Smart Cities in Latin America and the Caribbean

Elizabeth Belair/ Inter-American Dialogue Elizabeth Belair/ Inter-American Dialogue

With more than 80 percent of Latin America’s population living in urban areas, the region has great potential to benefit from using technology, data and communications to improve the quality life of its citizens, according to a report recently released by McKinsey Global Institute. On Sept. 11, the Inter-American Dialogue hosted a panel to discuss the opportunities and challenges of developing smart cities in Latin America with Jaana Remes, a senior economist and partner at McKinsey, AT&T’s Jeffrey H. Dygert, BMW Group’s Guillermo Areas and Mauricio Bouskela from the Inter-American Development Bank.

Smart city technologies add a layer of connectivity to a municipality’s infrastructure using sensors on cell phones, cars and other gadgets to collect data and translate it into useful information in apps and platforms that help citizens, as well as local and state governments, make better decisions. According to McKinsey’s study, increasing the connectivity of Latin American cities could markedly improve the lives of people across a wide range of indicators of wellbeing, including in transit, water and health, Remes said.

Improvements to quality of life come in many forms. For Latin America, some of the greatest benefits could be seen in areas such as security, mobility, natural disasters, health care and citizen participation, the IDB’s Bouskela said. Poor transportation is one of Latin American cities’ biggest day-to-day problems, with many citizens spending at least two hours a day commuting to their workplace. Smart technology could substantially improve that. Sensors in cars could not only outline routes to avoid traffic during rush hour, but also pinpoint roads and bridges where infrastructure investment is needed. Moreover, electric vehicles, and eventually autonomous vehicles, will ease traffic, improve the efficiency of city grids and fuel and reduce mortality rates, BMW’s Areas said.

Dygert highlighted citizen security as a key area in which smart technology can be applied in Latin American cities. This includes allowing cities to monitor public spaces and ensuring proper lighting in dangerous areas, as well as installing gunshot sensors that could determine by triangulation where the gunshots took place, what type of gun was fired and how many were used.

In short, panelists agreed that smart cities can make people’s lives better. Technology can help governments pinpoint problematic areas and develop specific solutions. Individuals would have more free time, be safer, and energy and resources will be used in a more sustainable manner, according to Dygert. But many challenges remain, particularly in connectivity infrastructure and regulation, he noted. Going forward, governments will have to develop robust, unified and consistent data privacy regulation that does not stifle innovation, use private-public partnerships to develop these technologies and encourage active citizen participation, the panelists said.

“Overall, [we see] large opportunities for Latin America, very exciting sparks in different parts of the cities and we are … looking forward to see where the next wave of impact for smart cities will come from,” Remes concluded.

Watch the full recording of this event here: