What Does a City of the "Third Industrial Revolution" Look Like?

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

This, apparently.

After several months of debate, officials in Kazakhstan's capital city of Astana have chosen a final design for the massive site that will host the World EXPO 2017. The sprawling, wind- and sun-powered neighborhood was designed by Chicago architects Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, the designers of Kingdom Tower—the forthcoming world's tallest building in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

What Does a City of the "Third Industrial Revolution" Look Like?

According to the chairman of the company that's heading up the EXPO 2017, Smith + Gill's design "will embody the five pillars of the Third Industrial Revolution." If that phrase sounds familiar, that's because it's borrowed from Jeremy Rifkin, economist and author of the popular 2011 book The Third Industrial Revolution, which outlines a theory of a shared clean energy grid that will transform culture and production.

The reference is intentional—Rifkin has become an important figure in planning the future of Astana, a massive new city on the steppe that was built with oil money after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

What Does a City of the "Third Industrial Revolution" Look Like?

Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev has taken a keen liking to Rifkin's work, which calls for the emergence of a new era by way of renewable, clean energy, all delivered by way of a smart energy grid.

He's given speeches that call for Kazakhstan to adopt Rifkin's model, saying, "the 'Energy Internet' will enable millions of people to use clean energy in their homes, offices and factories, and to exchange it easily."

This year, Nazarbayev even appointed the Wharton lecturer to serve as an advisor on the EXPO 2017 project.

What Does a City of the "Third Industrial Revolution" Look Like?

Which brings us back to the newly-announced winning design from Smith + Gill. Akin to Masdar in the UAE, it will be a self-sufficient, 500-acre neighbourhood with plenty of exhibition space for the EXPO itself.

Ironically, although it's a gargantuan and expensive design, it was chosen for its relative modesty amongst 44 other proposals.

Apparently, the EXPO buildings are all designed to be re-purposed afterwards, either as housing or commercial space. More importantly, the city will be powered simply by wind and sun—in accordance with Rifkin's ideas about an "internet of energy." The specifics of the architecture itself is forthcoming, and is bound to evolve quite a bit over the next year before construction begins.

What Does a City of the "Third Industrial Revolution" Look Like?

But, on a broader urban scale, there are still many questions to be answered. Astana is a kind of urban anomaly: A massive city populated by huge, whimsical buildings built by some of the most respected architects in the world. Yet, as Keith Gessen wrote in a fascinating New Yorker piece about the city, many of these buildings are empty—and it remains to be seen whether EXPO 2017 will serve a purpose once the roughly three million EXPO attendees have gone home.

More is surely to come on this story—we've reached out to Rifkin for comment, and the EXPO site breaks ground next year.