Cities which use technology to provide a better quality of life to its people are following the right path to become smart and prosperous.

Barcelona, Spain

A few months on the first 5G networks started operating in the United States and China, the technology market is already gearing up for the massive impact of hypervelocity networks and the Internet of Things (IoT) in everyday life in cities. For many experts, the revolution has already started: we have reached the era of 5G cities where smartphones, drones, cars and connected industries will be the tools for governments to predict the future. Most cities’ main goal is to create an environment where people can thrive to face less inequality and bureaucracy, and have more access to information regarding their rights and the public services they are entitled to.

“The age of connectivity has been reached and will benefit billions of citizens around the world,” says Mats Granrys, general director of the GSM Association, the European trade body which represents mobile operators. In practice, while 5G is still waiting for organizations and governments’ approval of technical specifications, top US and European phone operators have entered an aggressive race to turn cities into technological hubs.

Vodafone, which is doing 5G tests in Milan, Italy, aiming at providing the city with 80% coverage, is one of them. The project is to transform Milan into a data lab, using interconnected drones and fixed cameras to oversee mobility and security. Vittorio Colao, CEO of Vodafone Group, foresees technologies such as digitally-integrated ambulances with hospitals, where remote consultations and vital data exchange will help to make the rescue process more efficient and speedy. Cameras and drones also improve event management and act as support for city security by allowing authorities to create alternative traffic routes in real time, for example. Together with the local government, Vodafone is also working with small entrepreneurs on the project. “The idea is to create an ecosystem of experimentation. Technology can be the great solution to generate more productivity, business and jobs in cities”, he says.

Jean Pierre Bienaime, general secretary of the European infrastructure association 5GIA, says cities like Barcelona in Spain and Bristol in the United Kingdom, are the next smart 5G cities. “From measuring the environmental impact of pollution to digital monitoring and automatic management of ports, there will be a radical transformation in public and private management”, he affirms. Bienaime believes that cities must focus on Public/Private Partnerships to ensure the success of the initiatives.

Companies, in particular telephone operators, are taking the first steps in regional data analytics initiatives with the potential to become smarter with technology. Telefonica, for example, inaugurated a project in São Paulo, Brazil, that uses traffic data to predict high levels of air contamination up to 48 hours in advance. The system uses the signals emitted by smartphones to draw a matrix of mobility and understand the pattern of people’s displacement. “As urban traffic is a key predictor of pollution, we have been able to identify the problem before it happens,” says Pedro Alarcon, Head of Telefonica in the Big Data for Social Good area. He adds that the project was born as a sustainability action but ended up becoming a marketable product, thanks to the government’s interest in acquiring the service. “The next steps with the arrival of the 5G networks will be to implement the IoT to be even more precise,” he says.

One of the benefits of the new generation of Internet, according to 5GAI’s Bienaime, is the wide coverage of networks and the minimization of service failures. In Brazil, for example, the association is developing international cooperation projects in remote regions, with the goal of bringing connectivity and the internet of things to benefit sectors such as agriculture.

In a speech in February this year at the Mobile World Congress, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim highlighted the role of the mobile industry in economic growth and the end of inequality. “Smartphones are dream accelerators,” he says. The presence of mobile networks and connected devices in communities in poor countries, he explains, enables communities to access new business, as well as education and autonomy.

Yong Kim cites such examples as Manila in the Philippines where a public-private initiative for open data was launched to monitor traffic, which generates daily losses of more than $ 60 million, or India, where data points to the regions of cities most affected by pollution and allow institutions to invest in housing and the environment. “The internet of things can unite us to reduce extreme poverty,” he says.

Many of these social innovation projects are laboratories for operators to work with broader solutions in cities and regions with different profiles, regardless of the degree of economic development. “By combining mobility data with other sources, operators can create a business case to support decision making and planning by governments and NGOs,” says Granrys from GSM Association.

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