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The development of smart cities

Digital inclusion is paving the way for the birth of smart cities in Mexico.

Although smart cities are often technologically advanced urban areas with robust ICT infrastructure and a reliance on the internet of things (IoT), there is more to them than high-tech.

A smart city draws on technological means to enhance social welfare, efficient transportation, citizens’ participation in governance, and—in short—the quality of life. Smart cities are no longer a concept straight out of sci-fi books and futuristic films; cities such as Seoul, Amsterdam, Dubai, and Toronto, among many others, have accomplished tangible results using smart solutions to collect garbage, monitor air quality, and reduce traffic jams, just to name a few.
Nor are smart cities only found in developed economies. In fact, technological solutions for urban development can quite often be a bigger help to urban areas in the developing world that struggle with issues such as corruption, energy shortage, and mismanagement.

Mexico City is well-positioned to embark on a series of smart initiatives, as it is advanced enough in terms of ICT infrastructure to support such initiatives.
Mexico City’s traffic congestion issue not only wastes a considerable amount of the citizens’ time—as much as 40 days per year according to some estimations—but also slows down economic growth and undermines the city’s brand. A 2018 report jointly published by The World Bank Group, put Mexico City in the 67th slot in terms of overall livability, just after Mumbai and São Paulo. Nevertheless, Mexico City enjoys comparatively sophisticated telecom infrastructure. The internet penetration rate has been on a steep growth path since 2000, touching 70% in 2018, according to Statista.

The internet penetration rate alone will not be enough. If there is one essential precondition for the implementation of smart initiatives, that is citizens’ access to mobile internet. The country’s three main mobile phone carries, Movistar, AT&T, and Telcel have been in a 4G coverage race for a while. OpenSignal claims that currently “AT&T maintains its lead in 4G availability, but Telcel is gaining,” adding that users in Mexico City can receive 4G services on their handsets, on average, 83% of the time.
This level of connectivity is not disappointing by any standards and makes Mexico City a viable location for smart city initiatives. The advent of ride haling, carpooling, and optimal path finding apps was welcomed by Mexico City’s residents who are long tired of the city’s notorious traffic jams, and there are already signs that such smart apps complement traditional solutions such as restrictions of movement and zonification.

Over the years, Mexico City has seen the launching of quite a number of smart initiatives, and, unsurprisingly, many of them have been focused on transportation. EcoBici, for instance, is a bicycle sharing project in the Mexican capital unmatched by any other in the Latin world. With an initial investment of MXN75 million, EcoBici has created a network of docking stations, from which citizens can borrow a bike using RFID cards or a personal PIN.
Given the news coverage that EcoBici has received in recent years, it has also become an attraction for tourists curious to experience a day of bike riding in the chaotic megacity. Puebla in central Mexico is also a pioneer in going smart. The city has taken steps toward digitalizing certain administrative affairs, garbage collection, and energy distribution. In the latest case, the municipality of Puebla announced a tender in 2018 to make the city’s street lighting AI-powered.
Monterrey, as a local business and manufacturing hub in the northeast, is yet another city with great potentials for taking a smart turn. With a population of 1.2 million, Monterrey, just like Puebla, is not a megacity; it is both big enough to set an example for the rest of the country and small enough to be manageable.

All that said, smartization will not be possible without political will at the leadership level. President López Obrador has been a vocal critic of many energy reforms carried out by previous administrations, but he has not thus far criticized smart energy initiatives such as the installation of a smart grid infrastructure and smart meters across the country.
Going smart is, at times, opposed by citizens. The small town of Santa Maria Tonantzintla, located in Puebla, was one of the first cities in Mexico aspiring for the label “smart,” but the citizens changed their mind halfway into the initiative, fearing that the label would come at the cost of throwing away the city’s image and its traditional way of life. Obviously, such a conflict is a common emotion among the residents of many other cities across Mexico.
True smartization will not be possible without initiating a nationwide dialogue about the pros and cons of smart cities and winning the hearts and minds of citizens first.