A few years ago I was sitting in a leafy park in a country in the farthest-flung corner of what can still be described as Europe, watching the modern world in action.
People were perched on benches in the open air with laptops, phones and tablets: many were chatting with friends an family overseas via Skype and Facetime; young people were researching school and university projects.
Some, running out of battery, whipped out chargers for their devices which they plugged into handy sockets nestled at the base of the park benches or under trees.
The Wifi and the sockets were provided by the city council – for free. To me, this appeared to be a very modern city, embracing the plugged in, digital world in a way which we in far more advantaged Scotland are not yet doing, even five years later.
Yet in reality, this was Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, the poorest country in Europe – and one still a long way from European Union membership.
Last week, in Spain, a country also known for its ongoing financial struggles, I was shown a range of “smart” initiatives used by Barcelona’s authorities which made life easier for residents – and saved the city council money.
Heading off on an e-bike to tour this forward-thinking yet historical city, I felt much like Marty McFly must have felt when he was propelled into 2015.
This technology was far beyond anything I had experienced on home turf.
Perhaps most innovative was Barcelona’s smart parking space – a sensor for on-street parking which allowed a central system to know whether a space was occupied. The information is then transmitted to an app, which could be accessed by drivers looking for a place to park.
Like Edinburgh, Barcelona was not built for cars, its historic buildings constructed long before the motor car was a twinkle in anyone’s eye. But city leaders discovered that a whopping 20 per cent of drivers on Barcelona’s roads at any one time were hunting for a parking space. By helping them do so more quickly, they reasoned, unnecessary traffic is removed from Barcelona’s roads far more quickly and efficiently. Ingenious.
Other hi-tech ideas included rubbish bins with sensors, which allow sanitation teams to plan routes based around which bins need emptying most urgently – and which can be left for another day – and smart irrigation systems which tell city gardeners when plants need watering, saving wasted trips.
Energy efficient street lighting in a city square offers not only the ability to change colours, projecting festive low-energy light displays on to the scenic square when appropriate – but the lights can tell when there is enough daylight that street lighting can be shut down and do so accordingly. In addition, they feature sensors which allow police officer to be alerted when large crowds have gathered in the square, meaning, it is claimed, that less CCTV is needed. Clever, less intrusive. And eco-friendly.
In short, Barcelona has become a “smart city”, one of only a handful in the world which can truly stake a claim to the title, although many others – even poverty-stricken Chisinau – are making forays into the field.
What is perhaps most impressive is, that in the wake of the recession, which hit Spain hard, the city council did not decide to wait until times were better to invest in smart technology, which in the long term could save the local authority money. City leaders, led by Deputy Mayor Antoni Vives, took the plunge to play the long game – one which, over time will be both cost effective and make life easier for the city’s inhabitants.
Further north, in Amsterdam, city leaders hold an annual contest to allow residents to submit ideas for smart applications which would make their daily life easier.
They are embracing the modern world. Yet in Scotland, we barely seem able to spell the word “smart”.
Glasgow became the first city in Scotland to offer free Wifi last summer and has claimed it plans to become as a world-leading digital city by 2017. It recently won a £24 million grant in a contest run by the Technology Strategy Board to turn Glasgow into a “Future City”, which will include a trial of intelligent street lighting, creating “demand responsive transport services” such as for schools.
In addition, Glasgow has utilised apps to allow residents to report issues such as fly-tipping and potholes immediately at the scene. The app then uses GPS technology to pinpoint the precise location of the report, making it easier for council staff to find and fix issues.
These are all great ideas, but as yet few have seen any progress.
In Edinburgh, the situation is even less advanced. Free citywide Wifi has been on the cards for some time, yet has so far failed to materialise. A citywide scheme was set to be launched in 2014, but failed to materialise. Now, the council tells me, advanced negotiations with a potential supplier are “ongoing” and there may be some news soon.
Other forays made by Edinburgh Council into the smart city world are disappointing and vague. Its main claim is that, as part of the Scottish Cities Alliance, it is working with seven other cities to look at ways it could be “smart”. It also has an “Open Data Strategy” – meaning it wants to make public service and commercial data openly available for everyone to use.
Meanwhile, other international cities are embracing their inner Marty McFly and looking to a real, hi-tech future. We are in danger of being left behind.