Bucaramanga, Colombia: How an unplanned city is preparing for the future

Like many others in emerging markets, Bucaramanga is an unplanned city that has evolved organically and rapidly without the benefit of central coordination. The city has expanded on unstable mountainous ground, often threatened by natural disasters like landslides and floods. How does such a city prepare for the future? By harnessing data and technology.

Located on a small plateau of the Andes, Bucaramanga has a sprawling population of around 1.4 million, with a quarter living in remote areas of the city with limited mobility and connectivity. As urban leaders strive to improve the daily life of residents and make Bucaramanga a more resilient, sustainable, and digitally enabled city ready for the future, they are leveraging data and technology to achieve their long-term plans.

“Data is gold for this administration,” says Wilfredo Gomez, digital transformation officer of the City of Bucaramanga. “We have a completely data-focused vision. Our goal is to understand every aspect of a citizen’s life, while respecting their privacy, of course. We want to know whether they have been vaccinated, whether their kids are going to school, whether they are paying taxes, and whether they are using public transportation.”

Tech solutions

Bucaramanga has incorporated all types of data—including geospatial, behavioral, and social media data—along with smart technologies into its future-ready initiatives. The city has invested heavily in security: it has set up over 600 CCTV systems to provide real-time surveillance and is now installing facial recognition technology to fight crime. In addition, as part of its smart city strategy, Bucaramanga has implemented a remote management system for public lighting, with about 14,000 streetlights covering 10 districts of the city.

The environment is another urban priority. Using IoT sensors, Bucaramanga has optimized trash collection routes and automated waste management, which has helped make streets much cleaner. In five to 10 years, the city plans to utilize AI to find further efficiencies in waste management. It also plans to use AI for predictive modeling to be able to forecast and mitigate natural disasters in future years.

Because of the city’s rocky terrain and unplanned development, mobility is a thorny challenge. Data and technology again offer a solution. The city uses traffic data to reduce congestion and accidents, and it has installed smart traffic lights in seven intersections, with plans to scale this system across the city. In addition, the city has developed shared mobility areas where citizens can access bicycles, e-bikes, and e-scooters for free.

The future revolves around smart citizens

Transforming urban domains through data and technology is just part of the plan. Bucaramanga’s goal is to ensure that its residents trust and embrace digital technologies and data analytics—and know how to use them to significantly improve their daily lives.

“We want our residents’ quality of life to be improved by technology,” says Gomez. We want them to feel safe when they see surveillance cameras in the streets, and we want them to feel comfortable paying their taxes online.”

The importance of digital knowledge is paramount for the city, which is striving to become an IT talent hub in Colombia. With over 40,000 STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) students, Bucaramanga is nurturing local talent to achieve that goal.

However, retaining that talent is challenging due to nearby competition from larger cities like Bogota or Medellin. Bucaramanga is betting heavily on the rise of remote working to keep talent in the city, where the cost of living is lower.

“The pandemic gave us the possibility to have the best of both worlds. Our plan is to retain and attract talent, who can in turn help develop local startups.”

To encourage citizens’ acceptance of technology, Bucaramanga has put in place multiple “digital points” across the city. These are technology centers that offer residents free computer and internet access, as well as free lessons in computer science, robotics, digital design, English, web platforms, and related skills. Almost 100 free Wi-Fi zones are also spread across the urban center.

“The digital infrastructure that we need to develop our long-term plan is already in place and it has the capacity to scale over the next five to ten years,” says Gomez. “Our focus is on improving our data acquisition and infrastructure. We want to develop our data centers and clouds to ensure the quality and availability of data everywhere. That will be our main goal to become future-ready.”