Smart City Feature: Madrid, Spain

Flickr Losrodri

Can old cities be smart?

Earlier this week my colleague Lamis did a feature on Songdo, South Korea. A city designed from the ground up to be smart and connected. However, most of us don't live in such a new city. Most cities have been built organically over hundreds of years. If new technologies can't be adapted to urban environments where most people live they often fail.

Fortunately, there are a lot of things that old cities do to keep up with the times and make lives easier. One of the areas where Madrid has excelled at is connected public transportation.

Every bus stop in the city has a "smart sticker" from Connecthings. Whenever I want to know when the next bus is, I just tap my phone on the NFC sticker and the estimated arrival of the next bus just pops up. It's super easy. How does it work? What they do is put a GPS on every city bus to track it in real time. No small task when the EMT, the public bus company, owns literally thousands of them.

Smart City tag courtesy of Connecthings

It wouldn't make sense for the city to keep all this great information for itself. That's why Madrid shares it with anyone. Open Data is the technical term and Madrid is part of the It's when massive amounts of data is freely available to anyone, anywhere, for any purpose. And this is pixelated gold for developers. Google Maps uses it to tell you when the next bus is, so you know exactly when you need to be out the door in the morning. Waze, the traffic app, uses real time bus data to see if some streets have more traffic than others and re-directs drivers accordingly. Isn't that nice? Public transport and drivers benefit, it's a win-win.

Since every bus has a GPS and sends out its location in real time it needs an internet connection. Why not share that connection with passengers? Tada! Madrid thought the same thing and all buses and major stops have free wifi. This makes it convenient to always be connected. It's a huge advantage compared to the metro where some stations don't even have a phone signal.

But even that is changing. The metro currently has 124 stations with 3G phone coverage. In partnership with mobile phone companies Movistar and Vodafone, stations in the city centre will soon be covered with 4G (link in Spanish).

Smart cities aren't about super expensive and complicated stuff. Often it's small incremental changes that make urban life easier. It's the small things that people appreciate.

Small changes can be smart changes.