Old Port City Leaps into High-Tech Future


Old Port City Leaps into High-Tech Future
The Spanish city of Santander is using a network of sensors to help improve services and save money. The sensors measure everything from air pollution to where there are free parking spaces. They can even tell garbage collectors which bins are full, and automatically dim street lights when no one is around.

Santander was already a flourishing port city when Flemish artist Joris Hoefnagel painted this cityscape around 1590. Today, the sleepy Spanish town may be the world's first "smart city." Painting by Joris Hoefnagel, courtesy Wikimedia
Santander was already a flourishing port city when Flemish artist Joris Hoefnagel painted this cityscape around 1590. Today, the sleepy Spanish town may be the world’s first “smart city.”
Painting by Joris Hoefnagel, courtesy Wikimedia

Discussion Ideas:

  • Using an app called “Pulse of the City,” residents and visitors to Santander, Spain, can be alerted to traffic jams, stormy weather, or street closures. Santander has embedded itself with 12,000 electronic sensors to monitor almost all activity. This graphic provides an outline of how the system works. Where do students think these sensors are embedded?
    • Many sensors, hidden in small grey boxes, are buried underground, attached to street lamps, secured to building walls, affixed to garbage bins, and connected to utility poles. Taxis, buses, and smartphone users can use “Pulse of the City” by constantly registering their location and transmitting information from their surroundings.
  • Can students name some benefits to having a city blanketed in sensors?
    • The NPR article names quite a few, and this Spiegel article gives more detail. Sensors transmit useful information, such as:
      • the city’s air pollution, pollen count, and ozone levels
      • the location of empty parking spaces
      • the location of potholes, street repairs, or traffic accidents
      • when city garbage bins are full
      • when streetlights need to be replaced—or dimmed, such as during full moons or times of low activity
      • how much water a city park or golf course needs
      • monitoring traffic and noise levels
      • monitoring bus schedules
      • providing historic information on local sites for tourists
      • relaying information on operating hours, sales, and other offers from participating local businesses
  • Read our article on “Urban Planning.” Can students identify some primary concerns of urban planners? 
    • Health, public safety, and maintaining a sense of community are key to urban planning.
  • How do students think urban planners could use “smart city” sensors like the kind employed in Santander? What data do they think would be valuable to their community?
    • In the Spiegel article, Santander Mayor Iñigo de la Serna, an engineer, expresses an interest in making data about the city public. This may include information on real estate prices and transactions—who is buying what property, and at what cost. It may also include statistical information on demographics—the age, sex, ethnicity, or economic status of Santander residents.
    • Santander is a historic port city. Our media spotlight “Key Partners at U.S. Ports” identifies a few of the organizations involved in port operation. Sensors could track the movement of ships, the loading and unloading of cargo, and the port’s use of public utilities such as water and power.
    • The Nat Geo Education article emphasizes the role of public transportation in urban planning. Sensors could identify safe and efficient bus routes or bike-friendly paths by tracking traffic patterns.
    • The Nat Geo Education article also introduces the concept of mixed-use communities, where businesses, housing, and public facilities exist within walking distance of each other. Smart-city sensors may identify where mixed-use communities could be most beneficial, by tracing the traffic and spending habits of residents. Hospitals and health-care facilities, for example, may be incorporated into an area with a large population of elderly residents. A mixed-use community with parks, community gardens, and public pools may be most beneficial in an area with a large number of young families. 
  • Santander is testing the city-sensor approach to urban planning. What limitations can students identify with the approach? In other words, can they think of urban areas that could not adopt Santander’s “smart city” sensors?
    • Some elements of the approach may be limited to developed regions. Urban areas using the “smart city” sensors probably need to have a well-established infrastructure in place. The sensors would benefit from a reliable power grid, wireless network, water distribution system, and GIS-enabled public services (such as a police force or fire department), for instance. A city would also need a staff of educated engineers and public servants to staff a “command-and-control center” like the one in Santander, which sifts through, transmits, and responds to all the sensor data.
    • Many parts of the approach could also be used in developing regions, however. Smart-city sensors demand infrastructure, but Santander’s “Pulse of the City” app may not. As detailed in our article “Spreading the Message,” many residents of developing nations have mobile phones equipped with basic text-messaging. Free, easy-to-install software like FrontlineSMS can enable residents to take the “pulse” of their city without relying on government infrastructure. Individuals and communities have used FrontlineSMS to help monitor national elections, report market prices, and organize responses to safety or health-care incidents. These community-driven activities would benefit a truly “smart city.”
  • Do students think this kind of technology would benefit their community? Why or why not?
  • Both the NPR and Spiegel articles mention “Big Brother.” Do students understand that reference? Do students think “Big Brother” label is applicable to Santander’s citywide monitoring? Why or why not?
    • It’s not a compliment. Big Brother is the totalitarian leader in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Every citizen of Oceania, the fictional state in which the novel is set, is under constant, complete surveillance by Big Brother. The surveillance identifies “thought criminals” who question Big Brother, and targets them for brutal “rehabilitation.”

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