BARCELONA -- We have smartphones, smart cars, and now smart cities. The ability to take full advantage of the interconnected world means better opportunities for local governments and businesses to become more integrated, efficient and safe. The Mobile World Congress this week built a life-size city block to join the many featured corporations, start-ups and applications in exploring how to build the city of the future.
The MWC constructed an entire city, inside the Barcelona FIRA convention hall, complete with hotel, car lot, restaurants, bars, and outdoor community spaces. A theme of the whole conference is connection through near-field communication technology, including NFC badges for each of the 72,000 attendees and NFC scavenger hunts. Most of the Connected City's businesses and products exhibited how to use NFC to do just about anything, from bike rentals to lighting and music control in your hotel room.
Catalan start-up eCooltra is a mix of ZipCar and Enterprise for the sharing of electric motorcycles and scooters. Owner Damien Martin Dans said renters simply go to the app on your smartphone to make your moto-reservation. When you get to the vehicle, that same phone and its NFC scanner act as the key that starts the engine. He said that it is essential to be an electric vehicle in Barcelona or any European city to cut through the traffic and parking frustrations and to reduce pollution, and that NFC is the future, with a more secure way to pay for things.
Besides the easiness, the connected city highlighted how NFC technology gives something extra for phone companies to offer to create brand loyalty, in a time when apps like WhatsApp have customers not even sending SMSs, dramatically hurting profits. With providers having NFC partnerships, subscribers can charge things in an instant directly to their cell phone bills, avoiding plugging in credit card information.
Cars are getting even smarter, too. General Motors has partnered with AT&T and OnStar to offer Canadian and American buyers 4G cars. Among the many parts of this new K.I.T. are four cameras you can use to check on the area around your car at all times, as well as a message is sent to you as soon as someone touches your car, preventing vandalism and theft. You can even honk your horn from afar to scare folks away. Europe is just starting to be introduced to the world of 4G, so it will take until 2015 to get it on the road here.
Parked just outside the MWC official "city" was top Japanese IT company NEC and their steps for a smarter world. Hostess Virginia Diaz walked SmartPlanet through their high-tech city plan, saying the first thing you need to build a smart city is that everyone has a smartphone. Since host country Spain is fifth in the world for smartphone usage, it makes for an ideal smart spot.
The focus of most smart cities is first and foremost public safety. The NEC facial recognition in public places goes beyond what's already in U.K. and U.S. airports, by detecting not only faces, but behavior and body language. For example, the system could quickly recognize and notify security if someone is standing up unnecessarily during a film or in any public place being monitored for potential disruptions or risk.
From a shopper or tourist standpoint, the NEC motion recognition software can access products by a simple scan of the physical item or image. One of the hostesses used her iPad to scan a commercial for a Japanese beer, and then her device auto-searched for the nearest place to buy a bottle. She suggested the technology would be perfect for self-guided sightseeing, like when you come across odd-looking lampposts in a plaza in Barcelona and you scan them to realize they were one of Gaudi's first works.
The NEC smart schools allow teachers to send parents real-time updates on students' coursework and behavior. As Diaz said, of course, "the students would probably hate this." It also would offer the class flexibility missing in most Spanish universities, by allowing classes to be blended and at least partly online. Plus, if all Spanish public school students had tablets in the classroom, it would save the parents the costly price of buying new textbooks every year.
For medical purposes, NEC can help create a radio-frequency identifying cold chain, which monitors the temperature and movement of all products, like medicine or blood in transit.
The current reality of smart city enabling technology is that no city in the world has found the way to manage it all. Spain has many claimed smart cities, like Malaga, Valencia and Santander, but exactly what defines a "smart city" is still unclear.
Abertis Telecom provides Spain's second largest infrastructure. With more than 40,000 TV, radio and mobile signal towers, they are perfectly situated to help Spanish cities get smarter. In 2008, they started with Barcelona and now have gone from working with just the local government to Barna city residents having access to 469 free WiFi spots, along with the city as a whole benefiting from more than 400 other shared services.
Also in Barcelona, Abertis developed Spain's first smart zone, which is an interconnected, comprehensively managed area of a city, in this case, surrounding their headquarters, around the corner from the conference. The project focuses on testing technology and developing services and solutions that lead to more comprehensive city management, including electric vehicles, parking, mobility, waste management, emergency response, energy usage, and security. They are called smart zones "because it's too challenging to do pilots in a whole city," said zone manager Raul Gonzalez Prats. Abertis now has multiple pilots around Spain to both do their own research and to help cities more effectively manage resources.
When asked which Spanish city he would call a true smart city, Prats said, "None. At least for now, but they are making strides. There are efficient services in many cities, but they don't have the capacity to integrate them yet."
This year's Mobile World Congress goes beyond mobile telephones and makes us certain that smart cities are going to be a growing trend in the upcoming years.
Photos: Mobile World Congress/Jennifer K. Riggins