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Think tank: why 5G is not the cure all for economy recovery

SmartCitiesWorld board member and Libellium CEO Alicia Asín on how governments need a smart approach to make 5G succeed.

Think tank: why 5G is not the cure all for economy recovery

The Spanish government’s recovery plan prioritizes the digitalization of cities, the rural environment and companies as levers for the structural reform of the country’s growth. In this spirit, European recovery funds will be aimed at meeting these challenges, which are not exclusive to this country but to any of the members of the European Union. The agenda is common to all: fight against depopulation, energy transition, modernisation of enterprises, pact for science and innovation etc.

All of this comes at a very critical time because of the pandemic situation with a plummeting economy and the public clamouring for solutions that are no longer just for transformation but for survival. In this same line, we have been hearing for a long time that technology is going to transform the cities we inhabit. But few citizens and businesses perceive this change because the advantages are not directly reaching them, neither in economic nor in welfare terms.


It is undeniable that technology can play a key role in managing a pandemic like the current one and can contribute to economic recovery. There are more intelligent devices on the market than ever before, applications to connect citizens (and not only track them), cloud services, artificial intelligence solutions... But the reality is that their practical application is out of step with the current needs of citizens and businesses that need to improve their competitiveness to stay alive.

We develop much faster than we can digest

Simply put, as occurs in all industrial revolutions, technology moves at a much faster speed than economic cycles: in other words, we develop much faster than we can digest. In a scenario of limited public resources such as the one we live in, the "smart city" model has to evolve beyond the old concept of the hyperconnected city. Hyperconnected, for what purpose?


Automation is not the goal but has to be the vehicle to achieve humanisation. Because we should not forget that the last end is the people. The mayor who knows how to put into practice the technological development of a city and translate it into direct advantages for the citizen will not only be a good manager of public resources; he will also gain the desired permanence in office. Because in a state of information overload and fake-news, people need certainty. We seek objective data that allow us to evaluate the management of our leaders above ideological criteria.


Specifically, we need to know that if they have equipped our cities with devices, this is resulting in lower water and electricity consumption, better traffic management, more efficient waste collection, facilitating smart mobility, and improving sustainability, among many other applications. That is why I always say that "datocratization" is necessary to improve our democracy and so that we choose our governors not for what we feel they can do, but for the conclusive objective results of their current management.


A limp forward


Going back to the hyperconnection of cities. In the last few weeks I have been asked in all the interviews and conferences I have given how technology can help in the post-pandemic and how the 5G network deployment will play a determining role. The concern is whether the European recovery funds will materialize to transform our towns and cities to make them more sustainable, to revive the economy in the most depopulated rural areas. My answer is "yes, but..."


Having a territory with connectivity is a necessary condition but is far from being sufficient to fight against depopulation. For this reason, even though the risk of being criticized by the large telecommunications operators who are deploying this infrastructure, with public support, I stress that the level of digitalization of Spanish companies does not depend on their access to 5G networks.


Let’s imagine that they cover the country with highways that could be driven at 350Km/h. That would not mean that the next day all citizens would have a car capable of continuously reaching that speed. Nor would it mean that they would know how to drive under such circumstances. We would have a start but we would be left with a limp. This is what must be considered in the deployment of the 5G network so that the local economy takes off again and generates work that favours the settlement of the population.

If public funds are only used to fill the territory with 5G, we will find ourselves once again with a good connection but with nothing to connect. That public investment also has to contemplate the deployment of the necessary equipment for digitalisation, which is not just cell phones and computers. The sensor networks will provide the data that will later be transformed into useful information for decision making and should also be considered as a communication infrastructure.

Digitalisation is not a button that is turned on one day and suddenly everything works

Optimising agricultural crops and livestock activity to promote the development of the local economy involves connecting these scenarios through sensors to the Internet, among other things. Hence the name Internet of Things; we have focused on the internet and forgotten about the things that needed to be connected. The fact is that in the action of connecting, not only the connection network comes into play, but all the elements that will allow data to flow towards the intelligent analysis platforms. In the same way, in an industrial environment it is not enough for the factory to have a 5G internet connection. It will be necessary to develop all the infrastructure to digitise the processes until establishing alert systems that trigger actions derived from a decision tree.


Another factor that plays a decisive role here is knowledge. Neither the farmer, nor the livestock farmer, nor the industrialist, has the technological knowledge to digitise their companies in the short or medium term. Especially considering the size of the business sector in many cases, that does not make it easy to hire a flamboyant director of digital transformation.


Digitalisation is not a button that is turned on one day and suddenly everything works. It requires a process of training, accompaniment through consultancy and development of projects that also has to receive the impulse of public investment. The owner of any of the businesses mentioned above is not going to grow his company just because 5G comes through his door. You need access to funding to get your business up and running with all that that implies.


That is why 5G is not the solution, it is one of the pieces of the chain that has achieved great prominence due to the size of the companies that drive it. But it is only one link. The rest of the chain is very diversified and requires a coordination of efforts encouraged by European funding. To ensure that the investments needed for the true rollout of digitalisation are made in 2021, we must act now in a coordinated manner. Financing complete packages and not just networks. My hope is that the thickness of the branches will not prevent us from seeing the whole forest.

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