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“Networked, self-driving cars are what will change our cities the most”

Director of the Smart City Congress (Congreso de Ciudades Inteligentes) and editorial and development director for the Tecma Red group, Inés Leal. Credit: Courtesy of the interviewee.

Strategy beyond simple technology. This is how smart cities should be planned, according to the architect and director of the Smart City Congress, Inés Leal.

By Jose Carlos Sánchez

Self-driving cars, robots, sustainability, rehabilitation, and so on: for the director of the Smart City Congress and editorial and development director for the Tecma Red group, Inés Leal, all these elements converge into a single space – the city. This architect specialising in almost zero-energy buildings holds that smart cities are moving “from discussion to reality” in Spain, as was demonstrated at the Third Smart City Congress which took place in Madrid (Spain) on 26 and 27 April. It boasted the collaboration of the Spanish Secretary of State for the Information Society and Digital Agenda of the Ministry of Energy, Tourism and Digital Agenda for Spain.

The forum is designed for “all the professionals who are involved in some way in the city”, such as local councils, firms and researchers, explained Leal. And, from the prominent position offered her by her office, she warned, “a city cannot be smart only because you implement information and communications technology (ICT), it has to be smart in its strategy”.

Much has been said about smart cities, but what exactly are they?

What characterises the use of the adjective “smart” is the use of ICT to improve citizens’ quality of life and make cities more accessible. However, information and communications technologies are just tools. Now there is also talk about resilient cities, with the ability to adapt to what is going to happen. What we must not do is what is mentioned in certain forums: to achieve one smart city model. No. Each city has its own needs, its own nature, its goals… its specific way of being.

But sometimes, and according to certain visions, it seems that a single technology is sufficient to transform a city into a smart city.

This concept [that of the smart city] arose out of the point of view of companies who at a specific time wanted to sell their products and services in a very decent way; I say this without any criticism at all. However, more than making a city a smart city through an agreement with a company which gives you a tool or service, the current trend is to generate a strategy for the future.

Is the appearance of the Internet of Things (IoT) reviving the discussion about smart cities?

Since this concept began to be talked about, technology has experienced an enormous progression towards more open platforms in which really you are not tied to any type of specific technology. It is true that the IoT will play an essential part, but the feeling is that many of our cities are already full of sensors that are constantly obtaining data.

Rather than the IoT, what is trendy nowadays is the issue of artificial intelligence. This means that you obtain data, and then a machine analyses them and makes decisions to improve a process. It is something that is going to absolutely change everything. For example, in a building where you have an air-conditioning system, if you have networked this system and a problem comes up, you will be able to analyse it from a machine and resolve 75% of the problems without human intervention. This is just fine. Europe has said it wants to have no CO2 emissions by 2050. Its goal is to be a decarbonised society, so buildings will have to be very highly efficient. We cannot allow ourselves the luxury of having a breakdown. It may seem like science fiction, but it can be done today.

And what impact do you believe the arrival of self-driving cars will have?

For me, networked, self-driving cars will be the thing that will change our cities the most, even at a physical level. All the car-making companies are working on a prototype self-driving car. But the challenge is not to achieve this. At the beginning, there will be a transition period, but once past this, the concept of mobility will change completely. A networked, self-driving car is not a car you are going to own. These cars won’t be in a car park under your house, they won’t be in the street, they’ll be at your service and will move around the city based on demand. What will happen to all the car parks? What will happen to all the cars parked in the street? The design of our cities will change completely.

What has to be done then with the city that is already there?

Right now, most cities have major problems. They have existing buildings, road networks and many other things. This is one of the big challenges. Putting in technology just for the sake of putting it in: if you have not resolved other issues such as very run-down neighbourhoods and buildings offering very poor living conditions, it makes no sense.

You have to commit to a policy of restoring the city at buildings, energy efficiency and sanitary level. It is incredible that in the 21st century there are places that are in certain condition inside our cities. We have to design a city so that everyone, regardless of their abilities, can live in it. I believe that this should be included in the concept of the smart city. But ultimately, once all these changes are made, I believe that technology can play an important role. It is a general policy of many issues that each city will have to look at. What is recovering public space going to entail? Without doubt, and above all, it is going to be for the citizens.


The technologies exist, the materials exist. It is more a question of having a strategy at city level or country level. It is a case of saying that this is important for a country. Renovating is not the same thing as building. Perhaps the business model for private enterprise is more difficult, but in some way the resources have to be provided to achieve it. And not just through subsidies, because these issues have been subsidised many times and have not even got off the ground.

What should the dialogue between the different stakeholders in a city be like?

There are issues which require coordination. By 2020, for example, all the buildings [that are new builds] have to be nearly zero energy, but in addition the [European] directive states that the energy has to be produced in the building or its environment. You cannot therefore legislate independently in a ministry devoted to energy on an issue that is going to affect buildings in a massive way. The challenges that are presenting themselves are all cross-cutting.

Is it difficult to innovate in cities?

It is hard, but that is due to how we approach the way cities work. For me, innovation in cities should be led by government. I say this in all seriousness. The authorities should be sufficiently disruptive and innovative to dare to think about what the future will be like. The problem is that this is not happening. We should be one step ahead. The subject of the collaborate economy is apparent. I do not understand why they don’t take the bull by the horns. The subject of robotisation, just the same. For example, Europe has brought out a specific plan to be able to give legal entity status to robots in case, for example, a self-driving car runs somebody over. All these issues have to be resolved.



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