Smart urban technologies in Latin America: a Regional Landscape
Ariela Valverde, Advisor and Contributor at Urban AI, has a background in Architecture and Urban Planning Policies. She is also the Co-Founder of Urbanalytica, a non-profit organization which aims to bring data-driven tools into the urban analysis arena.
Smart solutions…for all?
The term “smart sustainable cities” is being used with more frequency when referring to the future of our urbanized world . It seems that there’s a growing awareness on the fact that when working towards sustainable development, technologies must be conceived as tools and not as solutions within themselves.
Over the last decades, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, big data, and cross-cut technologies have become powerful instruments for tackling fast-paced challenges in urban areas. The last couple of years have taught us the hard way that Climate Change (alongside its collateral effects) is here to stay, and that we keep having shorter time frames to face these unprecedented and multi-layered shocks.
But what happens in all these regions and cities around the globe where there aren’t enough resources or adequate infrastructures for developing (and more importantly implementing) these technologies? Are we sure we’re on the right direction in this smart-driven race if a great share of urban areas is not making it to the other side?
Climate change and urban poverty in Latin America
We already know that smart technologies are amazing tools not only for dealing with emergencies, but also for building resilience in cities. Data-driven traffic planning, air quality sensors, smart grid platforms, and earth observation technologies, are some of the many types and scales of smart solutions that are shaping life in urban areas.
All of these can be extremely useful in regions such as Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), the world’s most urbanized and unequal region, with approximately 80 percent of its population living in cities . Significantly vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters, LAC is truly out of time when it comes to acting in the midst of a crisis . This is strongly related to the fact that an important extension of its urban fabric is made up of marginal areas, where poor infrastructure, informal settlements, population density, unsanitary conditions, and a lack of available data often concentrate.
These issues, alongside an increasing urbanization rate, are demanding innovative strategies for supporting climate action and recovery. However, many of these instruments are often too expensive or not well adapted to local conditions throughout the region .
Smart technologies: opportunities and gaps
Policy makers and leaders in the region are in need of adequate technology infrastructures, as well as of accurate, comparable and updated data. These tools are significantly helpful for providing assessments and solutions in areas with high amounts of informal settlements.
According to a report on Smart Cities (McKinsey Global Institute, 2018), the application of data solutions in urban areas could improve citizens’ quality of life regarding mobility, security, environmental conditions, and housing. One example of this is how digital financial platforms can tackle the inefficiency of the region’s housing markets, where families on average need to save no less than 30 years to access a typical 60 m2 home . Likewise, bottom-up student initiatives are bringing innovative solutions, such as an application recently proposed by students from the Technological Institute of Costa Rica (ITCR), which aims to facilitate safer trips for women in cities. In fact, the 2020 OECD report on the region’s economic perspectives states that digital transformations are crucial for economic recovery after the COVID-19 crisis .
There are several obstacles for these digital transformations to occur, and unequal access to technologies isn’t the main one. A study on Smart Cities in Latin America (Calderón et al., 2017) revealed barriers such as inadequate public policies and lack of coordination between government bodies, industry and civil society . This has probably influenced the fact that Latin America and the Caribbean is currently one of the least innovative regions in the world .
Open data tools, technology access and bottom-up initiatives
It is clear that public policies, legislation and strategies that support technology must be designed with the ultimate goal of promoting common welfare in cities. These should be articulated into a roadmap for addressing climate action in urban areas, reducing accessibility barriers, and promoting a fair inclusion of all citizen sectors. An interesting example of this is the “Open Urban Planning Toolbox”, an initiative of the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) that aims to facilitate the adoption of new technologies in municipalities .
Likewise, bottom-up initiatives have become powerful tools not only for tackling needs in cities, but also for filling gaps from top-down approaches. A good example of this is the use of Earth Observation systems and satellite data in development projects for indigenous communities . On this topic, it’s important to mention that these technologies are gaining relevance for supporting urban development and recovery in the LAC region. However, for this to move forward, open and free access platforms are needed to guarantee accessibility for organizations and citizen initiatives.
It’s inspiring to see the diversity of emerging projects and strategies in this field, and the creative partnerships resulting from these processes. Yet, if we really want to foster inclusive development and recovery through the use of smart urban tools, we need to address technological and innovation disparities within the Global South, especially in light of the current planetary crisis. The good news is that open and decentralized collaboration is gaining momentum as a powerful tool for mobilizing resources, facilitating knowledge transfers, and hopefully closing these gaps.
This article is also available on our Medium Publication.
References CEN, CENELEC, & ETSI. (2015). Smart and sustainable cities and communities. A role for European standardization. https://www.cencenelec.eu/News/Publications/Publications/Smart_cities.PDF
 Inter-American Development Bank. (2016). Slum Upgrading and Housing in Latin America. https://publications.iadb.org/en/publication/12558/slum-upgrading-and-housing-latin-america
 Inter-American Development Bank. (2020). Gestión del riesgo de desastre: clave para reducir el impacto de las amenazas naturales sobre las personas y su entorno. https://blogs.iadb.org/conocimiento-abierto/es/gestion-riesgo-reducir-impacto-amenazas-naturales/
 Inter-American Development Bank. (2020). Open Urban Planning Toolbox: a digital toolbox for urban planning. https://blogs.iadb.org/conocimiento-abierto/es/open-urban-planning-toolbox-planificacion-urbana/
 Inter-American Development Bank. (2021). How can digital transformation and innovation promote recovery in our cities? https://blogs.iadb.org/ciudades-sostenibles/es/como-pueden-la-transformacion-digital-y-la-innovacion-favorecer-la-recuperacion-en-nuestras-ciudades/
 OECD et al. (2020). Perspectivas económicas de América Latina 2020: Transformación digital para una mejor reconstrucción. OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/f2fdced2-es.
 WIPO (2020). Global Innovation Index 2020. https://www.wipo.int/global_innovation_index/en/2020/
 Earth Observations for Indigenous-led Land Management. (n.d.). https://www.conservation.org/projects/earth-observations-for-indigenous-led-land-management