Almost every densely populated city presents itself as a smart city, or one in development, and Latin America is no exception. Dozens of conferences (and currently, webinars) at national, regional, and international levels are held every year under the topic of “Smart Cities”, in which cities compete to be recognised for enhancing the quality of life for their citizens through infrastructure and technology. While administrations use smart cities as a political marketing tool, companies have emerged or transformed into providers of “solutions” for smart cities.
Despite this growing trend of smart cities, the definition and concept has yet to be properly understood or defined. Some examples of international recognitions highlight the pedestrianisation of streets and their transformation into more friendly roads for people, different forms of public transport and the creation of green spaces. Many of the initiatives fall under the category of urban planning policies and, in some cases, have no connection to technology – the distinctive element of “smart” policy.
Defining a Smart City
In the case of Latin America, the most iconic city in terms of development is Medellín, in Colombia. Considered the most dangerous city in the world in 1991, Medellín combined the generation of public spaces with social development and the reconversion of the police force, to become a recognised model for recovery.
However, Medellín achieved this long before the rise of mobile connectivity and the Internet of Things. Smart policies ultimately focused around urban planning, public safety, education, and social development, with very little use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). To this day, the public programs that Medellín implemented years ago continue to receive international recognition as smart solutions. In 2018, Medellín was recognised as a finalist at a regional conference on smart cities, in the area of sustainable urban development and mobility, for its project remodel of a public park, alongside the pedestrianisation of a street in Santiago de Chile, and a cable car transportation system in La Paz, Bolivia. None of these three projects – which undoubtedly have contributed to improving the quality of life of the cities inhabitants – used ICT as an essential tool.
The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) understands that smart cities “use connectivity, sensors distributed in the environment and computerised intelligent management systems to solve immediate problems, organise complex urban scenarios and create innovative responses to meet the needs of their citizens… [using] technologies to integrate and analyse an immense amount of data generated and captured from different sources that anticipate, mitigate and even prevent crisis situations”. By this definition, we can see that the technological component, both in its data collection phase and in its processing and use, is an essential element of what is defined and understood as a smart city.
This approach was best illustrated by Wim Elfrink, former Executive Vice President of Emerging Solutions at CISCO: “If you have a parking problem and build new parking lots, that is not a Smart City policy. If you put smart signs at the entrance to each parking area with the current number of available spots, you’re getting closer to the concept (using technology to save time by preventing cars from entering an area with no vacant spots) but that’s still not a Smart City policy. But if you connect all the parking spaces in the city and provide drivers with information on where to park, including reserving the space once the car is near the place, that would be a perfect Smart City policy, using data from real time to provide a benefit for the user and for the city in general”.
Where is Latin America Today?
80% of the Latin American population lives in cities today, compared to 50% of the population in 1960. Latin American cities have experienced serious difficulties in absorbing large concentrations of people from rural areas, with an exponential increase in people living in slums. Compared to the rest of the world, Latin America is 25 points above the world average urban population.
Regarding poverty levels, the regional rate is 28% of the total population (pre COVID-19), although Latin American cities are at 24% on average. With one in every four people living below the poverty line, the opportunity to create smart cities is difficult.
The same can be said regarding crime. As Sergio Kaufman, president of Accenture in Argentina said, “the icon of a smart city is the smartphone; if your phone is stolen, everything falls down”. Latin America is the most dangerous region in the world, with the top 10 cities with the highest murder rate globally located across the region, and out of the top 50, 42 of the cities are in Latin America. The region is home to 9% of the world’s total population, and accounts for around 35% of global homicides.
As for connectivity, one in every two people do not have any form of Internet access in Latin America, according to ECLAC. The variance across the region in terms of connectivity is significant, with countries like Haiti or Cuba close to 10% access, while in other countries, such as Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, 60% of the population have Internet access.
With problems of poverty, crime and lack of access, Latin American cities face a much greater challenge than their counterparts from other regions of the world when designing smart city projects. Large cities such as Buenos Aires, Medellín or Rio de Janeiro are making budgetary efforts to modernise both their urban infrastructure and the services they provide to citizens, from smart traffic lights to improve mobility, and the installation of surveillance cameras to improve public safety.
However, the road to smart cities is still a long way off. Latin America requires leadership capable of initiating long-term policies and allocating economic resources to projects that go beyond the superficial, such as a new park or a new bus station. Leveraging data can optimise the consumption of electricity or running water, reduce air pollution, improve traffic congestion, and reduce levels of waste generation. It has the potential to significantly improve the quality of life for citizens.
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