Are “smart cities” smarter cities?

A city through the eyes of a smart phone. Accessed December 1, 2013

A city through the eyes of a smart phone. Accessed December 1, 2013

Technological advances have given the world smart phones, smart cars, smart watches, and smart TV. The ‘smart’ trend is now reaching beyond personal devices to create the ‘smart city‘. The concept dominating ‘smart city’ discussions is the integration of technology to change the way cities are governed and navigated, thus making administrative processes more transparent, while making urban life more efficient and enjoyable. Cities across the globe have been focusing their efforts on becoming ‘smarter’ by increasing the availability of information, developing technological infrastructure, enhancing social infrastructure, and improving the efficiency of transportation systems. While these are worthy goals, it remains unclear if a ‘smart city’ is truly a smarter city. The Spanish port city of Santander, Spain has implemented technology to experiment with the concept of the ‘smart city’, becoming a living laboratory, hoping to set an example in the use of technological infrastructure and real time data in policy and planning.

Santander, Spain: A port city attempting to form a 'smart' identity, Accessed December 1, 2013.

Santander, Spain: A port city attempting to form a ‘smart’ identity, Accessed December 1, 2013.

The implementation of this project was funded in large part by a grant from the EU of approximately $11 million awarded to Luiz Munoz, IT professor at the University of Cantabria. This sum covered the cost of the 12,000 data collection units installed throughout the city. These units track various kinds of data ranging from environmental fluctuations to parking availability. This technological infrastructure also includes an interactive component transferring real time information between citizens, policy makers, and municipal leaders. Complaints, suggestions, and reports of the conditions of the city can be transmitted to officials directly from residents, informing policy makers of what is important. Also, leaders can communicate with residents about current conditions of location within the city, such as, traffic obstructions or community events. The following video by Euronews provides an overview of the program:

While this is exciting technology that many testify is making the city of Santander a better place to live, work, and play, the emphasis on this new infrastructure may deepen a technological divide across generations and socioeconomic classes. Despite this concern, Mayor de la Serna believes this program to be a ‘smart’ investment for the future of Santander that will encourage economic growth, efficient use of resources, and a positive identity for the city.

Recent additions to the system include the SmartSantanderRA App, which was launched for IoS and Android in August of this year. The app includes information about 2700 locations, providing greater access to current information for residents and visitors about points of interest and moving through the city. Additionally, a conference held in Santander last month presented FI-WARE, a platform for the large scale data of cities, and FI-lab, a software for scenario experimentation, to small and medium enterprises (SME’s) for the implementation of ‘smart city’ technology.

Researchers are just beginning to explore the ways technology can change the ways cities function. Santander, and other places like it, continue to test new ways to use technology to create greater convenience for leaders, citizens, and visitors, while the rest of the world watches to see the outcome.