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Barcelona: Showcase Of Smart City Dynamics

Barcelona was one of the first European cities to adapt smart city technologies. About ten years ago it started experimenting with digital technologies. The town installed extensive sensor networks that provided government and the private sector with data on transport, energy usage, noise levels, irrigation et cetera. Its technology-base is solid, with a noteworthy open data portal, a good air quality sensor network, and widespread public wi-fi. Only cities like New York City, Singapore, and Seoul outperform Barcelona’s technological infrastructure.

Like other cities, during the last five years Barcelona’s smart city practices changed: Technology is entering more direct the lives of residents because of the broad use of smart phones. They distribute instant information about employment, housing, administration, mobility, health services, security and utilities. A recent study of McKinsey: Smart Cities: Digital solutions for a more livable future distinguished 55 applications within these fields (see table below). According to this study, these applications are capable to improve quality of live by 10 – 30% (page 35).

The report also investigated the degree of adaptation of these 55 applications in a sample of 50 cities, Barcelona among them. New York City, Los Angeles, London, Moscow, Seoul, Singapore and Shenzhen strongly outperform all other cities. But even these forerunners have applied only 60 – 70% of the available technologies. Applications with respect to mobility are deployed most frequently (Smart Cities, page 81)

Only very recently, after Ada Colau became mayor in 2015, Barcelona started a new phase in its rather short smart city history. Apart from the growing use of applications like the ones mentioned above, she wanted to democratize the government of the city with the help of digital tools, with open data and open standards as key enablers. She collected civic-minded coders and cryptographers in the city-hall supervised by Francesca Bria, Barcelona’s Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer.

The city is making privacy, data sovereignty, and data security core elements of its approach. The intention is in the first place to open up governance through participatory processes and in the second place to ensure that the smart city would serve its citizens in a way the citizens choose by themselves, rather than the other way around.

The first product is a digital participatory platform, Decidim (We Decide, in Catalan). Citizens can participate directly in government by suggesting ideas, debating them, and voting with their thumbs. As Bria said We used Decidim to create the government agenda. Over 70 per cent of the proposals come directly from citizens. Over 40,000 citizens proposed these policies.

We are reversing the smart city paradigm Bria said. Instead of starting from technology and extracting all the data we can before thinking about how to use it, we started aligning the tech agenda with the agenda of the city. In the first-place contracts with smart city technology supplemented with clauses like data sovereignty and public ownership of data. In the second place, technological tools have been created for citizen to control the data they produce and to choose precisely who they share it with (for this purpose the EU Project Decode (Decentralised Citizen-owned Data Ecosystems) has been deployed).

The McKinsey-report mentioned above has also measured the awareness, usage and satisfaction of the whole array of digital tools which are available in the 50 cities that were selected. It concluded that awareness and use of digital tools in European cities – Barcelona and Amsterdam among them – is staying far behind cities like San Francisco, Seattle and New York City. The distance with Asian Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen is even larger (Smart Cities, page 91). Part of the explanation is that in many European cities face-to-face alternatives for many services outperform digital tools.

This short overview is a useful illustration of the distinction I made elsewhere between Smart City 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0. At first, cities were entranced by the promises of technology as such, feeling that its application was borderless (Smart city 1.0). Later, technology became a toolset for the solution of problems, at least in a semantical way. At the same time the urgency of installing millions of sensors was eased by the omnipresence of smartphones.

Barcelona is the very expression of the shift towards the intention to become smart city 3.0 by deploying digital tools to engage its citizens and to empower them to initiate the use of digital devises themselves.

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