The original project that spawned this blog asked the question: Was EPCOT a smart city? The term “smart city” has sprung up in the early 21st century to describe any city using new technology and data-driven strategies to improve the lives of residents. Dr. Margarita Angelidou, in her paper titled “The Role of Smart City Characteristics in the Plans of Fifteen Cities,” lays out 10 characteristics of smart cities, and sees how well various modern smart city projects measure up. Here, I’d like to do the same for Walt Disney’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

Technology, ICTs, and the Internet

Because of its time, EPCOT lags in this aspect. Information and communications technology (ICT) was limited, and the internet wasn’t even a blink on the horizon. However, Mr. Disney endeavored to include the latest technology. He had already pioneered underground utilities at several other Disney properties, and a few sources claim that EPCOT would have been managed by a central computer. All of the benefits would be aimed at improving quality of life across many sectors, including transportation and energy.

Human and Social Capital Development

We have more of a mixed bag here. Disney wanted EPCOT to be environmentally sustainable, using renewable energy sources and innovative waste disposal. He also aimed for excellence in education, promotion of innovation, and strong industrial and business life. Unfortunately, much of his plan put democracy at risk. The town would be owned and operated by the Disney Company, and the weakness of local government may have devolved into a lack of transparency and responsiveness. Overall, though, the social and civic innovations proposed may outweigh these risks.

Entrepreneurship Promotion

Here we get to one of EPCOT’s failings. Disney was a big-business man, and the industrial parks and business properties were intended for the big names of the time. Existing businesses would have many opportunities in EPCOT, but start-ups would have more trouble. Any small business, from restaurant to grocery store, would most likely have been operated by the Disney Company.

Global Collaboration and Networking

EPCOT would have been a hub for inspiring other communities the world over. Disney networked with a number of other corporations to improve his city and give them a chance to improve their technology. On the other hand, there were not many cities at the time that were innovating, and Disney failed to make active connections with the ones there were.

Privacy and Security

EPCOT expressly fails this. While it was a great concern for many at the time, Mr. Disney hardly seemed to have considered the impact that living in a great petri dish of a tourist attraction would have on residents.

Locally Adapted Strategies

Dr. Angelidou would absolutely file EPCOT as “not adapted.” EPCOT was a global city, with global goals. Built in a swamp, the local environmental effects were an afterthought at best. Even now Walt Disney World has a massive drainage system to keep the area from flooding. This is not necessarily a failure, though: Disney didn’t want just to solve Florida’s problems or even America’s, so he designed a city that could be duplicated anywhere.

Participatory Approach

Although Mr. Disney encouraged participation from businesses, his city lacked input from residents, as mentioned above. On the other hand, if the Epcot Center is any clue, there may have been solid backing and involvement of academics in formulating aspects of the city.

Top-Down Coordination

EPCOT does exceptionally well here: a privately-owned company, headed by a visionary, is the pinnacle of everything Dr. Angelidou describes.

Explicit and Workable Strategic Framework

EPCOT’s framework was clear and well thought out. The project was indefinitely ongoing, but with clear guidelines and series of strong initiatives covering many sectors.

Interdisciplinary Planning

Disney built his career on combining disciplines, and EPCOT was no exception. The planning room included engineers, architects, landscapers, and artists, as well as specialists from businesses across every sector.

 

The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was far from perfect. However, considering how poorly modern smart cities perform in Dr. Angelidou’s categories, I have calling EPCOT a smart city.

 

Further reading:

Angelidou, M. (2017). The Role of Smart City Characteristics in the Plans of Fifteen Cities. Journal of Urban Technology, 24(4), 3–28. https://doi.org/10.1080/10630732.2017.1348880

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