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Hello from Smart City Barcelona

I am in Barcelona at the moment for the Smart City World Congress. With Catalonia and its capital city Barcelona currently in the international political spotlight it’s a fascinating time to be here again. From my visitor’s perspective life looks 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 here, 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) (Platform for People Affected by Mortgages), had won these elections; one of their 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 that was completely driven by the financial circumstances of the time, but this urban development is certainly also part of the international trend, where we see cities and its citizens claiming more political and financial power over their own affairs.

Back in 2005 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 those two years.

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 they 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 am here in Barcelona and I am 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, 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. But being in charge is always more difficult than being an activist, and, 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 promised 80,000 new public homes 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 development for other cities to follow. They 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); local job and SME generation; and 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.

So no wonder smart city policies are now being used to support these developments. Francesca Bria, the city’s new 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. While the data is there it remains difficult to put it to good use for better decision-making processes for the common good.

They also want to increase transparency, as this has been a long-time complaint from people closely involved in smart city Barcelona. Also, because of the use of various proprietary systems, the city suffers from a lack of interconnection between smart city projects. Open source 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 they can tap into  many of the successful projects they already have in place – which 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 on its citizens will be eagerly followed by other cities around the globe.

Paul