The neighborhoods of Crystal City, Pentagon City, Potomac Yards are undergoing a physical and branded and transformation into National Landing, with construction threading through the streets surrounding Reagan National Airport. But the less visible transformation, and yet no less significant, is the digital one. National Landing is being billed as the nation’s first “smart city,” a concept that proposes to reinvent daily urban life from the ground up through tech. The endgame, approximately, is a kind of physical and virtual cyberspace, with virtual reality, A.I., and robotics making for a hypercontrolled, sci-fi environment tucked away in between Arlington and Alexandria.
The location has two advantages that gave it the potential for a different kind of tech development than other cities have achieved. One, Arlington County had invested in running cable underground years before Amazon HQ2 entered the scene, in preparation for new levels of cable-based internet. Two, because National Landing is being developed from the ground up in many places, developer JBG Smith is able to run additional lines underneath each of the region’s streets, up telephone poles, and even up high-rises, creating a cable network that pulses throughout the entire city.
All of that allows for an unlimited amount of data to be transmitted in National Landing at all times and in all places.
“We really view connectivity as the fourth utility. And it’s really as fundamental to our lives as electricity, water, and gas,” says Vardahn Chaudhry, vice president of smart cities for JBG Smith. The unlimited data infrastructure will attract companies, but Chaudhry and his counterpart at AT&T, Jason Inskeep, director of its 5G Center of Excellence, also have a vision for National Landing as a kind of science-fiction ideal, where everyday residents will have access to technologies not present elsewhere. (Inskeep describes it as “The Jetsons come to life.”)
According to Chaudhry, the big components the universal data delivery will impact are artificial intelligence and “extended reality,” an umbrella term for both virtual reality and augmented reality.
That extended reality is already underway at JBG Smith, where they’re creating a true “holodeck” type of experience, in which visitors can freely roam around a virtual reality version of the future of National Landing. Inskeep says one potential end goal is for developers to create augmented reality spanning the city, with helpful overlays providing residents with info about individual shops and places at a glance.
Part of the idea for artificial intelligence is that each resident will have digital access to it, helping them navigate the city according to their preferences, from traffic to which restaurant to visit. Artificial intelligence even opens up the opportunity for true roaming robots and self-navigating drones.
“We’ve got the network for Rosie [the Jetsons’ robot] to operate,” says Inskeep, “not just in the Jetsons’ home, but as she moves around, going to the grocery store.”
The smart-city concept creates real data and privacy concerns, and AT&T concedes that they will have work to do to create new levels of protection. JBG Smith points to the fact that they’ve decentralized control among individual developers, instead of handling it themselves, for that very reason: Since no one group is collecting the data, the developer is not in the business of harvesting it.
A version of this story originally appeared in our March issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to the magazine.