High-Tech Sensors Help Old Port City Leap Into Smart Future : Parallels On Spain's Atlantic coast, the city of Santander has installed 12,000 sensors that measure everything from when streetlights need to be dimmed to when trash dumpsters are full — saving millions for cash-strapped public coffers. It's becoming a model for cities worldwide.

High-Tech Sensors Help Old Port City Leap Into Smart Future

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This morning, we join the NPR Cities Project.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Develop it into a world-class city.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If other cities can do it, we can do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This whole beauty is based on technology and integration.

WERTHEIMER: The Cities Project covers urban life in the 21st century, and our current series is all about cities and technology. Today, we head to an old port on the Atlantic coast of Spain.


WERTHEIMER: This is a small city called Santander. It's emerging as a prototype smart city blanketed with sensors that measure everything from air pollution to available parking spaces. And as Lauren Frayer discovered, Santander is attracting delegations from the likes of Google and Microsoft, seeking a vision for future cities that they can spread around the globe.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: What they've been coming here to see, though, is mostly invisible: 12,000 sensors buried under the asphalt I'm standing on, affixed to lamp post across the street and many others and atop city buses.

LUIS MUNOZ: You see here, the two antennas, you see, just behind the tree? So, those antennas are gathering information coming from the sensors.

FRAYER: Under the ground there.

MUNOZ: Under the ground and send towards the command and control center.

FRAYER: It looks like a little wireless router.

MUNOZ: Exactly.

FRAYER: This is Europe's prime laboratory for what a smart city can be, and it started with this man's research.

MUNOZ: Hello. I am Luis Munoz. I am professor at the University of Cantabria.

FRAYER: Professor Munoz has saturated Santander with these sensors paid for by an $11 million grant from the European Commission. The sensors can tell which dumpsters need emptying, which lawns need watering and even dim city streetlights when no one's around. The city saves money on utilities and researchers get to demo their gadgets for future clients.


FRAYER: We're driving through downtown Santander and Munoz is pointing out street signs that display the number of available parking places on every block.

MUNOZ: At the top, you have the number of free places in the whole area: 13. And at the bottom you see the number of free places just in this street.

FRAYER: On that street. So, there's one place left.

MUNOZ: One place left.

FRAYER: The sensors send data to a command and control center, and also to a suite of applications on citizens' smartphones. And in this electronic democracy, citizens can contribute, too, by uploading a photo of a pothole or a broken streetlight directly here to City Hall.

INIGO DE LA SERNA: You send us a photograph, we try to solve that incident in about five or six days. This is the Santander city brain.

FRAYER: Ah. Mayor Inigo de la Serna pulls out his iPad to demonstrate the Santander city brain, an app in which he's been trading hundreds of ideas with citizens.

DE LA SERNA: So, the citizen is like sitting with us, telling I want to work to make this city better.


FRAYER: I'm walking down Calle Juan de Herrera. And on my right there's Edificio Banco Santander. That's the headquarters of the eurozone's largest bank. And as I head down this street, I'm going to pop in and ask some shopkeepers what they think of the Smart Santander system. (Foreign language spoken)

ANGEL BENITO: My name is Angel Benito.

JOE BENITO: And Joe Benito. This is a family business since 1938.

FRAYER: The city's smartphone apps allow window shoppers to buy from Benito's Shoe Store even when it's closed.

A. BENITO: This is an old city. We are old shops, but we are on it. We are on the latest technologies.

FRAYER: Data from people's shopping habits to their parking spots is tracked back in Santander's command and control center. That's where I asked the technicians about privacy. Could you see me?

VERONICA GUTIERREZ: No, no, no, no. We don't register the users. What we know is a user is using this application. But it's the same as people do with websites.

FRAYER: Veronica Gutierrez mans a digital map overlaid with coordinates for every smartphone using the Santander apps.

GUTIERREZ: Sometimes you get surprised when people is using this.

FRAYER: Well, I think my editor in Washington, D.C. downloaded it.


GUTIERREZ: Yes, yes. We can see. We can see here.


FRAYER: I hop a bus over the Santander's biggest newspaper to run all this by its webmaster. Emilio Martinez is a skeptical techie who's not on Facebook. He thinks that's like Big Brother. Yet he doesn't have a problem sharing data with his neighbors on the Smart Santander apps. He says that's what cities are all about.

EMILIO MARTINEZ: In Santander, everyone knows everyone. If you offer something useful to the citizens, this is the best you can do for our citizens.

FRAYER: Locals here seem OK with being watched just a bit, especially if it makes their lives easier, gives them a voice in government and makes their city famous for something other than the founding of a bank 150 years ago. It could even create jobs, something Spain badly needs. And helped me navigate my bus route home.


FRAYER: In Spain, I'm Lauren Frayer for the NPR Cities Project.

WERTHEIMER: You can follow the NPR Cities Project on Twitter: @NPRCities and find other cities at npr.org./nprcities.

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