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What Latin America Can Learn From China About Smart Cities

Most people in Latin America and the Caribbean live in urban areas. And many of those cities are downright massive, with sustainability challenges that desperately need solutions.

Mexico City
Mexico City
Patrice dos Santos*

-Analysis-

LISBON — At the heart of the so-called "smart city" concept, both in the developing and industrialized worlds, is the ability to create districts capable of tackling certain global challenges of our time.

Those challenges are starkly evident in Latin American cities and include urban regeneration, social inclusion, and socio-environmental issues like waste management, assuring water supplies and fomenting the circular economy. The smart city concept is intrinsically linked, in other words, to the quest for sustainability and social inclusion.

Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) have on average an urban population rate of 80.6%, according to World Bank figures (compared to the global average of 55.3%). And 40% of the region's population lives in cities of more than a million inhabitants. LAC is thus the most urbanized place in the developing world, and the intensity of this urbanization has made traditional policies for managing issues of land use, social inclusion or governability, less relevant.

Obviously, information and communication technologies alone won't transform a city's environment. That's why LAC, perhaps more than other regions, needs defined national policies with a clear vision of civil society's needs, and in line with sustainability guidelines like the UN's Regional Action Plan (PAR) for the Implementation of the New Urban Agenda 2016-36, or Goal 11 of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals on making cities "inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable."

The rise of megacities — places like Mexico City and greater Buenos Aires with more than 20 million residents — and growth pressures exerted by regional cities are compounding these aggravated environmental problems. Examples include pollution due to the concentration of economic and industrial activities, traffic congestion and the critical state of residue disposal.

We need social and technological changes to forge a new urban paradigm.

GaWc, a research network connected to Loughborough University, in England, found that of all LAC countries, only Brazil has a range of cities qualifying as smart cities working on improving the urban environment. They included both alpha (Sao Paulo) and beta cities (Rio de Janeiro), and others with a potential for global role-playing (Curitiba, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre, Recife, Campinas and Salvador de Bahía).

Governing for smart cities in LAC faces other, transversal challenges such as reduced citizen participation, limited industrial capacity, dependence on foreign technologies and unequal public financing capabilities. We thus need social and technological changes to forge a new urban paradigm defining the city as a public good whose process of "co-design" requires inputs from all actors of economic, technological and financial relevance.

These can typically include the Inter-American Development Bank, Inter-American Association of Telecommunication Firms (ASIET) and CAF, the Development Bank of Latin America. They must also include the views of ordinary people and active participation of universities (public policy and territorial sciences departments, architecture, engineering etc.).

Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China — Photo: Naitian Wang/Unsplash

But for inspiration, actors involved in urban policymaking in Latin America would do well to look beyond the region — to China, where more than 500 pilot projects have been launched in cities lie Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hangzhou, among others. Indeed, China has demonstrated smart power through the WeGo information sharing platform, improved collaboration between cities, and developed particular solutions for urban co-creation and sustainable city development.

Applying those lessons in LAC will require precise indicators through urban and environmental monitoring, to evaluate and check on objectives duly set by public decision-makers and not just by the capacities of leading tech firms.

The sharing of experiences at local, regional and national levels thus becomes a key component in increasing the learning curve for Latin American districts, metropolitan zones and regions, and ultimately creating cities that are both more inclusive and environmentally friendly.

It's not too late for the LAC region to promote and enact policies for developing cities in greater harmony with the natural world. But the time to start is now.


*Patrice dos Santos is a Lisbon-based consultant in innovative urban and territorial planning, specializing in Iberian and Latin American cities.

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