Living Lab: Urban Planning Goes Digital in Spanish 'Smart City'

Thousands of sensors help alert residents to traffic jams.

ByABC News
March 14, 2013, 3:11 PM

March 17, 2013— -- Cities around the world aim to become "smart cities," but in Santander, Spain, the goal has already become a reality. Thousands of sensors help alert residents to traffic jams, regulate the watering in city parks and dim the street lamps.

Cities all around the world have set the same goal for themselves. Amsterdam, Barcelona, Birmingham, Dubai, Helsinki, San Diego, Stockholm, Nanjing, Vienna, Yokohama -- they all share an aspiration to become "smart cities."

That sounds like an appealing aim, yet when urban planners try to explain more precisely how they plan to lead their cities into the digital future, their answers are less convincing, with each proposing a different plan. Despite the many symposiums that have been held on this subject, there is no consensus on how to pursue this ambition.

Essentially the only thing all parties can agree on is that "smart" cities will employ sensors, computers and smartphones, and they will implement new forms of city government, making administrative processes more transparent than ever before. The idea is that digital technology will help make urban living cleaner, more sustainable and more pleasant. And, of course, it should increase prosperity as well.

Amid this uncertainty, an old port city on Spain's Atlantic coast has surged to the forefront of those aspiring to be smart cities. Despite its cash-strapped finances, the city of Santander, birthplace of the major bank of the same name, is already quite smart.

Smart City Experiment

"This is the future," Mayor Iñigo de la Serna, 42, of the conservative Partido Popular, declares proudly. "This is the only way to change things," he said, adding that every major city would eventually have to do the same. "It's not an option, it's obligatory."

The ocean waters are rough here in the springtime. Grand hotels and a high-end casino line the beach, where surfers in neoprene wetsuits launch themselves into waves meters high. In Spain, Santander has had a reputation for glamour ever since King Alfonso XIII chose the city as his summer residence almost 100 years ago.

Lately, though, curious visitors have been dropping in for another reason. Some come on behalf of major corporations such as Google, Microsoft or IBM. Recently, a delegation came from Japan and another flew in from Wuxi, China, a city with a population of several million. All of these visitors see Santander as a living experimental laboratory, a town that -- with its population of about 180,000 -- is neither too large nor too small to function as a smart city experiment.

Luis Muñoz, 48, is an IT professor at the University of Cantabria. He received nearly €9 million ($11.7 million) in research money, most of it from the EU, to develop a prototype smart city. Muñoz permanently installed 10,000 sensors around downtown Santander, throughout an area of 6 square kilometers (2.3 square miles). The sensors are hidden inside small gray boxes attached to street lamps, poles and building walls. Some are even buried beneath the asphalt of parking lots.

Sensors at Work

Day in and day out, these sensors measure more or less everything that can be measured: light, pressure, temperature, humidity, even the movements of cars and people.