As the promise of even more connected cities is tantalizingly dangled in front of our faces, it can often be a slow frustrating process watching the bureaucratic wheels of local authorities fail to keep up with the pace of change. Every day we read about the latest hi-tech thingamajig promising to improve our lives. Yet, it can take years for these technologies to materialize: by which time the technology is out-of-date. What’s needed are test cities. Cities where the local authorities embrace technological change and encourage companies to invest in them to provide real world laboratories where technology is beta tested in ways the lab and can only dream of.
Now, in one small corner of Spain, the lucky residents and tourists of Santander are beta testing the latest in smart city technology. Luiz Munoz, an IT professor at the University of Cantabria, approached Santander council officials, with the idea in 2009. The city officials’ said they had a problem with parking and would like help to solve that issue. Now, in 2016, the town has over 20,000 sensors: under tarmac, on street lamps and on top of city busses, monitoring data as varied as garbage, rainfall and road traffic.
The list of what these sensors monitor is large and seemingly unending: in city parking spaces to alert drivers of available parking spaces; in city bins, sensors alert officials when they are full; soil sensors in parks, ensure that irrigation systems only operate when the soil is dry, and sensors in street lights ensure that they only operate at full brightness when someone is nearby.
But it’s not just about sensors and monitoring, it’s also about empowering residents. One way of doing this is to hold town hall meetings in which residents can suggest apps to be developed by the University of Cantabria. One woman suggested an app that would provide city maps to show the easiest route for someone with a baby buggy.
Inevitably, with new technology, there are concerns with security, but as Santander Mayor Inigo de la Serna says, "There is a data protection law which we must follow and that is a guarantee," he said. "A smart city is one where if anything happens, all services start to act automatically. For example, if there is a crack in the pavement, a smart city should boost lighting on that street, send an alarm to locals and automatically detour traffic."
For those of you feeling slightly envious of the Spanish, take heart because officials from Boston in the USA, Aarhus in Denmark, Belgrade in Serbia and Montenegro, Guilford in England, Lubeck in Germany and Tel Aviv in Israel have all shown interest in or are working with Santander and deploying the technology. So, in time, our cities and towns may all become smart.