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Buenos Aires: The Making Of A Smart City

The Argentinian capital isn’t ranked as one of the world’s most advanced cities. But recent projects show it’s working hard and offering a path for other cash-strapped cities to still become smarter.

I recently moved to Buenos Aires to launch an accelerator program for sustainable and smart city ventures with the University of San Andres (UdeSA). While Buenos Aires may come to mind as one of the great cosmopolitan cities in Latin America, with great tango, wine, and beef (I know it is a sin here in Argentina, but I don’t actually eat beef so I can’t confirm the quality), it does not usually get included in discussions of emerging smart cities. In fact, in my global ranking of smart cities published earlier this year, Buenos Aires did not make the first cut.

However, I believe Buenos Aires is well on its way to becoming a smart city. For me, no city can be on a journey towards becoming smart without having a quality transportation infrastructure. If a city forces its residents to travel in passenger vehicles because there are no light rail, metro, or bus rapid transit options available, that city can’t even join the conversation with smart cities.

Buenos Aires actually has quite a bit of public transportation. This is the first time I recall living in a city (and I have lived in some great ones, from Copenhagen and Madrid to Vancouver) where I have two different rail networks to choose from to go to work every day. I live in a neighborhood called La Lucila in Zona Norte, located right between the capital and the campus where I work—about a 20-minute public-train ride in either direction. I also live right near the Tren de la Costa, which is a private train line that happens to also stop close to the campus. That is a 12-minute train ride (instead of 20 on the public train). Of course the public trains have many problems, from being unreliable to being fairly dirty, poorly maintained, and unsafe (there was a recent fatal crash caused by poor brake maintenance). Luckily the Tren de la Costa does not suffer the same problems. Most cities, especially in the developing world and in North America, have struggled to keep transit on pace relative to their growing populations.

Buenos Aires also has an extensive underground metro system, Subte. The Subte has six lines, 78 stations and close to 2 million daily riders. So while there are ongoing issues with the transit system, Buenos Aires passes one of the first tests of having significant transit infrastructure.

Another frequently discussed aspect of smart cities is open data and open innovation. How well does a city make its data available for not only public consumption but also for private developers?

Over the past week, I have had the pleasure of meeting senior leaders of the municipal government for Buenos Aires, including the Director of Urban Development, Minister Daniel Chain, who has the broad responsibility of leading the city’s development strategy. I was quite impressed with the amount of data currently being collected and used for making important development decisions in the city.

In the past few years, the city has helped transform a low-income neighborhood into a hub for information and communication technology (ICT) companies, called Distrito Tecnologico (DT). Through a public-private investment of $200 million, DT is already home to 100 ICT companies. Prior to initiating the program, the city used its own internally developed econometrics to forecast the impacts of the infrastructure investment on everything from crime rates to housing prices. The city now requires the use of the econometrics for every public investment it makes. Buenos Aires has developed its own index of Urban Sustainability leveraging econometrics and vast data sources. This index is published and available for the public to view. The maximum score on their index is 1.00, the city’s 2011 score is .68 and its goal by 2060 is to reach .94.

You have to appreciate the transparency. Buenos Aires has created its own custom tool to measure development and it is in the process of developing a program with UdeSA to share lessons learned with other cities in Argentina and beyond. Barcelona is also in the process of collaborating with Cisco to develop its own smart-city protocol measurement system.

While the city has worked to make a lot of its data public, it only recently started making it available in raw form for private developers to leverage, hosting its first hackathon in August 2011.

One of the takeaways from my meetings with city officials is that we need to be clear that smart cities are more than just sensors and real-time data. In fact, Buenos Aires has not done much with its high level of ICT integration, yet it is using data in fascinating ways to improve the quality of life of its citizens. This suggests to me that cities in the developing world with fewer resources (or even cities in the U.S. in this current economy) can continue the smart-city journey just by using the data they already collect in smarter ways. However, I hope that we will increasingly find ways for all cities around the world to acquire more advanced systems to accelerate their smart-city trajectories. We will need to see more private-public partnerships such as the one between Streetline and Siemens to deliver smart parking solutions without infrastructure costs to the city.

Buenos Aires has made some important positive steps towards becoming a smart-city reference for Latin America. A robust transit system, rigorous collection and use of metrics to inform decision making, open data for private developers, and development of the Distrito Tecnologico are all evidence of progress.

In order to make the top echelon of global smart cities, Buenos Aires will need a greater investment in ICT infrastructure to get more real-time data and improve speed and efficiency. I would also argue, as I did with my rankings earlier this year, that a smart city is also a sustainable city, optimizing energy resources, investing in renewables, enhancing cycling infrastructure, supporting district energy and water systems, etc. This is an area where Buenos Aires has a lot of room for improvement. But I believe they can get there.

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  • KCabrera

    It seems to me that the author of this post was fed - and swallowed - some serious propaganda. I love living in Buenos Aires, and if I felt there was progress on this front I would certainly be one of the first to applaud it. But the assertion that Buenos Aires is "working hard" and "well on its way to becoming a smart city" is laughable. I have to wonder if the author's spent much time using the public transportation system whose infrastructure he touts...although if he tried to in the next 36 hours, it would be impossible due to the fact that there's yet another strike. And the use of the terms "government" and "transparency" in the same breath was also pretty surprising, and not something you'd expect to hear from anyone familiar with...well, reality. In my opinion, it would be better to put pressure on the government to earn this sort of recognition, than to take their word for it that they're doing these things. Especially when this is the Buenos Aires that the rest of us live in: http://www.argentinaindependen... 

  • Sofi_chapiro

    I appreciate the hopeful article but i feel you are living in a parallel Buenos Aires to the rest of the buenos aires´ citizens. I can only understand you may have been expecting much less, especially if you compare the system to other latin american ones, but it still seems to me that your analysis is only superficial.
    First of all, the Subte is impossible to use because it is crowded for most hours of the day, not just during rush hour. Some of the lines are too old. For example, even though the wooden wagons of the A line offer a vintage air, i worry about the safety of the not-automatic doors.
    Secondly, as you mentioned, the public trains have many problems. Regular maintenance cannot be assured as the trains were bought already used and therefore, replacement parts are no longer produced or are available. 
    Also, as a frequent user of the Tren de la costa train, i can say it is not reliable as sometimes its service is interrupted for weeks at a time. This is due to mechanical difficulties or strikes (according to the empoyees, the owner wants the train to be nationalized and in the meantime, does not pay them).
    I´m glad that after many meeting with senior leaders of the municipal government for Buenos Aires your opinion of our transportation system´s future is a positive one but I cannot help but wonder: how many days have you been living in Argentina? We arent known for out trasparency or honesty.

  • Sofi_chapiro

    Most of these investements have been done many years ago..The percentage of money lost in corruption is increasing exponentially.
    Still, i hope i´m just been cynical and there are many great changes in politics and development to come.  

  • Euge

    As an argentinian I can only say that no city (specially Buenos Aires) can be on a journey towards becoming smart without having a fair and equitable social-health-economic-educational system supporting that journey.