The Intelligent Cities Promise: Illusion or Reality?

The “Smart City” or “Intelligent Cities” concept has been positioned globally for some years now as the great opportunity to revolutionize sustainable urban development, based on the use of new software and hardware technologies, i.e. the so-called “ICTs”, which seek to improve the quality of life of citizens by boosting the digital economy, placing citizens at the center of the model.

But while there are regions in the world like Asia-Pacific, with exponents such as Singapore or Japan that have revolutionized the quality of life within their cities thanks to a comprehensive and very successful scheme of “Smart Cities”, in Latin America it is a utopia that seems far from being realized.

Why do not the so-called Smart Cities take off in Latin America?

The expression “Intelligent City” refers specifically to a complex, interconnected system of technologies that allows for the management of all relevant aspects of the operation of a city, from the optimization of public transportation, through the efficient use of energy resources, daily commercial activities, the beautification and accessibility of public spaces, to mechanisms for citizen participation.

“An intelligent city detects the needs of its inhabitants, and reacts to these demands by transforming the interactions of citizens with public service systems and elements into knowledge. Thus, the city bases its actions and management on this knowledge, ideally in real time, or even anticipating what may happen,” Juan Murillo, head of Territorial Analysis at BBVA Data & Analytics

However, in order to achieve a successful implementation model of “Intelligent Cities”, it must be dimensioned from an integral perspective, that is, it is not only a matter of devices or technology as many rulers in power have tried in Latin America, but a long-term and complex policy that must incorporate at least these five key aspects:


  1. The citizen at the center of the strategy
  2. Advocate for sustainable development
  3. Respond to a long-term State Policy
  4. Support through high capacity connectivity
  5. Strengthen local economies


  1. The citizen at the center of the strategy

When Singapore decided to make its cities smart, it set as its main objective to improve the quality of life of citizens, so any action taken had to be framed in one of the four specific objectives defined by a group of experts: Enhance mobility of citizens, reduce waiting times (Ending queues in public spaces), improve security and/or strengthen public spaces.

This perspective allowed to keep the focus and not be distracted by the utilitarianism of the devices or the commercial strategies of the technology brands. This way, each technological system that was incorporated had to be articulated in one of the proposed axes and be accompanied by a management, follow-up and permanent evaluation model of its impact.

  1. Advocate for sustainable development

Considering that the sustainability of the planet is threatened by the depredation of resources that human beings have undertaken throughout their history, all the successful “Intelligent Cities” models implemented so far have been articulated from a self-sustainability perspective, where renewable energies, recycling, less polluting technologies, reuse of resources and in general all self-sustainable systems that can remain in the long term are privileged.

  1. Respond to a long-term State Policy

In order for “Smart Cities” projects to be possible, viable and to survive in the long term, it is necessary that they are designed and appropriate as a long-term State Policy and not an electoral initiative of the government in power. In Singapore, for example, the policy began to be designed and implemented at the beginning of the century and is planned for the first stage until 2035. In this way, all governments, regardless of their ideology, political position or government program, must articulate their actions with this policy.

  1. Support through high capacity connectivity

Large, multi-dimensional, multi-redundant connectivity capabilities are essential to ensure that thousands of video cameras, intelligent mobility systems, renewable energy systems, applications, mobile devices, early response systems, energy technology equipment, and hundreds of thousands of devices operate harmoniously and with high standards of availability. In other words, an “Intelligent City” is only possible if there are high flow outputs to international Internet channels, multiple local access providers and a wide range of fixed and mobile broadband offerings. At this point, TELCOs play a very important role, and without them it is impossible to achieve it, while it becomes a great possibility of diversification in the business models that provide sufficient oxygen for the viability of the business models.

You may be interested in the article: “Telcos: big outside, rigid inside”

  1. Strengthen local economies

The “Intelligent Cities” should always aim at strengthening local economies, facilitating payment systems, enhancing digital commerce, bringing new people into digital markets, facilitating banking and contributing significantly to the gross domestic product of cities, and therefore, of nations.

The reality of Latin America

By measuring all the above aspects, it is possible to identify why it is still a utopia in Latin America to think of ” Intelligent Cities” true integral macro-projects, although many governments and candidates have repeatedly invoked the topic, commonly the approach has been totally technological, reducing the scope to the functions derived from the devices and not to an integral strategy based on the citizen.

On the other hand, many of the rulers in Latin America suffer from Adam’s syndrome, that is, they claim that “everything began with them” and most of them are unaware of previous efforts, which does not allow long-term policies such as those that have been implemented in cities like Singapore, Tokyo, Stockholm or New York.

It is also important to recognize that there are multiple asymmetries in the region, according to various specialized indicators, such as CIMI, G3ict and World Enablepor, the cities of Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile, Mexico City, Medellín, Montevideo and Belo Horizonte have made great strides towards the consolidation of viable and sustainable “Intelligent Cities” schemes. First of all, they seek to place the citizen at the center of policies, through technological strategies that aim to strengthen public transport, citizen safety, interaction with the government, sustainable mobility systems, improving connectivity indicators and developing green energy projects, all of which are linked to a clear public policy for the city. Although these cities are far from the great achievements of Asian cities such as Singapore, Seoul or Tokyo, or European cities such as Stockholm, Reykjavik or Barcelona, they are clearly on the right track. While in other cities such as Bogotá, Managua, Tegucigalpa, Asunción, Caracas and El Salvador, where the issue has been mentioned by their rulers in recent decades, the reality, independent evaluations and indicators show the opposite, as they are cities with disjointed, polluting, unsafe policies, where the citizen is outside the public policy focus and their rulers are not able to articulate technology to an integral urban policy, while in many other cities in the region, especially those of small and medium size, the issue is not even on the radar of their rulers.

The role of the Internet of Everything

As we discussed previously in the article “Understanding the Internet of Everything”, this model contributes significantly to the articulation of Intelligent Cities, as it offers a practical and conceptual support that has proven to be an excellent vehicle for the viability of large projects of Intelligent Cities such as New York, Paris and Reykjavik.

The Internet of Everything “is about bringing together people, processes, data and things to make networked connections more relevant and valuable ever before — turning information into actions that create new capabilities, richer experiences and unprecedented economic opportunities for businesses, individuals and countries“, (Cisco, 2013).

And although the concept is still in its infancy, its fundamental pillars undoubtedly provide elements that can save governments a lot of time to successfully implement Smart Cities projects. 1. People: Connecting people in more relevant and valuable ways. 2. Data: Converting data into intelligence to make better decisions. 3. Processes: Delivering the right information to the right person (or machine) at the right time. 4. Things: Physical devices and objects connected to the Internet and each other for intelligent decision making; (Internet of things).

In conclusion, in order to achieve a successful implementation model of “Intelligent Cities” in Latin America, it is necessary to dimension it from an integral perspective, where the citizen must be at the center of the strategy, seeking to promote sustainable development, responding to a long-term State Policy, supported by high capacity connectivity, where the “Internet of Everything” can contribute significantly to the design, as many Asian, European and North American cities have achieved.

Finally, the “Intelligent Cities” projects are a great opportunity for Telecommunications Industry, because it enables them to diversify their business models, increase cash flow while making a great social and urban contribution.