Politics
14.1.18

Smart Barcelona Focussing on Its People

Bernard Gagnon/Own work/Wikimedia Commons

I was recently in Barcelona attending the Smart City World Congress. With Catalonia and its capital city Barcelona in the international political spotlight, it was a fascinating time to be there again. From my visitor’s perspective, life looked normal – perhaps a few more Catalonian flags around, but most were there already when I visited the city a few years ago.

Barcelona is seen as one of the leading smart cities in the world. The last time I was there was in 2015. It was only a few months after the local council elections, and a totally new urban-based political party known as the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) – English translation: Platform for People Affected by Mortgages – had won the elections. One of its leaders, Ada Colau, became the new mayor. PAH was set up in Barcelona in 2009 in response to the rise in evictions caused by unpaid mortgage loans and the collapse of the Spanish property market in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

In Barcelona, this was completely driven by the financial circumstances of the time. However, this urban development is certainly also part of the international trend where we see cities and their citizens claiming more political and financial power over their own affairs.

Back in 2015, I met briefly with the new mayor and asked her if she would continue with Barcelona’s smart city policy. Her answer was yes, but with a focus on people rather than on technology. So it was interesting to see what has happened in the two years since.

But, before I go into that, I would like to bring the Catalonian crisis into the picture, as this all has to do with the City of Barcelona.

Historically, Catalonia has taken a rather independent position. For a long time, Barcelona was the capital of the maritime empire (thalassocracy) known as the Crown of Aragon with possessions all along the Mediterranean. Later, the capital moved to Naples, but in Catalonia, Barcelona remained the main city of the Crown of Aragon in mainland Spain.

Once incorporated into Spain, the Catalonian culture and language was suppressed and resistance was often brutally dealt with. It was only after the Franco regime that the situation for Catalonia gradually improved.

One of the key issues underlying the current independence movement is that the Catalonians still feel repressed by Madrid. While in previous times Barcelona was the seat of their power, that seat is now in Madrid, and, as a result, many Catalonians believe that Madrid is often favoured over Barcelona. Madrid has now declared that it will become Spain’s leading smart city, and again Barcelona believes that special funds will favour the capital city. (Obviously, I was in Barcelona and I was hearing this from the Barcelonans.) On a personal note, I want to mention that while I fully support the Catalonian call for greater forms of independence, I believe that – at this stage at least – it should be solved within Spain.

Back to smart city Barcelona …

Looking at the people’s movement that brought Ada Colau into power, it is no wonder that affordable housing plays a key role in the change of her city’s smart city policy, tilting it towards its citizens. Being in charge, though, is always more difficult than being an activist. While local citizens are now running the councils, one can’t escape from the fact that, in the end, political changes will need to follow and activists need to be trained in politics in order to deliver these. True, there are now widespread people networks in place feeding into the local council, and Ada herself plays a pivotal role in this. But to give an indication of how difficult it is to move from activism to politics, of the 80,000 new public homes promised so far, only 3,000 have been realised.

Nevertheless, a much deeper involvement from the citizens in the running of the city is now well and truly underway, and this provides a firm basis for a new direction in the development of cities. This will be a very interesting and important phenomenon for other cities to follow. All claim to have placed their citizens at the centre of their smart city developments, but actually achieving that is far more difficult. Will Barcelona be able to show us the way?

In response to the demands of its citizens, changes have been put in place in relation to the banking system (resulting in fewer evictions); changes in developments (favouring public housing); and local job and Small or Medium-sized Enterprise (SME) generation. Furthermore, a crackdown on Airbnb and other tourist activities, with the aim of creating a better balance between city liveability and enjoyment for the locals and its booming tourism economy, are now underway.

So it is no wonder that smart city policies are now being used to support these developments. Francesca Bria, the city’s new Chief Technology Officer (CTO), laid out her plans on how to align technology and innovation developments closer to the social goals of the city. Fully-empowered smart city neighbourhood groups and online collaboration groups are now an integral part of the new smart city direction.

One of her key projects is to take a closer look at all the data that can now be collected from the various smart city projects that Barcelona has developed over the last decade. But while the data is indeed there, it remains difficult to put it to good use for better decision-making processes for the common good.

An increase in transparency is also sought after, as this has been a long-time complaint from people closely involved in smart city Barcelona. Because of the use of various proprietary systems, the city suffers from a lack of interconnection between smart city projects as well. Open source The Internet of Things (IoT), common standards, data safety and city ownership are also high on the agenda of the new CTO.

Thanks to its long smart city history, Barcelona could again become an example for the smart city movement around the globe – this time more focussed on citizen’s issues – and for this it can tap into many of the successful projects already in place. These include a 500km fibre optic network; increased efficiencies in public transport; development of a smart council (at least in some areas); improved environmental services; reduction in water wastage; smart energy (smart streetlights with Wi-Fi connection); smart parking; and smart waste management (smart bins).

Barcelona’s smart city developments, focusing closely on its citizens, will most certainly be eagerly followed by other cities around the globe.

Global Seven News

Paul Budde

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