Is Bill Gates building a 25,000-acre smart city in the Arizona desert? There’s some uncertainty in published reports about whether the tech titan is personally involved — or just what kind of community may rise out of the sands. But investing in a revolutionary smart city is an intriguing choice for an innovator focused on shaping the future.

If Bill Gates and developer Belmont Partners build it, will people come? Time will tell.

The developer will explore a wide range of forward-thinking energy, water and mobility ideas, both current and emerging. With no old streets or antiquated utility services to design around, everything will be master planned around a sustainable live/work/play lifestyle. The developers believe it’s a concept homebuyers and businesses will embrace. No disagreements over replacing old infrastructure, because everyone in this new Arizona city will be there by choice!

The master planning concept is under study at Sterling Ranch, a community of 12,000 homes south of Denver. With technology including real-time water and electricity monitoring embedded in many homes, the community is an opportunity for urban planners to research and analyze how smart cities work. In Toronto, Google’s parent company is building a smart city from scratch on the city’s waterfront, promising “ubiquitous connectivity for all.” Google’s Canadian headquarters will move there once the transformation is complete.

As they master plan and design, developers in Belmont, Sterling Ranch and Toronto should evaluate potential technologies using four criteria:

  • Does the technology work?
  • Does it work at scale?
  • Is there an attractive return on investment (ROI)?
  • Do customers care?

The last criterion is a challenging one to nail down as the needs of next-generation buyers evolve. Burns & McDonnell recently developed a request for proposal on behalf of a Midwest city exploring smart city development, gauging the interest of product and service vendors to participate in a build-out.

In support of that effort, we researched residents’ priorities for future communities. And while technology is a constant focus, home buyers and companies are interested in neighborhood character, environmental quality, travel ease and economic benefits. So, a challenge emerges: How do you plan a city that’s both automated and human-centric?

One answer is integrating technology as efficiently as possible, so residents perceive the “smart” part of smart cities as instinctive and invisible. That effort begins with infrastructure and utility partners, who can help communities maximize the power of big data while delivering tangible benefits to citizens. Belmont is a fantastic opportunity for exploration and leadership, not just from the developers but also Arizona Public Service (APS), the electric utility for the service area, and Southwest Gas, the gas utility.

Smart cities will change our lives, making our cities safer, more sustainable and more efficient. Exactly how that change will happen is evolving with every new visionary community. If you build it, will they come? Yes, if — in addition to deploying technology effectively — the city develops enough character to feel like home.


Learn more about the incremental steps communities can take to build a live/work/play smart city.

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With extensive experience in industry policy and advanced technologies applied throughout North America, Mike Beehler is a Vice President at Burns & McDonnell.