PlanIT Valley: The smartest city never been built

History is filled with urban utopias. A very recent one is PlanIT Valley, a dreamed smart city in Portugal near Porto. My interest was awakened from the first moment I heard about it, despite of my skepticism of ‘greenfield’ smart cities in general, which I explained elsewhere. The people behind it – Steve Lewis in the first place – believed that their Emerald City would make the difference: Carbon neutral buildings thanks to an extensive and centrally controlled sensor-network, lower construction costs because of new building techniques and autonomous cars to enable sustainable traffic. Their dream seemed genuine, unlike similar claims from large tech-companies like IBM, Cisco, and Siemens who went for the fast money in the first place: Smart city play is a $36 billion business opportunity in the words of Cisco’s vice president of strategy Inder Sidhu.

Big dreaming

Steve Lewis (former marketing manager at Microsoft) and Malcolm Hutchinson took the difficult road, which definitely would not lead to fast money. In their view, the feasibility of a sustainability claim depends from an integrated citywide approach. In their start-up Living PlanIT they conceptualized a modular software-platform, called Urban Operating System (UOS). The UOS would gather information from billions of sensors placed throughout a city, in order to feed applications that monitor and control the city’s systems for lightning, surveillance, heating, cooling, waste disposal, and air-control, to be built by other companies. Look here for the technical design.

Steve Lewis traveled the world to explain his ideas and to find support and eventually he landed in Portugal. Here he met Celso Ferreiro, the ambitious mayor of Parades, who lived with the idea to open a factory to produce electric cars (it was 2008!). In Lewis’ unbounded imagination this idea soon became an automotive city like Wolfsburg or even better a Portuguese Silicon Valley. The idea of a new city with 250.000 inhabitants, called PlanIT Valley, was born. The mayor of Parades was very cooperative and offered wasteland at extremely favorable conditions. In their book Building the future, Amy Edmondson and Susan Salter Reynolds give a readable account of the development of PlanIT Valley.

For Steve Lewis, this project was the once-in-a lifetime opportunity to test and refine the UOS. Dozens of young and idealistic IT geeks joined the company and filled the premises of an under-used golf complex near Parades. They were paid in shares, board and lodging. In this very tight community they worked hard to develop Emerald City’s master plan, together with the London-based chief technology officer John Stenlake.

No big teaming

In the meantime, Steve Lewis continued traveling to share his beliefs and to collect support for the development of PlanIT Valley as well. Success and disappointment alternated in rapid speed. The racing car company McLaren made available its control and real-time data technology, the construction company BuroHappold was thrilled about the idea and was willing to build the town if financing was secured. The London enterprise Quintas Estates and Development also partnered. The idea was that the first inhabitants would work in R&D centers of technology companies and Cisco showed serious interest. A small boutique bank lent the money to acquire 1,670 acres, needed to develop the first tier of the city. Unfortunately, nobody was willing to invest the required $ 19 billion.

The development of the master plan of PlanIT Valley and a prove-of-concept of the UOS took more time then anticipated, which frustrated the partners. In the meantime the Portuguese architect Pedro Ballonas quarreled with the construction company BuroHappold: These IT-guys were so caught up in their vision that they failed to bring the consumer along with them. When the master plan was available at last, it was extremely vague and without something that looked like a business plan.

In Lewis vision resources would come from partner fees and licensing the company’s technologies. However, the markets were not ready or took another direction. Cities were eager to solve discrete problems with software but they were not ready to install integrative systems on a citywide scale like the UOS. Sören Kvist, project manager at Copenhagen Solutions Lab made clear to be more interested in solutions to specific problems – trash, streetlights, parking, flooding in streets et cetera – than in big, citywide data platforms. Chris Roberts, Counselor for the Borough of Greenwich was even more out-spoken: We are not interested in IT, but how it might improve the lives of the citizens.

Small actions

Meanwhile, the London branch of Living PlanIT became involved in a couple of small-scaled projects where the UOS could be deployed, at least parts of it. Among these, the renovation of London City Airport, a small airport in the London Area dedicated to business flights. Together with the Japanese tech-company Hitachi a completely new traveller experience was designed, deploying the capabilities of the UOS. The restyling of a shopping mall in Birmingham was another project. Here the UOS enabled a seamless integration of the use of the smart phone and physical shopping among others by offering bargains to customers in the very moment that they walked past certain stores. Rosemary Lokhorst, one of Living Planit’s employees has been involved in a smart lightning project in Almere, in collaboration with Alliander, a Dutch electricity company.

 

The Portuguese ‘branch’ continued to refine the masterplan, but suspicion rose that Steve Lewis had changed his strategy and was losing interest in PlanIT Valley. Many of the team members left disillusioned. The prospects of building PlanIT Valley faded away.

Why PlanIT Valley never has been built

Amy Edmondson and Susan Salter Reynolds mention three conditions that are critical for the realization of audacious projects like this: big vision, big teaming en small actions.

Big vision never was the problem. Steve Lewis said to have more then one millions ideas a day. He failed with regards to big teaming. He never succeeded in creating a tightly connected team that represented all companies involved, sharing a collective ambition, and owning the means to realize it. At the same time, it has to be said, building a team like that would have been extremely difficult. All parties involved (IT, real estate, construction, finance and government) lived in their own ‘though worlds’, which frequently clashed. Without small actions like the one’s mentioned above Living PlanIT almost certainly would not have survived.

Should the failure of PlanIT Valley be regretted?

I ‘am not sure about this. I like the idea of living lab to experiment with an UOS. Besides, PlanIT Valley was not corrupted by the large tech-companies hunt for fast money. However, in the concept of PlanIT Valley considerations with respect to technology and urban design were out of balance. In his critical pamflet “Against the Smart City” (2013) Adam Greenfield accentuates that no designer can anticipate at inception all the potential uses to which the things they create might be put, down through the long future. Most IT people lack insight in the complexity of urban life. Instead, they treat cities like machines: The plans of PlanIT Valley, and those of New Songdo as well don’t respond to the collective insight we already possess regarding how urban space actually works. This is by supporting a lively mix of uses, putting a low threshold of commitment for any one activity leaving people reasonably free to pursue some objective wherever it seems to make the most sense for them to do so. The attractively of a city is the outcome of a long process of organic growth, fuelled by a broad variety of in habitants with mostly unrecognizable desires, interest, power and money. Instead of this, for example, New Songdo developers Gale International boasted that its inhabitants would experience the skyline vistas of New York, the strolling walks of Boston, the reflections of Venice, the kinetic energies of Wall Street, the pocket parks of London…the stunning impact of Sydney’s Opera House, the street scenes of Paris153 and Soho, the polish of Park Avenue. With other words: no city life but the purest fake.

To date, the idea of smart cities, build from scratch is spreading like a wild fire, in countries like India and China in the first place, partly justified by rapid growth of the urban population. Recently, Bill Gates has bought 25.000 acres of land somewhere Phoenix en Las Vegas to be inhabited by 80.000 people. At first sight an ultimate opportunity for Steve Lewis to create his Emerald City yet.

However, I wonder whether Steve Lewis is still interested, apart from illness that prevents him – let’s hope temporally – to continue his work. As I stressed repeatedly, the role of IT in the development of humane cities as such is undisputed. But not in the way most big tech companies envisage. Steve Lewis recently demonstrated his fascination for edgeless computing, a way of IT support, where citizens are in control instead of being under control. A hopeful prospect.

*) This article was brought to you by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.

Herman van den Bosch

1 Comment

  • I critiqued this idea when doing my MSc into Construction Project Management mainly for the reason or shall I say was the boasting that he had solved the Construction problem and all the trades people could go home there was no need for them. Who is gonna dig the holes for the foundations who us gonna pull the cables etc etc. I thought it was a complete disregard to the ordinary working man who was not employed in IT.
    I’ve been meaning to follow up thus story as I did my MSc some 6-7 years ago. I could not see them pulling it off. But at the same time sad they did not.

    Here’s to ge future.

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