Costumed actors march before a colorful parade. Horseback riders perform equestrian feats. Colorful balloons fill the sky. It looks like a scene from The Wizard of Oz, complete with an emerald-roofed city in the background.
But it’s not a magical dreamland. It’s the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan. This is how the country celebrated the opening of Arkadag, the nation’s first “smart city.” President Serdar Berdymukhamedov himself led the ceremonies.
The city’s name—“Arkadag”—means “Protector.” This was a title used by President Berdymukhamedov’s father, former president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. The “smart city” sits about 19 miles from Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat. It features a gilded statue of the former president’s favorite horse. The horse once established a Guinness world record for running 10 meters on its hind legs. (Did you know that was a thing?)
But golden record-breaking horses aside—what makes Arkadag so “smart”?
Arkadag runs on solar power. The city can hold 73,000 residents in its identical white apartment buildings. It allows only electric cars and buses. Its houses are filled with smart phone-controlled technologies. “Smart” garbage cans on city streets keep track of their fullness. These techy features aren’t meant only for convenience. They are intended to reduce consumption of resources such as electricity.
Overall, the project cost around $3.3 billion. It’s meant to serve as a prototype for future Turkmen cities.
Turkmenistan lies just north of Iran and Afghanistan. It once belonged to the Soviet Union. The nation—along with several other republics—gained independence in 1991 when the Union collapsed.
Since then, Turkmenistan’s presidents have been known for creating image-driven personality cults. They often demand tributes and monuments in their own honor. In Turkmenistan, the president holds near total power. According to Human Rights Watch, Turkmenistan is “one of the world’s most oppressive and closed countries.” The government tightly controls news media. It has strict rules for entering and exiting the country. The Turkmen people can’t openly oppose their government’s decisions.
Most of Turkmenistan’s money comes from natural gas. That resource makes its leaders rich. But the nation’s six million people see little of that wealth. While Turkmenistan’s officials celebrate the opening of a pristine smart city, many of Turkmenistan’s citizens go without basic needs.
People often care about appearances, but God cares about the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7) On the outside, Turkmenistan’s smart city looks like a Utopian paradise. But look closer, and you begin to wonder: Is this the best way for a nation to serve its people?
Maybe a “smart city” isn’t always a smart idea.
Why? Outward appearances might look appealing—but it’s the heart that matters. A nation that doesn’t care for its citizens is not noble, even if it is advanced.