Futuristic cities: Akon, Masdar and The Line

Currently, Earth is home to over 7.4 billion people, with half of those living in urban settings and using 80% of the planet’s resources. By 2050 the world’s population is expected to reach 9.8 billion, with 70% of that population expected to live in urban areas.

The main challenge that every city is facing is how to best deliver the resources and services needed to ensure a thriving population and good economic performance. For many, the most obvious answer is to use new and evolving information and communication technologies (ICT) to enable data analysis and sharing between delivery channels. The term for a city that takes this approach is “smart city”. But experts and visionaries state that creating a truly smart city (or “futuristic city”) is about more than adopting ICT solutions- it’s also about sustainability and quality of life.

It is hard for contemporary cities to cope with these different goals at the same time. Hence, they need a full redesign and a holistic and sustainable transformation of their models that must have principles of global preservation, advanced telecommunications, and artificial intelligence at their core. To address this, architects and designers have come up with innovative solutions, from vertical farms and biome greenhouses, to self-driving cars and underground recycling systems to make future cities smarter and more sustainable. Most of the predictions about future projects include urban hubs, smart buildings, self-powered neighbourhoods and resilient regions.

Being very innovative, and in some cases luxurious and very expensive, these cities are meant to be hospitality-oriented, aimed at attracting the wealthiest people (for now) from all over the world that want to spend some times in a place with unique services and experiences, or decide to live the highest quality life with the lowest environmental footprint. This translates into luxury condos, beachfront resorts and 5-star hotels as well as very specialized districts aimed at creating a future-oriented ecosystem. Examples are high-end hospitals, technological research-driven universities, businesses and office spaces to boost both startups and multinational growth among others. “The attitude starts from the top, leaders have created a reasonable pace of change. They have created a safety net to continue pushing forward”, says Stephen Severance, head of program management for Masdar City, one of the key models of futuristic cities that will be mentioned later.

While some of the cities of tomorrow are still designs, others have already been built, with construction costs reaching hundreds of billion dollars with the aim to have a massive impact on sustainability and, moreover, on our lives. Here are some examples of this new concept, for the sake of simplicity selected based on the uniqueness of their features, from a completely new currency to unprecedented city structure and organization.

Akon City

 Akon City is a “futuristic cryptocurrency themed city” meant to be built in Senegal and named after its founder, the Senegalese-American artist Akon. Construction is going to be articulated into two stages, Phase 1 and Phase 2. While the former is expected to start this year and to be completed by the end of 2023 with most of the roads and buildings, the latter is set to begin in 2024 and end in 2029 with a complete city functioning entirely on cryptocurrencies. Construction costs will amount to $6 billion, according to experts’ projections.

While the 2,000 acres of coastal land have been donated by the Senegalese government, the project’s funding came in quickly, raising $4 billion out of its $6 billion goal thanks to financiers leaders in the healthcare and technology-infrastructure industries that however cannot be cited by name because of non-disclosure agreements, except for the lead investor, Julius Mwale. He is a Kenyan technology entrepreneur behind the creation of another smart city in Kenya, the Mwale Medical and Technology City (MMTC).

Inspired by the experiences of Black Americans, Akon decided to build a scale-up refuge for them that will represent a starting point that will boost the country’s economy and technological innovation and that will show how Senegal is a land for opportunities. This project is meant to cherish the African culture and to prioritize and empower the local communities while also aiming to build a touristic city with a cryptocurrency-based economy.

According to the project plans, Akon City will be articulated in seven different districts, specifically the African Culture Village, Offices and Residential, Entertainment district, Health and Safety, Education district, Technology district, and Senewood district. Once completed, it will feature luxury condos and resorts of all types (social, middle class and high end), parks, universities, schools, a hospital, a waste facility, a stadium and a solar power plant. It is also meant to create a lot of jobs, which will mostly be allocated to the local population. The key idea is to blend the city with the native land and to surround it with nature.

What makes this project unique when compared to other futuristic cities is not the fact that the city is going to be environmentally friendly or self-empowered, but that it will function exclusively through Akoin, a new cryptocurrency currently being piloted by Akon himself. Envisioned not just as a utility token, Akoin is going to constitute an ecosystem of tools and services meant for supporting entrepreneurs and small businesses in minimizing the barriers they have to face, such as the extensive paperwork required by banks. This vision is completely aligned with the project objective of prioritizing local communities. There are many doubts regarding the access to this currency of local people, given their financial gap that may be the most substantial obstacle. 

Masdar City

Masdar City is a pioneering sustainable urban community and innovation hub in Abu Dhabi, defined as the “city of the future” by its founders, the state-owned subsidiary Masdar Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, a global leader in renewable energy and sustainable urban development. Thanks to an early investment of $22 billion, the city already brings together residents, students, academics, entrepreneurs, business leaders and investors, in a collaborative environment that enables all to live, learn and grow. However, the project is not complete yet: the city itself will be treated as a kind of continuing experiment, with researchers and engineers regularly analyzing its performance, fine-tuning as they go along.

Masdar’s philosophy of urban development is based on the three pillars of economic, social and environmental sustainability, the bases from which leaders are implementing technologies, committing to timelines and generating returns, which is providing the citizens job security and improved quality of life. Since its inception in 2008, Masdar City has had the goal of becoming the world’s most sustainable province and the first truly carbon-neutral,  zero-waste metropolis “offering the highest quality of life within the lowest environmental footprint” in an ecosystem built around renewable energy and involving research, innovation, education and product development. Moreover, Masdar City  is the culmination of the high-quality life trend in city centres: a self-sufficient society lifted on a pedestal as a playground for tourists and the rich.

The project is designed to be one of the most luxurious and sustainable cities on earth, with its own university, solar grid for the city and surrounding areas, a personal rapid transit (PRT) system of driverless cars, a green haven and ample luxury living with modern amenities. These will be fully furnished units, built inside sleek, high-rise towers. The modern façade of each building differs from one other, some showcasing a colourful display of supports while boasting lustrous full-length glass panels. Each residential building leads to a large family area of green spaces spread across the surrounding land. Residents can enjoy several luxury amenities in the buildings including swimming pools, gyms and saunas

At the heart of this ecosystem is the Mohamed bin Zayed University for Artificial Intelligence, which began its programs in September 2020. The institute is the world’s first research-driven graduate university that focuses on such matters. This is because AI represents the speciality of Masdar City. The buildings are geared to gather intelligence and to send that data to the cloud where it is harnessed. Analysts have access to the information, enabling them to use preventative maintenance. Next-generation artificial intelligence, meantime, will do most of that work.

Right now, 2,000 people live in the Masdar community and the city will eventually house 50,000 people. Today, Masdar City is home to 715 businesses that range from start-ups to state-owned enterprises as well as multinationals including Siemens, Honeywell, Schneider and Lockheed Martin and the International Renewable Energy Agency. In 2020 the city reached the target to double its renewable energy capacity, a remarkable achievement in a region at risk from environmental degradation and the impacts of climate change.

All in all, Masdar City and the UAE are the perfect examples of a region that is becoming a role model by providing sustainable living and quality of life.

The Line (Saudi Arabia)

The Line is a smart city first proposed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a January 2021 presentation that will be built in NEOM, Tabuk. Presented as a revolution in urban living, the city is part of the Saudi Vision 2030 project and represents the ultimate solution for a harmonious coexistence between people and the planet. Construction is expected to start in the first quarter of 2021 and will likely be done by the end of 2023 with estimated building costs of 100–200 billion USD, according to the latest experts’ projection.

The project aims at building a city with a more sustainable relationship with the environment and a goal of urbanizing as little as possible and enhancing nature. It is inspired by the concept of regenerative development. Over the past decade, congestion has worsened in most of the major cities around the globe and the Line would constitute the only exception, having zero cars, zero streets and zero carbon emissions. This would be possible thanks to a strategy that consists of decarbonizing the mobility system that functionates exclusively through renewable energy.

The city will host a million residents scattered over a length of 170 km and its construction will preserve 95% of nature within NEOM. The location of the region is also strategic from another perspective as the official website points out: the Line is set at the “crossroads of the world” with 40% of the world’s population able to reach NEOM within only four hours flight.

The core of the project is its multimodal mobility system designed to enhance the importance of walkability and to overcome dependency on cars. Specifically, the Line will consist of three layers. The one on the surface is accessible to pedestrians only and is structured in a way that allows reaching all daily services within a five-minute walk. The service layer is the intermediate underground level dedicated to infrastructure and driven by artificial intelligence. The deepest (“spine”) level is for transportation, with AI-enabled and autonomous vehicles, ultra-high-speed transit and next-generation freight operations. The overall structure will allow citizens to save time and to concentrate more on health and well-being.

What most distinguishes The Line from other futuristic cities is the fact that it is not just a smart city but a cognitive one. Its technological strategy is made of three core capabilities: the ability to connect, compute and conceptualize. The invisible AI-enabled infrastructure located at the intermediate underground layer will continuously learn and predict ways to make life easier for citizens and businesses. It will do so by leveraging more than 90% of the data, differently from average smart cities that leverage less than 1%.

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