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University of Miami building ‘smart city’ in Yucatán

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Zenciti, a smart city next to the science park, is a collaboration with the University of Miami and UNAM. Graphic: University of Miami
Zenciti, a smart city next to the science park, is a collaboration with the University of Miami and UNAM. Graphic: University of Miami

The University of Miami’s School of Architecture will collaborate with the Yucatán Science and Technology Park to create ZenCiti, a “smart city” to test out ideas for high-tech living.

Named after the switched syllables in the word “citizen,” ZenCiti will use technology to monitor everyday functions, such as transportation and sewer systems.

The start-up city will be 30 minutes from downtown Mérida. ZenCiti will occupy roughly 650 acres and will provide 6,000 jobs in the area, on top of the 4,000 that will be created by the Science and Technology Park. 

The creation of ZenCiti is a result of University of Miami’s President Julio Frenk’s initiative with the Yucatán state government in March. UM has stated its ambition to be a “Pan-American university” with operations across the Americas.

This initiative was one of Frenk’s first moves following his inauguration as UM’s president last year. Frenk holds a medical degree from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM. and was the founding director-general of the National Institute of Public Health in Mexico.

The Center of Computational Science at the University of Miami and the Yucatán state government’s Information Technologies Innovation Center helped create Heuristic, an IT business cluster intended to make it easier for companies to flourish in the Yucatán by creating the ideal location for research, testing and living.

That is where ZenCiti plays a role. The project, which is being designed by UM’s Responsive Architecture and Design Lab (RAD-UM Lab), will be built next to the STP. RAD-UM Lab specializes in technology-based designing and the “internet of things,” everyday objects that can collect data and connect to modern tech.

“We think of it as a start-up opportunity in that sense, in the way that it’s almost like an incubator of ideas that can be reproduced elsewhere,” said SoA Dean Rodolphe el-Khoury, who is also the director of RAD-UM Lab. “And that’s how I think it could have an impact on the university, in the sense that it is for us a laboratory for ideas, providing us opportunities to develop our research but also apply it to real life situations, test it and develop it even further.”

According to el-Khoury, ZenCiti will be “a site of tech transfer.” Researchers at the STP will be able to develop technology that can be tested in ZenCiti.

One integration being planned for the city is a “horizontal elevator,” where self-driving cars will be summoned on demand to travel around ZenCiti. The goal is to make the city attractive not only to park workers, but also to a young and global pool of people.

Matthew Claudel, an urban researcher at MIT in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, said the idea of smart cities goes as far back as the 18th century Enlightenment era in France.

“The idea of a smart city is not new. I think we have now an incredible source of resources to make this a reality,” Claudel said.

The term “smart city” was popularized in Barcelona, where computer chips are embedded in the ground around the city to collect data about pollution, traffic and noise. Garbage cans have sensors to indicate when they’re full. Solar panels are built into tall buildings and parking spot sensors send signals to local drivers’ smartphones via an app to give them a better idea of traffic.

Unlike Barcelona, however, ZenCiti will be created completely from scratch between UM and the Yucatán government. El-Khoury said he foresees a great part of the city will have been built 10 years from now.

Along with the School of Architecture and RAD-UM Lab, the project also includes plans to involve the College of Engineering and, as the plan progresses, the School of Business Administration and the School of Communication.

Dean el-Khoury also aims to enlist the help of students this fall in designing urban ideas that will be implemented into the design scheme of ZenCiti.

Sources: University of Miami and The Miami Hurricane

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