Many a metropolis dreams of becoming a “smart city” like Santander. The small port in northern Spain now serves the world as a test lab and role model. How did this happen?
Luis Muñoz, the man who reputedly created the smartest city in the world does not – with all due respect – look like a tech nerd. In his green sweater over a checkered shirt, leather slippers and jeans in old-man beige, he could be someone’s jovial uncle or the owner of a corner bar where the last beer is always on the house. “Welcome to the city that can think,” he calls, “welcome to Santander!”
For a long time, the term “smart city” was the watchword for urban planners wishing to sound like visionaries – an empty hull into which to pour their imaginings. More than half of the world’s population lives in cities today and the trend is up. Clever solutions are needed to cope with urban growth, and so many places were told that they would be digitalized, that they would be transformed into smart cities. That promise has rarely been fulfilled.
In Santander, however, it was. Now some 20 000 sensors are spread across the city transmitting hundreds of thousands of data items per day. Santander has smart dumpsters, smart sprinklers and a smart parking system. “We didn’t just talk about it, we did it,” says informatics professor Muñoz. Back in 2009, he was sitting with his team in a room at the university where they still meet today. He asked: Why don’t we actually put the idea of a smart city to the test? Why always simulate everything to death? Let’s get it out onto the streets, to people! If it doesn’t work, well, at least we’ve given it a try. It sounds like a technology fairy tale, of course, or a romantic notion of making the world a better place. Okay, the path was rocky, admits Muñoz. It took some effort to overcome the town hall’s reservations, “but I had a hunch that it could work better here than elsewhere,“ he says. It was like a gamble on the future despite all current risks.
Even without a conceptual superstructure, Santander is an attractive destination. It doesn’t just have a world-class bank to its name, but also that easygoing atmosphere peculiar to towns with gulls and palm trees; to places where ordering draft beer with your empanadillas has fellow patrons raising their glass rather than an eyebrow. The younger generation moves here for the university; the senior citizens sit in cafés, checkmating each other. On El Sardinero beach, board-carrying surfers trot into the waves. Above all of this, the sun hangs in the sky like a great big orange. Santander is home to some 175 000 people – too few to overwhelm, too many to call the place provincial.
Muñoz says we simply must see the watering system, so off we go to Las Llamas park. There are no wheelbarrow-pushing gardeners here; engineers do the job via smartphone, from their office. Luis Bolado is one of them. He points to an antenna: 44 sensors are installed in the park. The antenna transmits data to the server, which analyzes hours of sunshine, humidity, precipitation, everything – and if necessary, triggers the watering system. With his cell phone, click, Bolado can activate the sprinklers and, click, regulate the water. But he doesn’t need to because it works all by itself. The system spot checks performed here are all that remain of a skeptical attitude toward technology. “Better safe, than sorry,” says Bolado.
For my next tour I join the garbage collectors early in the morning. The truck stops on Paseo de Pereda promenade, where five dumpsters await them. “They have sensors inside that tell us when they’re full,” says Begoña Castaño, the woman in charge of Santander’s waste management. Routes are constantly updated on a tablet PC inside each cab, so the trucks cover less ground unnecessarily, pollute less air and require fewer drivers. Castaño is very proud of this, you can tell. She just doesn’t get why some people are so opposed to smart cities.
And yet every attempt to make a city better by collecting data and implementing technology gets people agitated. Data security campaigners say it invades people’s privacy and critics maintain that universal digitalization makes a city vulnerable. It’s concerns like these that put an end to some smart city initiatives in Germany, and the WannaCry cyber attack in May certainly didn’t help. It infected 230 000 computers in 150 countries, hitting big companies like FedEx, Telefónica and Renault. Europol said it had “never seen anything like this before.” Since then, everyone is once again feverishly asking whether Santander is safe. Muñoz says he understands the skeptics. “We have to protect the systems as best we can. We have state-of-the-art firewalls and constantly updated back-ups, but there will never be an absolute guarantee.”
We didn’t just talk about it, we did it
The central SmartSantander app has a feature that lets you extend your parking time with a click. That doesn’t sound spectacular, you may think, but because all of the data comes together on the central server, every other user knows where and when a space becomes vacant, too. The app also has an augmented reality mode. Hold up your GPS smartphone and the camera will display your surroundings on the screen along with the services available there. So with one sweep of your phone, you know everything about your surroundings. In return, the app learns a lot about its users: where they are, what they’re doing, where they want to go. Santander’s ex-mayor Íñigo de la Serna proclaimed that in terms of data, the least restrictive cities would be the most competitive in the future. In plain terms: Please do not regulate!
The data privacy laws in force in Santander are laxer than those in Germany. That’s because so far no one here has tried to intercept or exploit data commercially. However, the mood could change should the system be hacked some day. Everyone knows this, and so does Muñoz. But he believes that smart cities also bring freedom, a kind of freedom we have possibly not yet grasped. If a citizen delegates municipal tasks to the city, is he or she not free to perform other tasks? Where others see risks, Muñoz sees opportunities. For the city administrators, he painted a vision in the sky: Santander, once the Spanish king’s summer retreat, would become the smartest place on earth! It was an underdog story that caught people’s imagination.
At the town hall, we are met by the present mayor, Gema Igual. Listening to her, you learn why the concept that frequently failed elsewhere has been a success here. She talks about the crisis in 2008, when Santander reached rock bottom, its economy in tatters. New impetus was needed to restore the city’s pride.
SmartSantander was just the right project for desperate times. “We will always do what needs to be done to support the idea,” says Igual, “we know how much we owe it.” Jobs were created, an efficient administration in which the people of Santander have confidence, she says. With the smart-city app, Santanderinos can also report everyday problems, such as street lamps out of order, entrances blocked by parked cars, potholes, traffic jams, and then see on the app how quickly the problem is dealt with. Bureaucracy readily invites observation with a view to improving performance, and the people are thankful. Not the least of its achievements, Santander is suddenly known to half the world, says Igual. Representatives from other cities now come to the Atlantic port, which has become a center for delegation tourism.
The Palacio de Riva-Herrera houses the Smart City Demonstration Center. Japanese visitors were recently here, and before them, South Africans, Chileans early in the year. It welcomes delegations from the U.S. all the time. But now a group of Turks is expected. Pedro Cano looks at the clock. They turn up half an hour late, the delegates from the metropolitan region of Ankara in their slim-fit suits and patent-leather shoes. Cano, a lecturer at the center, welcomes them, nods and laughs. Then he spends an hour talking about his city, about the buses, police cars and taxis that transmit their position, speed and other data via sensor; about street lamps that only shine brightly when someone walks by at night and about the parking system that started it all: “We had a big problem with congestion in the city center. It was impossible to find a place to park,” he says. So Muñoz and his team installed magneto-electrical modules every few meters that register when a car parks and report it to the central server, which triggers boards on every street to indicate to drivers where and how many spaces are vacant. One of the Turkish visitors asks Cano whether they could also use the sensors he is working on. Rather than laughing the question off, Cano says: Sure, that might be possible, please write to the university – to Muñoz.
It’s this open attitude that distinguishes Santander from other smart cities. Here, nothing is walled off. Santander is a lab without a door. Everyone is allowed to come in and contribute. “I dream of a city in which the inhabitants not only report problems, but also remedy them themselves,” says Muñoz. That, in his opinion, would really be smart. That would be the future. This is a new vision, but an even bigger one. And once again Muñoz has a hunch that if it can work anywhere, then in Santander.