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How forward thinking cites are using the Internet of Everything to fix their economies

Chicago was recently announced as the host city for the Internet of Things World Forum this autumn, following Barcelona’s excellent performance as host last autumn. This forum is important because it’s already way more than just another collection of business types in a hotel.

It’s increasingly relevant for cities to want to host this event. Yes, the conference revenue is useful, but more than that it is an opportunity to showcase your city as forward thinking. Barcelona as host was a great example.

It’s fair to say that despite recent optimism, the world, and especially Western Europe and North America, is still recovering from the financial earthquakes of five years ago. Government deficit is everywhere. The response to the crisis in most western economies has been a series of austerity programmes, with social and other services being cut whilst taxes slowly rise. Everybody has been feeling the pain. Spain was one of the hardest-hit European economies. In Spain, youth unemployment exceeded 50%, with serious concerns in some parts of the country about the potential for social order breakdown.

As John Chambers so eloquently discussed in his keynote at the CES in Las Vegas, Barcelona thought differently, and by 2013 it was one of the few cities in Europe running a fiscal surplus. So how did this great city achieve this success? Well, by embracing technology and doing some creative thinking.

Working with Cisco, the Barcelona team embraced the idea of the Internet of Things and began to rethink how the city delivers services:

  • How about a car parking app that allows a driver to see where the vacant spots are nearby? This approach delivered 30% higher car parking spot utilisation, and so raised revenue for the city. It also lowered the amount of time drivers spent looking for parking spots, cutting traffic jams and lowering carbon emissions and driver frustration at the same time.
  • How about intelligent streetlights? Not only do they detect when it is light and dark, and adjust accordingly, but they also detect whether there is any movement nearby. If nobody’s around, they dim, saving energy and cutting emissions. On top of all this, the streetlights are wifi hotspots, supporting citizen connectivity such as the car parking app mentioned earlier -- and they become charge points for electric cars.
  • How about intelligent refuse bins? A bin that tells you when it’s full, needs emptying etc. This allows better refuse truck route planning and produces a multi-million Euro saving. Who would have thought that technology could make a multi-million Euro difference to refuse collection?

These are just a few of many examples.

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The bottom line is that by adopting this approach, Barcelona has been able to make a difference to its people that amounts to tens or maybe hundreds of millions of Euros in value. This means less need for austerity programmes, less cuts to jobs and social services, and more room for growth and opportunity. As we continue our journey towards economic recovery, there are still costs to be cut. However, smart use of technology can lower costs without necessarily cutting services. In fact, this “smart city” approach can reduce cost and improved life for its citizens.

Barcelona has taken its challenges and turned them into its vision. In doing so, it has taken the fear and uncertainty of the recession and used it to trigger a programme which has created unprecedented services and opportunity for its people. This is a key lesson for all politicians and leaders, and one which other cites would do well to follow.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Jonny02

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