New build smart cities are a phenomenon usually associated with Asia or the Middle East. Whether it is a showcase project like Songdo in South Korea or the massive new city development program being driven by the Chinese government, greenfield sites offer a chance to think afresh about how cities are designed, built, and operated. However, one of the most ambitious new city developments is about to begin in northern Portugal. PlanIT Valley is being built on a 1,700 hectare (4,000 acre) plot in the municipality of Paredes near Porto. The project is being driven by Living PlanIT, which is working closely with the Portuguese authorities and partners such as Cisco and Microsoft to develop an ambitious plan for a new type of urban development.
At the heart of the plans for PlanIT Valley is an innovative design approach that will embed smart technology into the fabric of the city, but PlanIT Valley is not just about technical innovation. The smart infrastructure will provide an open platform for the development and deployment of a wide range of new services (and existing services delivered in new ways). Indeed, the core business model for PlanIT Valley provides the partner companies the chance to cooperate on the development of such services in a uniquely collaborative environment.
A major focus for the project is to improve the inefficiencies of the traditional construction industry. Existing building design and development techniques and processes are inadequate for today’s technology rich and environmentally aware requirements. The Living PlanIT founders saw the opportunity to change the fundamental economics of the building process. Taking lessons from other manufacturing industries – including aerospace, automotive, and shipbuilding – they identified a number of core elements that defined the modern manufacturing capability. They are now applying those principles to the construction of PlanIT Valley. By doing so they expect to save 30-40% on traditional building costs, construct buildings 30-50% faster and to a much higher quality, and embed technology into the buildings through modular construction principles. This will also lead to significant savings in operation costs for the buildings based on the use of new materials and designs.
Given the importance of network and sensor technologies to the project, there was also a need for a simple and cost-effective infrastructure that enables easy integration of systems for monitoring and actuating building features and allowing communication between multiple devices and sensors. Living PlanIT acquired its innovative sensor technology from McLaren Electronic Systems, part of the McLaren Group. Based on the electronic control units used in Formula One racing cars, this sensor technology is designed to handle large volumes of critical data in real-time in extreme conditions. The sensor and control technology will be embedded in the Cisco router and IOS software infrastructure to create a high-density network of low-energy and environmentally-hardened sensors, some of which will be embedded in material structures. In total, Living PlanIT expects to have around 100 million sensors (or roughly one per SQ) deployed throughout the city.
The Living PlanIT team includes engineers who were responsible for the development of SOAP, the Microsoft developed standard for web service integration and Microsoft’s .NET architecture. They have utilized the same principles for easy integration to the PlanIT Valley infrastructure, which allow the development of new services and capabilities by partners. For example, PlaceApps allow location based M2M applications to be built using services that interact with building systems such as lighting or heating controls. Steve Lewis, CEO of Living PlanIT refers to this as the iPhone model – a common platform that enables new applications to be built and deployed quickly.
There is a huge amount of work to be done before the first residents are housed around the middle of 2012. The speed of development envisaged for the project will itself present an immense challenge in terms of project management, coordination, and integration. However, it is hard not to admire a project that will put a number of smart city promises to a rigorous test. First, it is challenging accepted assumptions on how cities should be designed and constructed. Secondly, it will show what can be done if connectivity and intelligence are built in to the design from the beginning. Thirdly, it will be a pilot zone for a whole range of new services and, equally important, new types of collaboration.
The attraction of PlanIT Valley as a model for new cities in Asia, the Middle East, and other regions is obvious. But the innovations it is fostering in construction, urban technology platforms, and service design are also of relevance to developers in Europe and North America involved in urban regeneration. It could well be that some of the most exciting insights from PlanIT Valley will not be about how we build new cities, but how we make old ones fit for the 21st century.
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