What can theme parks teach us about smart cities?

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29 Aug 2019
by Bill Coan: President and CEO of ITEC Entertainment

Did you know that the Walt Disney Resort has a footprint the size of San Francisco? At first glance, theme parks and smart cities may seem very different but behind the scenes, there could be a lot to learn about visitor experience and design, says Bill Coan, ITEC Entertainment.

Smart city development continues to grow, but it will take more than just technology to ensure the success of a project. This is why city governments across the globe could learn from an unlikely source – themed attraction designers – to ensure a great experience for citizens and visitors.

The demand for smart cities is projected to reach $717.2 billion by 2023driven by urbanisation and the need to better manage limited natural resources. Smart city developers are faced with the challenge of strategically evaluating how the design and experience will enhance the often-uninspiring functionality of hyper-connected environments.

When most people envision smart cities, they likely imagine something similar to The Jetsons, a future that’s not just more efficient but looks and feels the part as well. Planning for design in greenfield smart city deployments is easier, but major cities that must take a more incremental approach will find it significantly more challenging.

Most are prioritising changes “under the hood”, using IoT and sensors to create more interconnected and cohesive systems for the benefit of inhabitants and to reduce costs.

Take Los Angeles, for example. The city is replacing 4,500 square miles of street lighting with stronger LEDs in a network that reports the maintenance status of each bulb. Additionally, Columbus, Ohio, is investing in initiatives that create sustainable transportation, reduce freight truck congestion using smart logistics, and improve traffic information delivery to its citizens.

“It’s important cities are always looking at the holistic view from the perspective of citizens.”

There’s no question these advances are an incredible starting point, but it’s important cities are always looking at the holistic view from the perspective of citizens.

“Experience is everything”

Like theme parks, smart cities benefit from a focus on the guest experience

At first glance, it may appear that theme parks and smart cities could not be more different. However, behind-the-scenes, theme parks are technology-heavy, complex ecosystems that must be run and maintained at maximum efficiency across the lifecycle of their operations. The goal of smart cities and theme parks is ultimately the same as too: providing a better guest experience even if the type of experience may differ.

“Like theme parks, smart cities benefit from a focus on the guest experience.”

The Walt Disney World Resort is known for its various theme parks, but it’s also a smart tourism destination. Its entire footprint is the size of San Francisco, spanning over 40 square miles.

Disney is estimated to have the infrastructure to support the residence of 300,000 people and manages up to 80 tons of waste each day. Destinations of this size must ensure everything from their transportation, retail, parking, crowd management, hospitality, consumer-facing wayfinding apps, and even their sanitation collections and transmission system is synchronised and operating efficiently at all times.

It is no surprise that some greenfield smart city deployments are using Disney theme parks as a model to create new interconnected destinations, such as Elysium City in Spain. When finished, this initiative will include government buildings, a high-speed rail system, conference centre, data centre, sports stadiums, a marina and more, but the cornerstone will be a theme park to promote tourism.

Another example is Saudi Arabia’s use of AI and big data technologies to develop a $500 billion smart city, NEOM, that is being designed for improving crowd flow within the Kingdom. These are elements of design and management that theme parks have been working toward every day for half a century.

As cities look to completely redefine how components work together to create a better experience for millions, they could learn from those who have already achieved these goals with great success.

“The importance of “theme” for smart cities”

Like theme park designers, smart city developers also have a desire for a consistent theme and story that wraps the various smart city projects into one complete experience.

Themes tend to be more apparent when attached to intellectual property, such as Disney’s Star Wars: Galaxy Edge, but not all effective themes are so obvious. There is a crucial need for more subtle themes in smart city deployments that are already being used by advanced mixed-use complexes within cities today.

“Like theme park designers, smart city developers also have a desire for a consistent theme and story that wraps the various smart city projects into one complete experience.”

For instance, if a city’s identity is to become an eco-friendly metropolis, expertly using natural resources to promote sustainability, the core theme and storyline should appear across each deployment, from entertainment and transportation to the design of residential buildings.

Building for a unified guest experience is not something inherent to real estate developments and city controllers, but is native to the core practice in theme parks.

The definition of a smart city is likely to differ depending on who you ask, but ultimately involves using technology to create inter-connected departments that improve the quality and performance of urban services to improve the livelihood of its citizens.

Armed with advanced technologies, cities are capable of meeting these goals, but theme park developers serve as the missing piece to ensure those efficiencies deliver a great city-wide guest experience that promotes the vision of these million and billion-dollar investments to its citizens.

Media Contact:

Lisa Junkerman

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