‘Smart’ used to be what we called the kids in class who finished their homework first or the ones who aced their exams.

Nowadays it’s the catch-all word for the digitally connected universe we’re headed towards at breakneck speed. From smartphones to smart cars, we’re all busy smartening up.

So what happens when a city decides to become smart? Santander, on the north coast of Spain, thinks it has the answer. Since 2010, this picturesque city peppered with beaches and nature reserves has been installing thousands of sensors – more than 16,000, to be exact – as part of a European Commission-funded project that is designed to help the city become more efficient and intuitive for its residents. 

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So where do you put 16,000 sensors? At the moment, they are patiently tracking anything that moves, from traffic jams to household water usage, and reporting back to the City Council. This data dump is then streamlined, analysed and interpreted as part of the SmartSantander project which is supported by the University of Cantabria.

Efficiencies like this don’t just make cities easier and more enjoyable for people to live in, they also make them greener. 

Whilst placing sensors around a city may not sound particularly ground-breaking, the fact that Santander City Council is willing to share the data with residents is the really valuable addition to this innovative solution. Amongst a population of around 185,000 people, as many as 50,000 are using an array of apps developed in collaboration with the project which allow them to directly track city information.

In time, this information will allow Santander to make both micro and macro-decisions, such as changing lights to adjust for traffic flow, coordinating bin collection to account for household need, or pre-empting constraints on utilities like water or electricity in specific neighbourhoods at certain times of the day. 

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Efficiencies like this don’t just make cities easier and more enjoyable for people to live in, they also make them greener. According to SmartSantander, the city has already reduced CO2 emissions by more than 30 per cent thanks to their updated traffic management and parking systems, which are all readily available to residents. The city has also pledged to cut its annual electricity bill by more than 70 per cent by installing LED lights that will automatically dim at night, in all public buildings.

The world’s cities are on the rise. Around 3.5 billion people already live in cities, and that figure is set to double by 2050, with the majority of that growth occurring in developing countries. The evidence suggests that smart planning for smart infrastructure may go some way towards enabling sustainable urban growth, and helping close the gap between rich and poor that risks becoming entrenched through such rapid development.

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It means that cities like Santander are working models for the introduction of integrated urban digital technology, and the ways in which it can help – or hinder – people live happy and sustainable lives. Along with 16,000 sensors, there will be many thousands of eyes from all over the world on this small Spanish city, watching, learning, and waiting to see if this smart city will ace all its exams.  


This innovation is part of Sustainia100; a study of 100 leading sustainability solutions from around the world. The study is conducted annually by Scandinavian think tank Sustainia that works to secure deployment of sustainable solutions in communities around the world. This year’s Sustainia100 study is freely available at www.sustainia.me – Discover more solutions at @sustainia and #100solutions

​– This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

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