Smart cities

Barcelona faces the challenge to make its smart city truly smart

'What's in it for me?' is what citizens want elected leaders to answer

Just about every major city wants to be called a smart city, it seems.

Take one example: Barcelona made a big splash to be considered a smart city three years ago. Since then, it has installed noise and air quality sensors along a major thoroughfare. There are also smart streetlights, smart parking and even smartphone apps for tourists to use to navigate the city's sights.

At the city's Llevant Beach, there are 22 self-powered lighting units, including six that rely on solar and wind power. The wind-powered units can function when wind speed is relatively slow, storing up enough energy to operate as long as six days without pulling electricity from the grid.

There is also free Wi-Fi along Barcelona's beaches, parks and other public spaces, with about half of the 1,500 planned Wi-Fi hot spots already in place. The city has also devoted a website to its smart city innovations.

While Barcelona has been widely given the smart city moniker, some technology analysts wonder if Mayor Ada Colau, a former housing activist who was elected in 2015, will continue the city's earlier commitment to smart city technology innovations. When Colau was elected, some Barcelona citizens questioned the value of smart city projects.

"They asked, 'What's in it for me?' " said Gartner analyst Bettina Tratz-Ryan, in a recent interview.

"We have a lot of smart city tech pushed by vendors everywhere, but cities are asking for citizen engagement [along with smart city projects] and want to avoid test beds where they won't see any benefit," Tratz-Ryan said.

Despite such sentiments, a government-sponsored group called Mobile World Capital Barcelona recently promoted a smart car parking trial that allows a driver, with the touch of a fingerprint on a smartphone, to reserve a parking space and pay the parking fee without getting out of the car. Directions to find the parking space can be sent to the smartphone, but could easily appear on a car's dashboard.

Still, concerns about finding smart city services that can answer the question, "What's in it for me?" are certainly resonating with cities all over the world.

While some city CIOs are worried about connecting networks that monitor street lights and water lines to help their cities run more efficiently, there is also a push by elected leaders in favor of direct services to citizens and businesses. Cities like Boston

and Kansas City are working to expand Internet broadband to more of their residents and businesses, along with other smart city projects. In Atlanta, there's a focus on installing smart cameras for surveillance to improve public safety.

"There are different motivations for smart cities," Tratz-Ryan said. Singapore, for example, stands out as an example of a city-state that is adding intelligence to a number of government and private services, while Amsterdam is focusing its technology on social engagement and the environment, she said. "Singapore is in fact seen as a smart city test bed for cities like Dubai and Paris."

What is really smart about a smart city? "They really enable mayors to empower citizens to get more interactive with their city and their environment and create change for people, citizens, universities and schools and in doing so create better diversity and cultural understanding," she said.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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