smart islands FEATURE

The touristy Balearic and Canary Islands are due for a high-tech makeover in a $32 million scheme by the Spanish government.

Visitors and citizens in Spain’s two main island groups are to get a taste of networked living with a EURO€30 million (US$32 million) government scheme.

Ten of 11 major islands in the Balearic and Canary archipelagos have submitted bids for a ‘smart island’ initiative scheduled to run up until 2019. The program follows smart-city investments in urban centers such as Barcelona.

It should give the islands “new tools and intelligent management services,” says the Spanish Ministry of Industry, Energy and Tourism in a press release.  

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“The objective is to finance initiatives that integrate smart island strategies, contribute to the improvement of public services in the territory, and are aimed at mitigating the negative effects of insularity through the use of information and communications technology (ITC),”

While the exact nature of the smart-island applications that will be developed has yet to be revealed, what is seems likely is that much of the investment be related to tourism.

The Canary Islands (Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera, and El Hierro) and the Balearics (Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza, and Formentera) are the second and third-largest tourist destinations in Spain, respectively.

In the Canaries, tourist activity accounted for 31.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2013.

However, both island groups compete strongly with European vacation hotspots across the Mediterranean and further afield, so local authorities are keenly aware of the need to innovate as a means of retaining tourism revenues.  

Back in 2012, the Spanish government moved towards developing a smart-island concept with a program called Intelligent Tourism Destinations.

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Patricia Fraile, manager of Canaries Technical Excellence (Canarias Excelencia Tecnológica), an ICT cluster in the Canary Islands, says this trend will likely continue in the smart islands program, with each island carrying out projects relevant to its tourism offerings.

For example, she says: “La Palma is placing emphasis on safety and emergency in the mountains because it’s important for their tourism.”

In addition to the preeminent role of tourism in the island economies, policy makers will probably also be looking for initiatives that can boost local employment and bring connectivity to remote communities.

For now, it remains to be seen which proposals will get the green light from central government. The total value of projects submitted to the Ministry was €69.4 million ($73.7 million), 131 percent more than the total budget for the program.

Leading the charge was Ibiza, a Balearic island known for its un-spoilt landscape and pulsing nightlife, which pushed for close to the €10 million ($10.6 million) limit per application. 

Following it, in descending order of project value, were La Palma, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, Mallorca, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, El Hierro, Formentera, and Menorca. Only La Gomera, the second-smallest Canary Island, failed to apply for funding.

While the criteria selection for funding was somewhat skewed towards smaller, less affluent islands, it is also true that some of these have already made significant strides towards the creation of digital economies.

One example is El Hierro, the smallest of the Canaries, which “is already considered intelligent because of investments in areas such as energy and connectivity,” Fraile says. “In theory the whole island is covered with Wi-Fi.”

A final decision on funding is expected in the coming months. And once the smart island projects get underway it will not just be islanders who might benefit.

According to Fraile, Spain’s State Society for Tourism Technology Innovation and Management (Sociedad Estatal para la Gestión de la Innovación y las Tecnologías Turísticas or SEGITTUR in Spanish) is currently looking to sell the Intelligent Tourism Destinations concept abroad.

In due course, the smart islands idea could also be ripe for export. With approximately 11 percent of the world’s population living on an island somewhere, there are a lot of people who could benefit.


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About Jason Deign @DeigninSpain

Jason Deign is a Barcelona-based business writer, journalist and author.