Did you know that in Amsterdam there’s a project where public lighting is regulated as a function of the context? That these street lights consume less energy than conventional ones and adapt their intensity and color to achieve efficiency? And that in Singapore there are sensors connected to the internet so as to collect data in real time –traffic, air quality, available parking spaces– and thus put technology at the service of the citizen? And what about Barcelona, which has one of the largest wireless networks in Europe –public and free– for internet connection? And are you familiar with the Parque de Negocios Ciudad Empresarial, in Santiago de Chile, the first prototype of the intelligent city with control of electricity management, demotic buildings, information screens and measures to care for the environment?
These are some of the examples of the so-called smart cities, that futuristic concept that is increasingly in vogue. “It means applying new technologies, informatics, communications and social innovation to improve urban life,” says Víctor Manuel Padrón, professor in the Department of Industrial and Aerospace Engineering at Universidad Europea. “It’s crucial for technology to be at the service of human beings so as to make us freer, more cultured and fulfilled.”
According to the UN and the World Bank, half of humanity –some 3.5 billion people– now live in cities, and in 2030 some 60% of the people will be living there. Although cities account for only 2% of the Earth’s surface, they consume between 60% and 80% of the world’s energy and produce 75% of its carbon emissions. So any advance at all is welcome. In Spain, according to the Ministry of Public Works, some 80% of Spaniards now live in cities. There’s no going back, which explains why essential research, development and innovation is so important and why the smart city is being used to meet present challenges. The future is already upon us.
Technical device, daily engine
In Spain there are initiatives like the Spanish Network of Intelligent Cities, which groups 81 urban centers that use the technology common to smart cities. There are also theme networks for research, among them the Network of Excellence in Intelligent Cities CI–RTI, in which Universidad Europea participates under the aegis of the University of Málaga. Professor Víctor Manuel Padrón points to the positive academic work it is carrying out and stresses that the leading Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) today “are big data, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things,” which are jointly studied in subjects like Programming, Electronics, Communications Systems, Software Engineering and Algorithms.
Esther González, professor of Urban Planning in the School of Architecture, Engineering and Design at Universidad Europea de Valencia, is researching the transformations of contemporary cities through ICTs. “The city is going to live, organize itself and be built through the influence of technology,” she says. And classrooms should “convert scientific knowledge into practical knowledge for better understanding of the increasingly complex contemporary city,” she adds.
Because the future, let’s say it again, is already here. Meanwhile, that jigsaw puzzle persists. Can we base decisions only on data? “Saskia Sassen, a specialist at Columbia University, explains that urban experiences are considerably more complex than data.” Look at the direct effects of technology on travel. “Who hasn’t recently travelled to places like Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam or Berlin, with a low cost plane and lodging package purchased over the internet?,” asks professor Esther González. “It’s increasingly cheaper, more common and easier to travel thanks to the internet. This is contributing to the uncontrolled growth of tourism in the center of many large cities,” she adds.
An unpredictable digital future
Where are we going? Predicting what will happen in the medium term is still a mystery. But the digitalization of our surroundings is unstoppable. For example, we visit the income tax offices less and less, and we avoid having to show up at different places thanks to the phone, the computer or the smartphone. Things that were unthinkable just a few years ago. The smart cities produce “a ‘meta-citizen’ who interacts by means of communications devices that are connected by global hyper-networks that link today’s megacities,” says José Luis Esteban, professor of Architectural Projects at Universidad Europea. This expert recommends the use of informatics programs to prevent the dizzying growth of “planetary megacities, hybrids, half human and half machines, that are permanently changing places like New York, Shanghai, Mexico City or Lagos.”
Data, progress and the new humanism
The projects for smart cities will move billions of dollars over the coming years in applied technology for transportation, physical infrastructures, energy efficiency, safety and health. Calculations and predictions vary enormously depending on different studies, and the growth is unfathomable, as inexact as market laws themselves. But what is clear is that smart cities aren’t retreating, just the opposite. And with giant steps.
Ruth de León, a professor specializing in Urban Planning at Universidad Europea de Valencia, puts it this way: “Today’s cities use different devices to channel the flow of information and achieve more comfortable urban settings. Data becomes knowledge so as to improve the quality of life.”
But how can we manage all that information? “We need new tools, including those related to spatial positioning,” she says. Such as Geographic Information Systems. “Imagine that the town hall has solar panels located throughout the city. Each panel is positioned and supplies information throughout the year about the hours of sunlight. This data could help us reach conclusions about which areas should have more trees to produce shade, or where sufficient solar energy could be generated to make street lights work off that energy,” she explains.
And yes: beyond their undeniable benefits, smart cities should build synergies with society, a kind of ‘new humanism’ in a life that’s filled with apps. In short, an intelligent city in every sense.