Want to be a smart city? Learn from Barcelona

June 19, 2018

Spain’s second-largest city added about 21,600 jobs and saved 600,000 liters of water annually by embracing smart-city programs


American cities are growing, especially in the south, and civic leaders have begun to take the first tentative steps into using data collection to predict civic issues from potholes to crime.

According to some experts, if American cities don’t accelerate the process of becoming “smart,” they could be, “the next rust belt.”

As a scholar that studies the integration and implementation of technology into public services, we have found that American cities can avoid some of the pitfalls of becoming “smart.” They can learn from one of the most advanced smart cities in the world, Barcelona, Spain.

We found that from 2011-2014 through 22 smart-city programs, Barcelona added roughly €85 million of reported GDP impact in 2014. About 21,600 jobs were added and 1,870 of those jobs were the direct result of the programs. Beyond the economic boost, smart-city projects are also expected to save 9,700 tons of CO2 and 600,000 liters of water consumption annually.


Building a Smart City: Lessons from Barcelona from CACM on Vimeo.


What is a “smart” city?

Becoming a “smart city,” is not about just placing a few sensors around town to catch speeding cars.

Becoming “smart” requires a collective, long term municipal commitment and policy goals to govern the technologies that will be used during the process.

Overall, “smart cities,” integrate different types of electronic data collection to strategically manage assets and resources efficiently – garbage pickups, street lighting, and traffic flow, just to name a few – over the long term.

Data collection is typically done through a network of sensors – which can be mounted on garbage cans, inside of street lights, or underneath intersections, to follow the previous example – that report data back to a central hub. The data can take many forms – air temperature, usage of electricity, volume of water used, decibels of noise, etc. This sensor network is often referred to as an “internet of things.”

The data is then analyzed at the central hub and informs city leaders how they can optimize public services.

The concepts are easy to understand, but technical requirements (security, durability) and social concerns (privacy, taxes) can be stumbling blocks that cities need to overcome.

How Barcelona became “smart”

Barcelona’s economy nearly collapsed in the 1980s and global economic downturn in the late 2000s also hurt.

City leaders wanted to transform the city’s economic and social profiles. They wanted to move away from traditional textile manufacturing to knowledge-based industries like medical research or education. City leaders also wanted to improve tourism and infrastructure for residents, investors, and visitors.

Barcelona committed 22 smart local programs implemented primarily by public-private partnerships to create its network and then used the data to become, “smart.”

Public Wi-Fi systems were built. Sensor networks were put in place to monitor garbage levels, water flow, electricity usage, and the timing and location of city busses. Municipal waste collection, public utilities and transit systems were scrutinized and optimized thanks to the data collection and analysis.

Barcelona focused on using the Internet to increase internal efficiency in local government, improving public services, and refocusing city governance processes. The mayor actively supported the development of the smart city. So did the Urban Habitat department, politically and technically. The Computer Municipal Institute also helped implement the strategy. City departments and officials went from a siloed approach to a citywide effort.

City leaders can learn from Barcelona

As seen with the Smart Cities New York 2018 conference earlier this month – which featured New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Iceland’s President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson – there is a growing interest in American cities becoming, “smarter.”

Technology was, and still is, at the core of the Barcelona urban-development model and an essential tool for supporting the innovation process, in our view American city leaders can use that for guidance.

American cities can go in the directions that work best for them, but they do not have to blaze a completely new trail. We believe that Barcelona is an example that city leaders of any size can learn from.