How Barcelona’s Smart City Strategy Is Giving Power-to-the-People

Against a backdrop of revolution and protests on Barcelona’s streets over the last 18 months, Francesca Bria has been conducting her own battle to tear up the strategy of her predecessors and put citizens at the head of the Catalan capital’s new ‘smart city’ strategy. It is a fight not only about rights to privacy but also to protect the jobs of her fellow citizens in the new digital economy.

Before she became the city’s Chief Technology Officer, Bria had been a long-term advocate of what she calls e-democracy. Having completed a PhD in Innovation Economics at Imperial College London, she worked for the UK’s innovation foundation Nesta and led the EU’s D-CENT project, to show how data needs to be protected for citizens and used for their benefit.

She had laid out the benefits of such a strategy in a special briefing for the city government of Madrid only for it to fall on to the desk of the new mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, who promptly hired the Italian to develop a new digital strategy for her city. Not for the first time, the Catalans’ foreign stars had outplayed their closest rivals.

“The problem of the smart city has been that when you start with technology without a strong idea of why you are deploying the technology and for what kind of needs, then you only end up solving technology problems.” – Bria

“The new mayor was looking to appoint a figure with a different strategic mind on smart cities and someone to rethink what that means in Barcelona,” says Bria. “My brief was to look at how technology can serve people.”

She peppers her passionate discourse with references to the “democratisation of data”, “digital empowerment” and “technology for the people” but is backing her beliefs with critical changes to how the city’s procurement and data management services operate.

Francesca Bria, Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer, Barcelona


Digital Transformation

The first pillar of the new strategy is digital transformation: how a city government should work with technology or whether it even should. Bria is spearheading a fundamental change in the relationship between the public sector, private sector and citizens to move away from a technology-led agenda.

“The problem of the smart city has been that when you start with technology without a strong idea of why you are deploying the technology and for what kind of needs, then you only end up solving technology problems,” says Bria. “Every vendor has a vertical business model so in Barcelona we ended up with problems such as sensors in the pavement that didn’t talk to the lighting or connect with other sensors so there was inoperability, yes, but we also had business model lock-in. You end up outsourcing critical urban services to big providers without being able to shift from one provider to another and without being able to be in control of the data, and even knowing who owns what.”

Bria says such lock-in not only threatens the solvency of cities–because you are tied in to maintenance contracts for systems which cannot be scaled–but it also stifles innovation particularly in terms of the local economy. Digital innovation and support for Barcelona’s 13,000 tech companies is the second pillar of Bria’s strategy.

“We are creating an open digital marketplace to make procurement more transparent so small companies should be able to come on board and compete in a fair way with the big players,” explains Bria.

This has also meant reworking procurement agreements to reflect that data is a public right for the common good. Bria envisages a situation where a partner company will transfer good quality data to the city so that the municipal government can reuse that in its open data platform, with privacy assured, so citizens and local companies can create value out of it. She cites the example of Transport for London which has done an “amazing job providing a single API for transport” which allows for the optimisation of data for business and citizens.

This is a battle not only to open up city procurement beyond a few established IT players but also to take on the unicorn companies dominating the sharing economy. If cities do not take on such companies, then not only is data under threat but also the future of local jobs.

“This is the next generation platform which is fairer than Uber’s model for example,” says Bria. “Data for me is a public infrastructure and a common good and on top of it you can create your new Uber that can innovate according to local rules, create better living standards locally and that can involve companies locally. [But] if you start having market power where it is winner takes all then there is nothing left for us, for the local economy.”

Cutting Out The Middleman

In Bria’s opinion cities have a duty to experiment with new models that respect the fact that the resources they have come from taxpaying citizens. Barcelona is working alongside Amsterdam to drive home the importance of e-democracy through the DECODE initiative, a grouping of 14 European city, business and academic partners.

DECODE’s collaborators are seeking to take on big tech and allow citizens to enjoy services such as peer-to-peer ridesharing or homesharing without the middleman owning or exploiting their data. Arcade City based on local community networks has emerged in the US to challenge ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft (see box).

The aim with DECODE is to develop open hardware, software and business models to take on the quasi-monopolies being promoted through centralised web services. Blockchain is being used to allow users of services the opportunity to control who accesses their data rather than just handing it over to online providers. Pilot projects open to all residents of Amsterdam and Barcelona will take place this year.

“We are developing a distributed blockchain-based architecture on top of which we put a cryptographic layer to guarantee privacy and we are experimenting with the entitlements for citizens so they are the ones who can decide what data they want to share, with whom, on what basis, and for what purpose,” explains Bria.

To be fair to Uber it has started to share some of its datasets on traffic mobility for cities such as Boston, Manila, Sydney and Washington DC as Andrew Salzberg revealed in Cities Today (March 2017). But Bria believes protecting personal data through blockchain will actually give European cities (and their businesses) a competitive advantage over the US particularly with the entering into force of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May.

“Participatory budgeting is in the DNA of our city and we look at how to integrate citizens into our decisions.”-Bria

“We cannot just be mimicking the US model,” says Bria. “In a world of IoT and artificial intelligence where security is a big issue if we can make this [data] GDPR-compliant with a legal guarantee, as a European standard, it give us an advantage.”

Governance of the Connected City

Even if data is democratised and a robust strategy is in place, cities are still unable to make the best use of data without the right systems of governance. Bria agrees that organisational structures will be key to the success of her new model.

“When I got here the city hall had bought seven different dashboards with complex analytics on top but they were not integrated and the data did not talk to each other. This I because it was an organisational problem and you are never going to resolve it with technology.”

In January, she appointed the city’s first chief data officer, Marius Boada, and is centralising data collation for the government.

“We are shifting the statistical office of Barcelona into a modern data analytics office and trying to incorporate new data scientists and adding 70 new people so it is a great opportunity to get new blood.”

An important part of bringing data systems together has been the development of Sentilo–which means sensor in Esperanto–the name reflecting the open, global aspirations for this platform that can be used by any city’s IoT architecture to analyse the data from different sensors employed in different capacities across a city. The platform was launched at the beginning of 2014 to help Barcelona and subsequently, through its open source license, other cities to break out of reliance on siloed technologies for data collation. Cities can integrate data from the sensors of any manufacturer without purchasing the proprietary platform of a particular manufacturer.

“Sentilo is open stack, open source and open standards which makes it fantastic for cities because they can reuse it and adapt it for their own needs and it saves a lot of resources and makes for more efficient collaboration,” observes Bria.

Barcelona has also developed CityOS, a standardised ontology for data that integrates with Sentilo.

“With CityOS you can have single APIs for services to start building AI and machine learning and the analysis of the data and this is also what we are doing with Turin. Barcelona is leading the way in the description of ontologies because we were very early in thinking about urban services which have technology built into them.”

Social Impact

As well as transforming the city-business relationship to drive local economic growth and allow citizens to control their own data, the background of Barcelona’s mayor as an activist for affordable housing has driven a third pillar of the Barcelona strategy: digital empowerment of residents.

“Participatory budgeting is in the DNA of our city and we look at how to integrate citizens into our decisions,” says Bria. “We are running 16 participatory processes in parallel from culture through mobility to urbanism and have four public Fab Labs where we are prototyping new educational programmes for the digital age. If you don’t give people capabilities then it is very hard for the technology revolution to go beyond technology agencies.”

Societal needs are the cornerstone of Bria’s strategy for Barcelona which has announced a partnership with Paris-based DataCity that seeks to first define the challenges of a city then to seek data-driven solutions from a global network of start-ups. DataCity has been launched by French accelerator Numa, that has offices in Barcelona and seven other tech hubs globally, and which is seeking to drive forward sustainable urban development with solution-led initiatives rather than vendor-led approaches. Barcelona will begin its programme with DataCity in April.

“When we started to talk to Numa about their programme we found a very strong synergy,” comments Bria. “We already have the Urban Innovation Lab where cities define challenges and then companies can come together to help the city to solve those challenges and now we have moved it to a city challenge which we launched with New York on mobility on city to city rather than data but it was part of the same roadmap. So when Numa explained what they were doing, their mindset was exactly what we are working towards. “

Barcelona will follow the Paris model, through which the French capital defined specific challenges in the areas of mobility, energy efficiency and waste (among others) and opened up relevant datasets for start-ups to utilise. Numa worked with corporate partners such as Engie, Suez and La Poste to fund pilots for the winning start-ups, which were chosen for each defined challenge.

As with the formation of Barcelona’s digital strategy, the key element for Bria with DataCity is that the local ecosystem is involved including big corporates.

“We need to get the start-up talent to work in partnership with the city,” says Bria. “In the crisis of democracy which we are living through now, we need to innovate in the public sector, and to get the private sector to understand that they should be partners in this.”

The original version of this article first appeared in Cities Today.

Cities Today is a global magazine containing analysis, comment and best practices on sustainable urban development. Views expressed in this article from Cities Today do not necessarily reflect those of ITU.

Source: How Barcelona’s Smart City Strategy Is Giving Power-to-the-People’
By Richard Forster

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