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Here’s one crucial rule for building a smart city: Don’t fight nature

September 29, 2015, 11:07 PM UTC

Fahd Al-Rasheed, Group CEO and managing director of King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), is building a city the size of Washington D.C. for about two million people in Saudi Arabia. The 10-year project is designed to be a showcase for technology, but also help the country diversify beyond oil revenue.

In the process of building the city from scratch Al-Rasheed has learned several lessons. But the most important one may have come from seeing New York after Hurricane Sandy.

Al-Rasheed said he originally wanted to model KAEC on Venice “with lots of canals,” but in retrospect, it was not ecologically friendly. Plus, after seeing the damage from Hurricane Sandy, he decided, “Get away from the water!”

“You don’t want to fight nature,” he said. “You want to be friendly with it.”

Other than deciding not to fight nature, Al-Rasheed said the biggest lessons he’s learned are to be flexible and not adhere too closely to a master plan to the point where it begins to act as a roadblock. He also seeks best practices from other cities around the world and tries to implement them in KAEC if applicable.

These can range from using technology like synchronizing traffic lights to save on emissions to painting roofs white to save 10% on energy costs. One challenge to this effort, however, and a challenge for any municipality, is that the cost of technology, is the fear of technology changing on them.

Because of the pace of innovation, governments can discover that their projects cost much less or that the technology involved may be obsolete, which makes them reluctant to act. Al-Rasheed said one of their projects that would have cost $108 million eight years ago when he joined would only cost $5 million today.

There’s also the issue of smart city technology shifting political power. “The biggest benefit for the Internet of things in cities is shifting power from the mayor, the administration, to the citizen,” Al-Rasheed said.

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