The spread of the smart city concept has led many to seek solutions to the technological challenges faced by cities. In effect, technology has historically been essential to social progress. The steam engine kicked off the industrial revolution and the emergence of the middle class. However, technology alone is not a solution to these challenges. What is more, technological solutions may even exist now to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality, control pollution and rationalize mobility, although the problems remain. The lack of a solution, therefore, would seem to be for non-technological reasons.

The tech community, probably out of self-interest, has imposed the narrative of the smart city based on performance indicators in managing municipal services. Claiming that a city is smart, based on the use of new technologies to manage all municipal service processes is a reductionist approach. The city–understood as a project that harmoniously coexists in a territory–is smart when citizens’ living conditions are optimal. Philosophers, architects and communicators must join forces and design the city, in order to redirect the course that popular opinion has taken recently about the public management model. More concepts must be involved within the field of smart cities, such as life quality, resilience, downturn and even happiness. Some researchers have developed smart cities rankings that take all of this into account, such as the educational level and the life expectancy, but in most published methods, technological indicators take precedence.

The city–understood as a project that harmoniously coexist in a territory–is smart when the citizens’ living conditions are optimal

Latin America’s opportunity is that urban management has become a hot and recurrent topic of debate with the increasing popularity of smart cities. Five years ago, the smart city was the object of analysis at business congresses in a growing number of scientific articles, and in meetings of municipal administrators. Google hits related to this topic have grown exponentially; and what is more, the appearance of city rankings has caused even mayors to feel obligated to compete ramping their cities up to be on the cutting-edge of “smart” cities, and not fall into the hole of “dumb” cities. For individuals, the city is the main legally established space for social interaction, since the base of most life quality factors depend on whether they run well and smoothly. The establishment of in-depth conversations on municipal management in Latin America should lead to improvement in the provision of public services and improvement in harmonious coexistence.

The smart city is classified in six categories: smart government, smart environment, smart economy, smart mobility, smart citizens and smart lifestyle. Latin America has room for improvement in all, but also it has models worth looking at for other regions.

The first category, “smart government,” refers to the offering of electronic services, as well as measures and policies that contribute to transparency and citizen participation in decision-making processes. Most Latin American countries are lagging behind in implementing electronic administrations compared to Europe and North America, except for Colombia and Chile, which have made progress, at least in State-level administrations. Greater investment in electronic administration is recommended for the region. This would result in long-term cost savings, both for the public administration and for the private sector. In addition, the implementation of initiatives that foster citizen participation would strengthen institutions. There are case studies in Latin America such as that of Porto Alegre, which in 1988, became the first major global city to establish participative budgeting. There are also recent innovative projects such as the technological platform, in Brazil that enables online voting for bills. It is also worth mentioning that Brazil and, especially, Mexico hold prominent positions in the World Wide Web Foundation’s Open Data Barometer.

Latin America’s opportunity is that urban management has become a hot and recurrent topic of debate with the increasing popularity of smart cities

“Smart environment” is about reducing environmental impact and implementing energy efficiency measures. There is a paradox in the region that has the planet’s largest green lungs and, simultaneously, suffers from high doses of pollution in megacities. Medellin is an international case study for urban planning, led by its last three mayors who have promoted environmentally friendly transportation systems and raised society’s awareness about environmental protection. IDB consultants for medium-sized cities like Cuenca (Ecuador), Trujillo (Peru) and Montevideo (Uruguay) have also been the source of transformation in urban environmental management. However, regional municipal leaders still need to commit to a firm and continued push to support renewable energies. Thus, reducing natural resource consumption and improving the reliability of electricity supply, water and sewerage distribution networks.

With regard to the “smart economy,” there are significant differences between countries. On the one hand, productivity is based on low wages and it is hard to find examples of business innovation throughout an entire city. There is a need to strengthen research and innovation systems so that they contribute to the development of the entire urban ecosystem. On the other hand, in a region where only Chile and Panama are in the top 50 of the global competitiveness index, there is a clear need to implement reforms to increase productivity and execute policies that favor the development of innovative companies with an international vision.

“Mobility” has become a major problem for Latin America’s megacities owing to the lack of public transportation infrastructures and systems, increased use of private vehicles and the lack of political willingness to regulate it. For instance, the examples of Bogota, with the implementation of the Transmilenio, and Curitiba (Brazil), with the combination measures to relieve traffic congestion and an innovative transportation system, need to be looked at by other large cities. Innovative business models arising from new technologies can enable the financing of these infrastructures.

The reach of education is one of the region’s most noteworthy advances of this century, as it is the recognition and support for the most disadvantaged ethnic groups in cities like Rio de Janeiro. A new generation of “smart citizens” that have open minds and are committed to improving their communities; represent the hope of a promising future in Lima, Bogota and Quito. The continued promotion of education and digital inclusion is essential for creating a prosperous ecosystem.

Buenos Aires and Mexico City are cultural hotbeds. Tourism continues to grow in Panama City (Panama) and San Jose (Costa Rica). The “life quality” index in Latin American cities has grown steadily this century. However, serious problems persist, including insecurity and lack of health-care services. Nevertheless, new technologies could solve these problems. A paradigmatic case is Rio de Janeiro’s Operations Center, installed prior to the two major sporting events hosted in the city in 2014 and 2016. It is probably the most complete and advanced technological security system in the world.

Collaborative work between all the different stakeholders in the ecosystem […] will make cities progress quicker in their challenge to become smart and understand smart as in a way that makes it real

Technology must contribute to resolving basic and recurrent regional challenges, as well as those specific to each territory, because cities must have their own personalities. On the one hand, differentiation is the way to compete for investment, talent and other resources. A city’s personality is the result of citizens’ free participation in making decisions about the future of the shared project where they live.

The broad vision of the smart city–that identifies the opportunity for Latin America in the debate on municipal management, which has emerged without focusing solely on technology–requires enabling the ecosystem to achieve the objective of improving the life quality of citizens. Collaborative work between all the different stakeholders in the ecosystem (governments, companies, researchers, the tertiary sector and citizens) will make cities progress quicker in their challenge to become smart and understand smart as in a way that makes it real.