi Arabia

Image used with permission by copyright holder

How do you out-“city of the future” Bill Gates? You add robot maids, glow-in-the-dark beaches, man-made rain, a giant artificial moon, 100% renewable energy, robot dinosaurs, and a genetic engineering program to create stronger citizens, alongside the standard smart city promises of autonomous vehicles and better internet connectivity.

That’s the aim of Neom, a $500 billion city being developed in Saudi Arabia by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Offering a mixture of high-tech amenities and luxury services, the Wall Street Journal describes its ambitions as bettering “Silicon Valley in technology, Hollywood in entertainment and the French Riviera as a place to vacation.”

The in-development proposal sounds, frankly, like something out of a Michael Crichton techno-thriller. Especially when you hear that it will measure 10,230 square miles. That’s around 33 times the land area of New York City.

Forest City, Malaysia

Forest City Development Project

Forest City is a $100 billion development that proclaims itself the “Role Model of Future Cities.” It’s explicitly being designed as an eco-city, where buildings are covered in plants and the roads are pleasingly free from parked cars. Forest City will be built on four artificial islands in the Straits of Johor, the thin strip of water between Malaysia and Singapore. In total, these will offer up 14 square kilometers of reclaimed land.

Its marketing materials promise a “place of wonder” in which “crystal blue skies and the sounds of nature” take residents back to a time before the disappearance of, err, wonder. Don’t think that all of this means no smart tech, however. In fact, Forest City’s creators plan for self-watering gardens and tech that, should a “window [be] broken by local children kicking around a football, [it] will be fixed before you return home.”

The current estimate calls for its completion in 2035. At that point, we can find out whether a city built on enormous artificial islands can be quite as eco-friendly as its creators suggest.

Sidewalk Labs, Toronto

Sidewalk Labs

Sidewalk Labs, Google parent company Alphabet’s urban innovation organization, is transforming a neighborhood on the Toronto waterfront into a smart city development. The 12-acre Quayside district will boast all-wooden buildings, modular paving for easy rearrangement, focus on sustainable energy, accessible ride-sharing vehicles, heated pavements, wayfinding beacons, and more. Despite the fact that, well, it’s Google behind it, it also promises that it won’t collect and sell a whole lot of personal information on users or carry out Minority Report-style personal advertising.

In a statement, Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said that, “This proposal aims to do something extraordinary on Toronto’s eastern waterfront: create the neighborhood of the future in the right kind of way, with people at its center, and with cutting edge-technology and forward-thinking urban design combining to achieve ambitious improvements in the urban environment and in the way we all live.” Picture the world’s biggest Google campus, and you’ll probably have some idea of how this might turn out.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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