Sunday

22nd May 2022

Portugal gets own Silicon Valley

  • Ortelius map of Thomas More's Utopia, a 16th century ideal society (Photo: Wikipedia)

Not too far from the northern Portuguese city of Porto, a city is being built from scratch. On a plot of 17 square kilometres, it is to accommodate 225,000 people, cost about €10 billion and should be ready by 2015. It will be Europe's first purpose-built, super-efficient, carbon-neutral smart city.

Headed up by former Microsoft and IBM employee Steve Lewis, the project will see thousands of engineers, scientists and technicians jet in to live in and work on the most energy efficient urban space in Europe, a sort of Portuguese Silicon Valley.

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"The purpose of PlanIT Valley is to house on a world scale the largest incubation place for development of technologies that impact urban living," said British-born Lewis.

The first residents - around 35 percent will be European, the rest will be R&D experts from the US and Asia - will start arriving in September. By the time the city is ready, its inhabitants will live in buildings with grass and solar panels on their roofs, have their rubbish sorted and recycled in their building; and drink their own recycled waste water. Automatic lighting systems will be able to predict the homeowner's lighting needs while service upgrades to a building will be a touchpad away.

Apps can be downloaded to secure their homes if they go on holiday or to monitor them if they are ill. Outside public transport will be run on a smart system so they will never crash into anything and it is always possible to know exactly when the next bus is coming. Traffic jams should be – almost – a thing of the past.

Starting with the bricks and mortar

While the concept seems utopian, Lewis himself is pragmatic in his outlook. He says he approached the whole project, which will be funded from capital raised on the public markets, after realising that the efficiency gains made in aircraft or submarine building over the past decades had simply not been applied to the building sector.

"So we started to look at buildings and say 'what can we do?' How do you alter buildings' physics and how do you orchestrate that with electronics and software to make them that much more efficient?"

As Lewis tells it, a fortuitous meeting with a Portuguese entrepreneur three years ago made him concentrate his sights on the now debt-ridden Iberian country.

The original idea to have some engineers working on innovating the building sector morphed into the more ambitious "they need somewhere to live" as thousands of R&D specialists - employees of tech companies such as Cisco - indicated they were prepared to come on board.

A real city with a twist

It will be a real city with shops, entertainment and schools, but with a twist. It will be the first to be designed like software, complete with its own urban operating system, a single platform for managing waste, water, electricity or traffic. All will be connected through cloud computing. And its inhabitants will be living in a giant experiment.

"The city will be used as an ongoing basis for continuous research," said Lewis, adding: "We are taking technology that we know works and playing it out on an urban scale."

While green activists often struggle with people's apathy and reluctance to change their behaviour for the good of the environment, Lewis says his city is designed to do that for them.

"We're effectively recycling, reharvesting, purifying, re-using everything. We have done it in a way that individuals don't have to change their behaviours."

Privacy

But there is a big downside to having constantly monitoring intelligence and remote sensors built into the very fabric of the city: the potential loss of privacy.

In a place where sensors track all movements, it is possible to know when people are at home; when they are having showers or using the washing machine. Some have even claimed that such intricate data can even show if a couple is having marital problems.

Europeans dislike the idea of being monitored. German fury caused Google to halt plans to expand its street view mapping system in the country. The Dutch rose up in protest a few years ago at the idea of smart metering - the minute recording of energy use.

Lewis, who remarks by way of argument that London is one of most surveilled cities on earth and no one knows exactly who has access to the data, says a person's virtual identity will be separated from their physical identity. "The representation of you in PlanIT Valley is an avatar."

"It has no relation to the individual and only when the individual chooses, for let's say consumer benefits, to share elements of their data do we have a right to engage. But the data cannot be sold on anywhere else."

Lewis admits that the city will have a trial and error element. But if the prototype is successful, which he is counting on, the rapid urbanisation of the world as well as the dwindling of natural resources means he is unlikely to run out of customers soon.

"Thousands of these cities will need be built between now and 2050," he reckons.

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