We know of the EPCOT Center as a theme park in Florida, and one of the jewels of  Disney’s global empire. But it was originally supposed to be something more, as its very name indicates. EPCOT is actually an acronym for “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” and as the late Walt Disney said himself in a 1966 video, a place that “will never be completed.” Rather, he said:

“(It) will always be introducing, testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.”

Disney died shortly after that video was produced, and as a result never saw his vision brought to life. EPCOT opened in its current incarnation in 1982. 

What has become clear in the years since, and especially now, is that we are more in need of EPCOT-like cities than ever before. We know them now as smart cities, of course; as places where interconnected systems powered by high-speed Internet result in greater safety, efficiency and overall quality of life. The coronavirus pandemic has offered a stark reminder as to how valuable such systems can be, in that they make possible the detection of the virus, which in turn will make it possible to slow its spread. But in reality, smart-city momentum has been building for a while now.

It is expected that by 2050, 68 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities, and at present smart technology controls the power grid and the flows of water and traffic in many urban areas. Further advances are inevitable. It is expected, in fact, that nearly $124 billion will be spent around the globe on smart-city initiatives in 2020, an 18.9 percent increase over 2019. Singapore, Tokyo, New York and London are projected to be the top smart city investors, totalling over $1 billion between them; and more and more cities are joining this trend, even those that would be categorized as small or mid-sized. As a result, the projections are that smart-city spending will mushroom to $1.3 trillion by 2025.

Most of the spending is expected to center on smart power grids, followed by public safety and transportation. And indeed, those are three of the eight areas where smart-city innovation is normally applied, the others being healthcare, security, engagement/community, economic development/housing and waste management.

Visionary leadership is obviously a big key to implementing such systems, as is a strong technological infrastructure that allows for the connection of smartphones, sensors and the like. Moreover, there is a need for specific applications capable of interpreting the resulting flood of data and transforming it into actionable public notifications and the like. And finally, there is the obvious need for public acceptance and participation. (The importance of that last factor has been magnified during the pandemic, and will be discussed presently.)

There are countless examples of the way in which smart technology has been of benefit in urban areas. In Boston, for instance, digital kiosks provide information that enable residents to negotiate day-to-day travel, a notoriously difficult task in that city. Not only do sensors provide information about traffic snarls, they also share updates about public transportation and alternative modes of conveyance, like ride- and bike-share services. In New York, programs that will improve trash collection and law enforcement are under consideration.

As mentioned, smart technology has been at the forefront of efforts to halt the spread of COVID-19. Robots wander parks in Singapore — a nation forever on the cutting edge of smart-city initiatives — and emit recorded reminders about the necessity of social distancing. That same country features real-time heatmaps on its website to warn visitors about congested areas in national parks. Chinese officials, meanwhile, regularly deploy drones to spray disinfectant in public areas; and in Denmark, autonomous robots are used to keep such spaces clean.

In addition, wearables and thermal imaging cameras offer early warnings, and other wearables provide distancing alerts to those in the workplace.

ABI Research vice president Dominique Bonte told Smartcitiesworld.net that such innovation represents “a distinct silver lining on a very dark COVID-19 cloud,” in that it will have “a lasting impact” and afford humankind the opportunity to prepare for future pandemics, which experts believe are inevitable.

Another preventative measure, contact tracing, has been successfully implemented in such countries as South Korea, Hong Kong, Poland and Russia, but has been met with some pushback in the U.S. because of privacy and security concerns. Congress has jumped into the fray, and there are those who argue that these concerns should be put on the back burner in the interests of public health. A resolution on this front does not, however, appear to be imminent.

No matter how that situation unfolds, it seems clear that Walt Disney had the right idea over a half-century ago: Cities need to evolve, especially given the increased demands they will face in the coming years. Contrary to what Disney’s minions might say, it’s not a small world after all; it is growing and changing, and urban areas need to do the same.