The 'smartest' city in the world: Santander, Spain?

A network of 10,000 sensors across the city help locals to find empty parking spaces and the government to speed up urban repairs – and save everyone money.

By , Staff writer

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    A fan in a rabbit suit cheered on Katusha Team rider Joaquim 'Purito' Rodriguez of Spain during the 17th stage of the Tour of Spain 'La Vuelta' cycling race between Santander and Fuente De, in September 2012.
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This provincial port town, set between verdant hills and the Cantabrian Sea, has drawn Spanish summer-goers for centuries. Its pretty facades seem set in time.

But today, on the 19th-century lampposts, on the sides of historical buildings, and buried underneath asphalt are thousands of sensors, 10,000 in all, that are attempting to catapult Santander far into the future – as the “smartest” city in the world.

Indeed, Santander is a city that today can tell drivers if there are available parking spaces on Gandara Street or whether they are better off turning left. It can measure moisture levels of soil and decide when a park needs to be irrigated. And it can regulate street lights from afar, dimming the luminosity if no passersby are near. 

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The $11 million transformation of the city has come through a European Union grant that is attempting to make Santander a more efficient city, which could serve as a template for urban environments around the globe.

“This kind of project in an economic crisis is useful in the sense that we can improve services with low investment,” says Santander's mayor, Inigo de la Serna. “For someone in the public sector, the possibilities are enormous.”

An urban nervous system

The project started well before the economic crisis hit Spain, in the bricked offices at the University of Cantabria in central Santander, where a group of researchers, led by professor Luis Munoz, conceived of a “smart city” over a decade ago. But Dr. Munoz says the technology wasn’t mature enough.

It was only in 2010 that he saw an opportunity to apply for a grant from the EU to create a prototype “smart city.” For three years, he and a team of a half dozen have turned their office space into a “control room,” which receives signals from antennas that saturate downtown and sit atop city buses, taxis, and municipal fleets, measuring pollution, pollen, noise, luminosity, and traffic flows.

In the town hall, Mayor de la Serna's office effuses the 19th century, complete with an antique blue-glassed chandelier, but he holds an iPad and points it toward the window. It tells him where the closest shops and historical monuments are – another feature of the project.

With this “augmented reality,” residents can also use their phones at 415 bus stops to find out when the next two buses are coming – letting them know, for example, if they have time to buy bread before the next bus arrives.

The city is just 36 square kilometers, with 180,000 residents, making it a manageable place to pilot a “smart city” project, but the idea is to develop a model for other cities around the world, after a final review that comes in December. Already delegations from China, the United States, and Japan have visited. So have companies from Google to Microsoft.

“The idea is to share lessons from this project with others,” says Jose Antonio Galache, another researcher on the “Smart Santander” team. 

Smart ... and efficient

One of its major successes is that it came online when cost savings are at the forefront of every Spanish municipality’s mind.

As a “smart city,” Santander can measure what dumpsters are full and which can wait another day, saving in gas, money, and manpower. Dimming lights can save millions of euros in electricity bills. The city can conserve resources by not irrigating lawns that don’t need water.

“A smart city is not just one that employs technology and collects data,” says Veronica Gutierrez, a PhD in telecommunications working with Munoz. “It’s one that uses the information to use resources in a more sustainable way.”

The project aims beyond municipal coffers, to improve quality of life for residents by “participatory sensing.” Those who download applications – 6,000 have so far – can use their smart phones to send in photos of urban annoyances, like traffic flows that are continuously congested. The “events” are visible to anyone who accesses the information, putting pressure on the city government.  

It has cut down the city’s response time from about a month to a week, says de la Serna. Of the 1,006 events they have received in the past year, 918 of them are resolved. “It’s a new way of making people participate in the management of the city,” he says.

Fomenting a digital divide?

The project could create the potential for the kinds of digital divides that form across generations and socioeconomic classes.

“For me, I’m anti-cell phone and anti-Internet. I’m more traditional,” says Julia Garzon, who works at a children’s clothing store that has a “Smart Santander” sticker on its window. The sticker means that when the store is closed, shoppers can scan the sticker with their cell phones to receive information about store hours and sales.

And the project has raised eyebrows for its scope in an era of austerity. “I think there are more important things to be prioritizing,” says Ms. Garzon.

But de la Serna insists that the technological transformation is laying the foundation for a new productive model for Santander, which is best known for its bank, Banco Santander, and where most residents live from services, particularly tourism. De la Serna, a youthful mayor who studied civil engineering, says that culture and innovation are the city’s new priorities, to create new jobs and attract new investment.

The group continues to expand the project, with new ideas and satellite projects. A next big aim is to make sensing part of citizens’ personal lives. Someone with allergies to pollen, for example, could in the springtime depend on sensors measuring air quality to decide on any given day the best route to walk to work.

“We want them to be able to customize services according to their needs,” says Munoz, pointing out the sensors that adorn the urban landscape of downtown Santander.  “We are in a living lab.”

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