It's early Monday morning. You step out of your carbon neutral apartment block and hop into your electric car. It’s still dark and, as you drive along, the self-powered street lights ahead get brighter as you approach then fade as you pass by. An ambulance speeds past and the lights turn green to let it through. It’s heading to help a man who has collapsed on the pavement. A medical drone is attending to him until the ambulance arrives. You reach your office and check your smartphone for the nearest available parking spot. Welcome to life in a smart city. And, perhaps, welcome to the Barcelona of the future. The Catalan capital is at the vanguard of the smart city movement, which promises sustainable cities and improved quality of life. But, is this really the future urban reality or is it just an unachievable Utopia or, worse still, an Orwellian nightmare?
City management is a hot topic. Cities are home to 54 percent of the world's population and consume more than two thirds of the world’s energy. By 2050 over 75 percent of people will live in urban areas. City administrators and developers are on a desperate hunt for new ways to manage their already overburdened spaces and services and, since the early Nineties, have increasingly looked to technology for solutions for everything from traffic control to waste disposal and, in more recent years, environmental sustainability.
The idea is that with the use of technology a city can manage its resources in a more efficient manner, and anticipate and respond more effectively to residents’ needs. Integrated information and communication networks collect and analyse real-time data from around the city. This data, in turn, feeds the technology that, in theory, improves residents’ lives and promotes sustainability and efficiency.
Across the world, governments and city planners are falling over themselves in their enthusiasm to be smart cities. In fact, it’s hard to find a city that doesn’t claim to be implementing ‘smart’ solutions. From Amsterdam to New Delhi, Lagos to Bogotá, the same buzzwords are flying around, and it’s all about sustainability, technology and innovation. In India, $10 billion have been earmarked for 100 future smart cities and, according to Pike Research, over $108 billion will have been invested in smart cities worldwide by 2020.
Leading the way in Europe is the Smart Cities and Communities European Innovation Partnership (SCC). The SCC aims to pool resources from across the EU and create new technologies that can be rolled out in cities across the continent. Almost three quarters of Europeans live in cities and consume 80 percent of the area’s energy, so one of the main goals of the partnership is for new technologies to help the region reach the ambitious 20-20-20 energy targets—20 percent reduction in CO2, 20 percent of energy coming from renewables and a 20 percent increase in energy efficiency—set for 2020. And the EU is putting its money where its mouth is; in 2013 alone, €365 million of EU funds went to making these urban technology solutions a reality.
Right out there forging a path into the future is Barcelona. This Mediterranean city of just 1.7 million inhabitants has made a global name for itself as a leading smart city and is rarely absent from any debate on cities of the future. Ever since the mid-19th century, when engineer Ildefons Cerdá had a new vision for Barcelona with the Eixample, Barcelona has kept an eye firmly on the future, embracing innovation and creativity in its urban planning. Its transition to smart city thinking, however, probably began ten years ago, when the Ajuntament made a significant investment to deploy a corporate broadband network based on optical fibre to connect all the city council buildings. Ex-mayor Xavier Trias was a big champion of the cause, and the Catalan capital, never short on ambition and always happy to take centre stage, has thrown all its weight behind the smart cities project. It is also one of the few cities of its size with a powerful Chief Information Officer, Manel Sanromá, who has held the position since July 2011. The effort and investment seem to be paying off. In 2014, Barcelona won the first European Capital of Innovation Award, "for introducing the use of new technologies to bring the city closer to citizens". Juniper Research named it Global Smart City 2015 (beating New York and London to second and third place respectively) and concluded that it performed well on all fronts, from social cohesion to smart traffic management, calling it an “exciting model of success from which others can learn”. Add to these accolades the fact that the city has sealed the deal to host the Mobile World Capital conference until 2023 and is the host of the annual Smart City Expo (taking place this year on November 17th-19th) and there’s no doubt that the city is making waves in the smart community.
If you don’t live in Poblenou, don’t use public transport or don’t own a smartphone, you are possibly scratching your head right now as your own view of the city collides with the vision of Barcelona as a global leader in smart technology. But start to look around and you’ll realise that the city is slowly changing. In fact, the Smart City Strategy includes more than 120 projects. These projects are classified into programmes which cover all areas of the city’s management, including public and social services, companies and business, environment, mobility, research and innovation, communications, and tourism. The projects are both public and private- funded and often a combination of the two. They run the whole technological gamut, from cutting-edge technology to what simply seems like good old common sense aided by a smartphone.
Many of the most lauded initiatives use new technology to reduce energy consumption, although many citizens will be oblivious to them. In 77 of the city’s green spaces, sensor systems transmit real-time data about water levels, allowing irrigation to be controlled by remote control. Smart traffic lights help emergency vehicles get to their destinations faster by turning green as they approach. More than 50 percent of the city’s streetlights are controlled remotely and are transitioning to LED technology. Taking things one step further, 22 self-powered lighting units were installed along the Llevant beach (located between Mar Bella and Diagonal Mar) in May this year. Six of the units use hybrid solar and mini wind power, while the other 16 rely on solar power technology, and all generate enough energy without being connected to mains electricity. And, cutting the city’s energy bill even further, the Self-Sufficient Buildings project monitors the energy within the Ajuntament buildings, meaning that any deviations on consumption can be quickly corrected.
More apparent to the average Barcelona dweller are the strides that have been made regarding transport and mobility in the city. The new Bicing app can tell you where the nearest bikes and parking spaces are and help you map out the best route. The bus routes that were introduced in 2012 include buses which travel the city vertically, horizontally and diagonally, and are based on data of the flow of people using public transport. Parking app ‘ApparkB’ takes the frustration out of searching for a parking space. The city is also fostering a whole network of electric vehicles, including taxis, buses, car sharing, motorbikes and bicycles. The smart city website states ambitiously, “We intend to turn electric vehicles into Barcelona’s standard mode of public and private transport for individuals and groups”. And although that may take a while to become a reality, there are already over 300 charging points in the city, part of the ambitious project co-ordinated by LIVE, a public-private platform, whose goal is to promote sustainable mobility in Barcelona and Catalunya.
Another key part of the Ajuntament’s strategy is to help residents and tourists stay connected and informed about the city’s services. If you have a smartphone you can make use of the city’s free WiFi network. Currently there are 461 public hotspots and plans to add another 1,500, with the network eventually including the city’s public transport services and its parks and gardens. And you may have spotted some of the black Contactless Barcelona poles dotted around the city. Using NFC or QR codes you can access facilities, services, activities, apps and an events calendar, all related to the place you’re standing.
Much of this innovation is taking place in Poblenou. For nearly 15 years, this area has been making the transition from an industrial past to a technological future. In 2001, 200 hectares of industrial sites were redeveloped under the name @22 in an effort to convert the area into a new hub for technology and innovation. In the heart of this area is the Smart City Campus. In partnership with companies such as Cisco, Telefónica and Schneider Electric, this public-private initiative aims to bring together key innovators, including businesses, universities and innovation centres, creating a hotbed for technological urban solutions. A number of old factories in the area are being redeveloped, including Can Ricart, La Escocesa and Ca l’Alier. The latter (see below) is being converted into a zero-emissions building, which will house Cisco and Schneider Electric’s Innovation Centres, and is due to open in summer 2016.
Photo by Kirsty Moore
The Smart City Campus under construction in Poblenou
One of the city’s biggest goals and challenges in implementing the above and planning for the future has been to break down its traditional information silos, where data has been limited to one area or function. The aim is that all data collected and processed should now flow across all sectors of life in the city. There are two key components to enable this information flow. The first is the city’s telecommunications network which integrates all of the city’s fibre optic and WiFi networks into one. The second is the Urban Platform, which provides the city’s IT structure, collecting, storing and analysing the data.
At the heart of all of this is the city council’s Open Data project, through which the public data collected is made available to all. Use of this information is actively encouraged. On the website opendata.bcn.cat, you can find data on all aspects of life in the city. Want to know the nationality of the city’s car owners? Monthly rent by neighbourhood? Or perhaps a map of land plots? It’s all there. And, to encourage citizen participation, you can even join the online community and receive regular news and updates. If some of this data gives you an idea for a new app that would benefit the city, there’s even a place to pitch your idea.
Technology clearly has a key role to play in reducing urban energy consumption, but will making daily life easier really help the average city dweller to live better? Is it possible, or even desirable, to create a smooth running machine out of the general disorder and unpredictability that is life? What about the centuries of organic growth that went into creating many of the cities we love today?
Not everyone thinks that smart cities are the answer to the world’s growing urban populations. Many urban planners consider the very term 'smart city' as past its sell by date, used and misused so much that it has become a meaningless buzzword. US urbanist and author of Against Smart Cities (2013), Adam Greenfield, is a vocal critic of smart cities and talks of the dangers of people becoming little more than ‘end users’ in the city, using technology that has been imposed on them. He argues that top-down solutions focussed only on technology—rather than ground-up ideas from the inhabitants themselves—are of limited use and are highly unlikely to tackle the real issues. The UN’s third annual International Happiness Report published in April this year showed that although GDP plays a big part in our overall satisfaction with life, freedom to make choices and social support contribute in a major way to our happiness. So, while we’d probably all enjoy a city that runs smoothly, social connections and the human factor are just as important to us.
But perhaps the main fear of smart cities is the danger of mass data collection and its incursion into our individual privacy. Are we walking blindly into a 24/7 surveillance state where we willingly collude to have our every single movement and action recorded? The collection and analysis of data is a major component of smart city technology—it’s what makes it all so smart. But, what about citizen privacy? This is a delicate balance that most cities and businesses are still trying to get right, and it’s likely to be a topic of contention for many years to come.
It seems that Barcelona is aware of the pitfalls and is working to overcome them, particularly regarding resident involvement and data collection. The Ajuntament is keen to emphasise the importance of social cohesion within its smart city strategy and has supported a number of private and public initiatives that address social issues using new technology. Some months after taking on the post as CIO, Sanromá wrote in an article that the smart city concept is “a new gold rush that often forgets that the cities themselves and their inhabitants are protagonists of the first order.” He also talks about the importance of “an integral conception of the city where it and its inhabitants are the driving force, not the passive receptors, of a technology avalanche.” Vincles is an example of technology that puts people first. This digital platform helps elderly people at risk from social exclusion by allowing them to easily access a network of family, friends and health and social workers, all through a touchscreen tablet application. Another project, Telecare, installs a device in the home of elderly or disabled people, which they can use to access a help centre and the services they need. 70,000 people in the city are currently using a Telecare device.
Regarding data collection, Sanromá commented in an interview with Vilaweb in March this year, “If we apply bad policies, we could convert it into Big Brother. If we apply good policies it will become Big Sister”. The sharing of information through the open data project aims to increase transparency. Perhaps if we feel the data belongs to all of us, for the good of all of us, we are less inclined to worry about how much data we are unwittingly providing.
So, how do we feel about living in a city of the future? Certainly the use of technology to curb our wastefulness and reduce our collective carbon footprint is something to be embraced. And it’s actually quite invigorating to know that we’re living in one of the world’s leading cities in smart urban technology. Time will tell how many of the dozens of ‘smart’ initiatives listed on the Ajuntament’s smart city website will actually become helpful in our daily lives. But it’s still early days and, so far, Barcelona seems to be trying to strike the right balance between technology and people, and is creating genuine business opportunities for individuals and private companies. And if you ever find yourself worrying that the city you love may one day be a faceless, perfectly-functioning, well-oiled machine in which you are nothing but a cog, just take a walk through the old city and breathe in the unpredictable, messy chaos that is human life and feel happily reassured.
SMART IDEAS FROM AROUND THE GLOBE
Solar bike path. Krommenie, Netherlands
SolaRoad is the first solar powered bicycle road that generates electricity. It is 230 feet long, and can produce just enough electricity in a year to power two to three houses.
Smart traffic lights for cyclists. London, UK
London recently began trialling a new traffic light system that detects when a lot of cyclists are approaching a junction and stays green longer to help traffic flow and reduce congestion.
Smart waste disposal. Songdo, South Korea
Songdo is the world’s first smart city built from scratch, and due for completion this year. There are no rubbish trucks here. Household waste is sucked straight from the kitchen through a network of underground tunnels to waste processing centres.
Vehicle to grid. Berlin, Germany
Working with BMW and Vattenfall, Berlin is testing vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technologies with the objective of generating power from electric vehicles.
Squats for free rides. Mexico City, Mexico
Mexico city residents can earn themselves a free metro ride by performing ten consecutive squats at one of 30 ‘health stations’. The machine counts the squats with a motion sensor then releases a free ticket.