Have you ever been to Epcot? The Walt Disney theme park was built to reflect Uncle Walt's vision of the ideal community, using cutting-edge technology and social innovation. That experimental prototype community of tomorrow is pretty much a reality today, but I'm not talking about Epcot itself, or even the nearby master-planned city of Celebration, Fla.
Disney has passed the torch, however inadvertently, to IBM (NYSE: IBM) and Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO). With a trillion-dollar pot to share this decade alone, and more beyond that, you can expect a feeding frenzy of epic proportions. Building smart cities is a whole new ballgame, and Cisco CEO John Chambers has said that the business opportunity "may be bigger than the whole Internet."
Meet the players
IBM's travails in the "smart community" arena have been widely documented; Big Blue is a major player in hyperconnected community infrastructure and green IT operations. Cisco's presence is not as paparazzi-laden, however. And maybe we should be paying closer attention to this side of the networking giant, because the company sees an addressable market of at least $40 billion of business here over the next 10 years.
Cisco is putting the finishing touches on the data infrastructure in New Songdo, South Korea. Wired to the hilt, New Songdo is meant to become a template for ultramodern insta-build cities. This one cost $35 billion and took the better part of a decade to complete; the development team hopes to learn from the experience and then cut down on both costs and building speed.
It also didn't help that the ground under New Songdo was open water at the start of the project -- it takes a while to raise artificial islands. Cisco and its allies have the first Songdo clone under construction already, and wants to spit out at least 20 more of them just for starters. When the process becomes more refined and standardized, there's no telling how many modern, quick-build cities could pop up in New Songdo's wake. Population growth is a real problem in many parts of the world, and standard of living matters everywhere.
Cisco's globalization chief Wim Elfrink calls this "the industrialization of the Internet. First voice became a packet in a network; video is a packet in a network. Now, electricity, safety and security can also become packets in a network." And so it goes. Elfrink sees a $1.2 trillion global investment in "smart" urban infrastructure and is happy to grab a few percent of that. IBM is a sometime partner already, and Cisco also works arm-in-arm with more tangible technology giants like 3M (NYSE: MMM) and United Technologies (NYSE: UTX) to complete the information-packed framework of tomorrow's quick-build cities.
When tomorrow comes
Whether you think of Cisco's turnkey Tomorrowlands as a utopian fantasy, as the next logical step in suburban sprawl, or as the best way to corral and house everyone in a growing world, there is clearly big business at stake. I'm only surprised that more multinational giants haven't jumped into this market with both feet.
Cisco beat out Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) to land the New Songdo contract, and now you don't hear a peep about smart grids out of Redmond. If anybody knows how to analyze endless piles of seemingly random data, it would be Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), but the closest thing Big G has to a "smart city" project is its investments in green energy generation. Close, but no cigar. These sharks must eventually join the feeding frenzy. The longer they wait, the more time IBM and Cisco will have to establish larger mindshares and market shares in this crucial, formative period.
Uncle Walt's Epcot dream is becoming a reality, under the stewardship of others.