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Science Centers in a Box ?

If Cisco is planning “Cities in a Box”, how about “Science Centers in a Box” as part of the planning?

Cisco planning ‘cities in a box’ across Asia

By John Boudreau SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS

June 12, 2010

— It’s a product like no other: a complete city for a million people.

As tens of millions of people across the developing world migrate from the countryside to new cities, Cisco Systems Inc. is helping build a prototype here for what one developer describes as an instant “city in a box.” Cisco is wiring every tech nook and cranny of the new city, making it one of the most technologically sophisticated urban centers on the planet.

Delegations of Chinese government officials looking to purchase their own cities of the future are descending on New Songdo City, a soon-to-be-completed metropolis about the size of downtown Boston that serves as a showroom model for what is expected to be the first of many assembly-line cities. In addition to state-of-the-art information technology, Songdo will emit just one-third of the greenhouse gases of a typical city of similar size.

Cities with populations of more than a million people are popping up across the developing world, but the foremost market for the prototype here is China, where a massive demographic shift from rural to urban already is under way, requiring hundreds of new cities.

“They come in here and say, ‘I’ll take one of these,’ ” said Richard Warmington, the former head of Hewlett-Packard Co.’s Korea operation who is now president of Chadwick International School, which is setting up a campus in Songdo.

The potential is so big that executives at Cisco, the key tech partner for the development, get giddy talking about what could be a $30 billion business over coming years for the San Jose, Calif., networking giant.

It’s easy to see why Cisco is excited by the possibilities: According to a study by investment bank CIBC World Markets, governments are expected to spend $35 trillion in public works projects during the next 20 years. In Songdo alone, Cisco sold 20,000 units of its advanced videoconferencing system called Telepresence — a billion-dollar order — almost before the ink had dried on the contract, said developer Stan Gale, the chief visionary of the project.

“Everything will be connected: buildings, cars, energy — everything,” said Wim Elfrink, Cisco’s Bangalore-based chief globalization officer. “This is the tipping point. When we start building cities with technology in the infrastructure, it’s beyond my imagination what that will enable.”

Networking technology everywhere

The audacious plan is rising up from former mud flats along the Yellow Sea. Cisco and New York-based Gale International hope the privately funded $35 billion Songdo project leads to at least 20 similar developments in China, India, Vietnam and other countries in coming years. Much of Songdo will be completed in 2014.

“Five hundred cities are needed in China; 300 are needed in India,” said Gale, Gale International’s managing partner and an exuberant developer who says Songdo will be his legacy.

The project calls for wired everything — an urban center where networking technology is embedded into buildings from the ground up and every home, school and government agency is equipped with sophisticated Telepresence video technology — what in Cisco mantra is called Smart and Connected Communities.

For Cisco, Songdo represents more than a chance to sell hardware. The company envisions its technology as the connector for all aspects of urban life — government services, utilities, entertainment, health care, education — with new business models built around its Telepresence technology — say, a yoga class beamed into living rooms or medical checkups done remotely. All of these would be managed through a single Internet network, and Cisco would collect a recurring fee for maintaining the services, almost like a utility.

“It will be like paying a maintenance fee once a month,” said Christopher Khang, a Cisco vice president based in Singapore. “It’s a radically new business model for the company.”

Building this technology into new construction adds relatively little to the overall construction costs, Khang said. “But the benefits are going to be huge. I believe we are the only company that can provide this holistic (technology) environment.”

Pitfalls of a grand master plan

It looks good on paper. But will Chinese officials buy into this vision of a tech utopia?

“It seems a little speculative,” said Broadpoint AmTech analyst Mark McKechnie. Still, he added, “If you want to be around, you have to have a 10-year plan. If this doesn’t develop, at least they’ll learn something new they can apply to different businesses.”

About Mark Walhimer

Mark is Managing Partner of Museum Planning, LLC, a museum planning and exhibition project management firm of interactive educational environments for Science Centers, Children's Museums and Natural History Museums. You can reach Mark at mark@walhimer.com.

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