Why Do People Visit Spain, Not Virginia, to See Smart Cities in Action?

by James A. Bacon

Spain’s economy is a wreck, or so we surmise from the dismal drum beat of news about the European Union. The country is in recession, unemployment is nearly 27% and central government staggers from crisis to crisis. Yet, somehow, Spanish cities manage to stay on the forefront of harnessing technology to re-think the delivery of government services.

A case in point: the port city of Santander, which, with a population of 180,000, is not quite as big as the City of Richmond. As Pablo Valerio writes in UBM’s Future Cities blog, the city recently hosted a delegation of executives from Google, Microsoft and the Japanese government to walk the streets and view firsthand the miracle of the Smart Santader initiative.

A convert to the “internet of things,” Santander has embedded 12,000 sensors under the pavement, on street lights, in rubbish bins and on city buses. The sensors tell the city, and drivers, where empty parking spaces are located, when lights should be turned off, when garbage needs collecting and when buses will arrive. The city can track levels of temperature, noise and pollution. Citizens can report complaints by smart phone: just take a photo of, say, a pothole or broken light, and the city receives the picture along with the GPS coordinates of the location.

Here’s the bottom line: The city is saving 25% on electricity and 20% in garbage collection. Impressive. Valerio doesn’t say how that translates into return on investment, but it’s probably pretty good. Installation of the sensors cost €8 million (about $11 million) three years ago, courtesy of a EU grant. If the city of Santander saves $2 million a year, it would generate a rate of return that many private-sector companies would find attractive. Even if it saved only $1 million a year, the investment would exceed the cost of capital.

The city of Richmond is dipping its toe into the smart-city waters, working with IBM to build a Smarter City Support System, an analytical system that will help city officials better target how and where they invest city funds. Otherwise, I have seen surprisingly little interest among Virginia municipalities in harnessing digital technologies to drive efficiencies, lower costs and improve the quality of service as Santander has done.

What’s the difference? Are the Spanish that much more technologically progressive in their thinking — more progressive than counties like Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun in one of largest clusters of information-technology and telecommunications companies in the world? Really? Or are are we simply complacent? I don’t know the answer but I do know this: With the ITT talent we have in this state, there is no excuse for Virginia local governments to set the global standard for smart cities. Virginians should demand more from their local governments.

Are you listening, Henrico County?

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3 responses to “Why Do People Visit Spain, Not Virginia, to See Smart Cities in Action?”

  1. larryg Avatar

    we have a new planning commission after last years’ election of conservatives to the BOS.

    In addition to instituting some pretty impressive penny pinching.. at the BOS level, the PC folks are re-writing the COMP PLAN and it’s been an exciting process because they started off saying they wanted to start from zero and the first version was to ONLY have in it – what state law REQUIRED.

    Now they are going about adding the other stuff and issues like community centers and libraries and ball fields are under discussion especially with regard to the regional library but schools that also have these facilities.

    but what really shocked me was the conservative chair expressed the belief that the internet is going to replace libraries and that – get this – the county might need to think about building Wi-FI in areas that don’t have it – for both kids and adults.

    His rationale echos those expressed in this thread – that from a cost-benefit point of view – multiple physical bricks and mortar infrastructure staffed by people – are more expensive than wifi.

    WiFI is how that Spanish town is doing what it is doing.. not wires.

    we have barely scratched the surface on public wireless infrastructure and it just might save some cities from Detroit’s pension fate.

  2. An organization that I belong to in Fairfax County is attempting to get low-cost broadband access for students getting free lunches. The broader goal is to force FCPS to offer more Internet-based courses. Kids cannot take these courses without access to broadband. A $10 access fee should greatly expand broadband access. And once these families get used to broadband, they will find a way to pay for it when their children finish school. So far, Cox Communications is working to deliver this service throughout most of Fairfax County. I think Comcast is doing the same in Reston. Verizon, not so much.

  3. larryg Avatar

    one of the interesting things – most people already have internet access – but they may not recognize it as the same that Comcast/Cox provides.

    It’s cellular internet – via their phones.

    it’s a safe bet that NoVa is plastered with cell towers – which would make idea platforms for WiFI – since that is very similar to how smartphones get internet from these towers. (different frequencies).

    but – neither Cox nor Comcast nor the cell phone companies really want to provide a cheaper subsidized service if it cannibalizes potential market for them.

    and this is a problem because even the lowest of the low income usually has a cell phone these days so Verizon/ATT/etc want to sell them more data services…for a price of course… so they can play Angry Birds or send photos to Instagram or post to Facebook!

    I’m a bit conflicted on this – because the very same cellphone can get to online education courses…. wikipedia… etc.. the same information that you’d get to with a laptop and wifi.

    I’ve read there is concern that making wifi available to the masses won’t result in more educated people – just more game players..

    ugly to think those thoughts, eh?

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