Smart Cities

Smart cities: opportunities and challenges


The development of intelligent cities implies other challenges such as data security and information privacy.

More than half of the inhabitants of our planet live in urban areas. Projections made by the World Bank indicate that by 2050 this percentage will reach 70%.

The industrial revolution initiated an explosion in the transition from rural to city living. First in Great Britain, and soon after in Germany, France, the United States and other western countries that experienced rapid growth in the XIX century.

Londres, Manchester, Liverpool, Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, Marseilles, New York…These cities were transformed into metropolises and went from being administrative centres and headquarters of political and religious power to becoming immense factories that produced textiles, papers, boats, weapons, construction materials, energy and capital goods, among many others things.

In the midst of this whirlwind of growth and unleashed transformation, there were voices asking for health improvements for their workers and families, education for the young, the creation of green spaces and cultural spaces such as theatres, libraries, public transport, health services and security. Citizens began to demand living spaces that were not just focused on mass production, but that could provide a better lifestyle than what had been left behind in the rural areas they had abandoned.

Two hundred years later, the relationship between cities and their inhabitants continues to follow the compass of scientific and technological development, which opens the potential for new forms of producing goods and services more efficiently, and for meeting the demands of individuals who want to live in an environment in which they can enjoy the benefits of progress.

Smart cities, or intelligent cities, did not appear out of nowhere. They are the extension of these industrial metropolises from two centuries ago, which now include megalopolises such as Shanghai, Tokyo or Mexico DF. Local government leaders work to provide the citizens with the services required for mobility, energy, urbanism and communication.

The role of various technologies in this process is to improve the quality of life of the citizens. Innovation, an industrial concept, is widened to embrace aspects related to the activities people engage in outside of their employment activities. Developments in the telecommunications sector are a determining factor.

In a western city of more than 50,000 inhabitants, we can call a taxi, check exam results, make a medical appointment, renew a book loan or consult current traffic from a mobile terminal. The connection between strong networks developed by private operators and management systems driven by administrations allows us to do all of this and many more things from virtually any location, quickly, and with a low direct cost.

This is why it is critical to ensure that the technology gap, which separates those who possess the equipment and knowledge needed to carry out these tasks from those who have no access, does not deprive the latter group from services that have been designed for the benefit of all people.

Complex developments such as Big Data or the Internet of things are multiplying the possibilities of citizens to access and use massive volumes of information. However, they also allow those who manage public services to do so more efficiently, for example saving energy or adapting the available transportation services to current demand in real time.

And we mustn’t forget the direct benefit of this new environment: the employment opportunities associated with the technologies that sustain smart cities. We are experiencing a change in production and distribution models in which small and medium sized companies, instead of feeling threatened by large corporations, are emerging strongly in these ecosystems of citizens to participate in new services. Here is where start-ups come in to play, pushing the economy and employment through thousands of initiatives in which a new generation, the best prepared in history, is giving free reign to imagination and the opportunity to exploit business opportunities not known to this point.


This new scenario incorporates other challenges that must be faced. In this regard, we needn’t look further than data security and information privacy.

Another important challenge is the unification of different systems through which information is organized, given that large companies strive to create hegemonic models.

This is why it is so important to participate in this new model of development with optimism. The opportunities and benefits must exceed the problems and challenges. We must have a positive attitude to make the most of all that technological development has to offer. Because if citizens assume a secondary role in this process, their opinions will hold less weight when designing the future of their place of residence.

I recently had the pleasure of participating in a smart cities forum organized by IBM, with the participation of, among others, Nauby Jacob (Vice President Bell Canada – Wireless), in which various platforms that facilitate the implementation of these models were analysed, and existing proposals were studied. The appropriate technology is a fundamental element in the creation of intelligent city models; however, even more important is the long and medium term planning process to improve the life of the citizens, and a rational implementation of services that improve quality of life and provide savings. Based on the assumption that an intelligent city must include a green space and function efficiently in terms of energy, it is important for all citizens to be involved in the planning process, experts in the field, and for everything to be done in a forward-looking manner, to be surprised by new technologies that reduce costs associated with the implementation of services and offer new opportunities. We have seen mega-projects that kill flies with canons, and implement costly information systems that are difficult to maintain.

Professor Lim Hock, who is in charge of Research Services at the National University of Singapore, recently told us that a series of interdisciplinary university institutions had been created in line with the city’s objectives to establish models that can simplify and improve life in this metropolis: management and control systems for floods, water storage, traffic and pollution management, emergency management, development of fuel storage systems, weapons, creation of subterranean living spaces, etc. Urbanists, researchers and citizens will collaborate on these models to develop a population; in many regards, this is a reference in the area, even with the city’s levels of overpopulation.

Juan Manuel Corchado

Full Professor in Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence, Department of Computer Science and Automation, University of Salamanca, Spain.


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