Can Silicon Valley design the tech-optimized city of the future?

From smart clothing to smart buildings, the latest iteration of technology infiltrating the everyday is smart cities. Tech companies are hoping to become the next urban planner, with two projects announced this year from Google and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

In November, Cascade Investment, the firm that manages Gates’ assets, invested $80 million to build a smart city in an undeveloped area near Phoenix, Arizona. The project, led by Belmont Partners, aims to build a city with 80,000 residential units across the 24,800 acres of purchased land.

“Belmont will create a forward-thinking community with a communication infrastructure spine that embraces cutting-edge technology, designed around high-speed digital networks, data centers, new manufacturing technologies and distribution models, autonomous vehicles and autonomous logistic hubs,” said Belmont Partners, as reported by KPNX.

In October, the Alphabet-affiliated Sidewalk Toronto revealed plans to construct a new tech-driven district on Toronto’s eastern waterfront, called Quayside. The company has invested $50 million in the initial phase of developing a neighborhood that uses technology and data to promote communities, sustainability and urban innovation.

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Sidewalk Toronto's vision for Quayside

“Sidewalk Toronto will transform Quayside into a thriving hub for innovation and a community for tens of thousands of people to live, work and play,” said Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau in a statement. “The new technologies that emerge from Quayside have the potential to improve city living – making housing more affordable and public transit more convenient for Canadians and their families.”

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Sidewalk Toronto's vision for Quayside

Smart cities are big business. The global market for this sector is expected to be valued at $1.56 trillion by 2020, according to a 2014 report by Frost & Sullivan. By 2025, it is expected that around 58% of the world’s population, or 4.6 billion people, will live in urban areas, spurring the need for innovative and sustainable urban design.

Quayside and Belmont are not the only two city projects fueled by tech companies. In 2014, Panasonic built Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town, located approximately 50 kilometers west of Tokyo. The town contains 1,000 homes and uses technology at the core of its infrastructure to create a self-sufficient and sustainable place to live in. And Kansas City has had Google Fiber-powered internet since 2012, a public project that Facebook now hopes to emulate.

Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town (SST)
All houses in Fujisawa SST are equipped with a solar power generation system
Community solar system in Fujisawa SST

With the world’s population expecting to rise above 7.6 billion by 2020, tech companies are seeing a promising future in building new cities from scratch and installing their technology at every postcode. But the experimentations in urban design could have long-lasting reverberations for urban districts worldwide.

Main image: Eastern Waterfront in Toronto. Image courtesy of Sidewalk Lab