Conversation with IAAC Academic Director 

Areti Markopoulou

ViewPoints: The Barcelona mantra is to become a self-sufficient, productive, human speed, highly connected, zero emissions city. How is Barcelona going about actually making this a reality?

Areti Markopoulou: What is important is to understand that we are at a moment where global urbanization and the increase of population density is requiring solutions that would allow cities to become more self-sufficient or self-sustainable. Raising the capacity of the city would generate the energy that the city needs, the food we need to consume, the knowledge and innovation that the city needs to operate. It would probably mean efficiency in terms of infrastructure. There are different kinds of levels of local production or resources that the city needs.
And this is what Barcelona is trying to achieve. I was doing research for a project for the city hall into renewable energy in Barcelona. The first thing we looked at was how sustainable and how self-sufficient Barcelona is. And it’s sad to see that it’s only 2% self-sufficient, while some cities in Germany rate up to 25%. In Barcelona we are importing the energy we need to consume, and when you import there is an important loss: 48% of the energy is being lost in transportation or in the systems. So we’ve been working on the idea of how to become self-sufficient. If we start producing the energy that we need locally, we can consume it directly, so we wouldn’t have any losses.

VP: How is Barcelona going about it?

AM: There are different projects; there’s a trend towards the idea of the Smart City and there’s a big ambition in Barcelona to become one of these cities. This is related to the application of information and communication technologies, which have changed the way we perceive cities, the way we inhabit cities and how we work in cities. Barcelona is trying on the one hand to apply this technology of information and communication, but on the other hand they are doing things which are not at all technological, such as drawing lines on the street so that children can go home from school by themselves. I think that’s also important, understanding the needs of the citizens and using technology as a means.
The first of the innovative projects in which we have collaborated here at IAAC has been how to implement information and communication technologies in the public space. We architects are interested in urban projects, but the truth is that architects are not acquainted with all the new technologies, and telecommunication companies seem to be the ones designing the cities of the future. Telecommunication companies know a lot about technologies but little about urban spaces and architecture, while architects know a lot about cities, urban spaces and design. So we are bringing experts from both fields to participate in the urban projects. We have developed a technical guide on how to implement ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) in public spaces, to help an architect or town planner or someone doing a project in the public space understand certain ideas. The model of Barcelona implementing ICT is a very intelligent one and it could well be used in other cities.
We have also worked on a technical guide on how buildings and public space could be made productive, generating energy from solar panels, waste management, traffic reduction, optimizing the way we operate the city and how citizens inhabit it.

VP: Do you think the public-private partnership model is a way forward?

AM: I think it’s an important idea. The decision makers and the city administration should work closely with companies, because they are the ones interested in generating new city business models. I think the administration should also work with academies and research centers, as they are already. We need to consider the needs of the city and the citizens, and the technology available; and there are projects and new ideas in schools and centers like ours.

VP: 3D printing and manufacturing is the new buzzword. How do you see the impact of this technology in the long-term?

AM: It’s all about prefabrication. All the machines we have here now were used massively during the second industrial revolution. Then new technologies were introduced. Now those technologies are becoming more accessible to people: we have printers on our desktops, and we will soon have 3D printers; that means that we ourselves will be able to produce many of the things that we need. We aren’t talking any more about mass production of objects that typically sit in stock, but producing the exact amount of what we need: customizing.
3D printing is not that new – it was invented a few years back. It’s used in a lot of areas, even in medicine. With the 3D printer, we can print with different materials such as metal, clay, or concrete.
We are interested in the influence of these technologies on architecture. A few years back we developed a totally self-efficient house, because we wanted to show that we were even able to produce buildings. This resulted in us working on prefabricated modules which can be produced very quickly and cheaply. These new technologies allow us to produce locally at the same speed and the same cost but with customized solutions.
The house was built for a competition in Madrid. It was about sustainability and they were transporting houses from all over the world. Since objects can be transformed into data and data can move at great speeds through the Internet, the data can be downloaded and the houses built with local resources and materials.
We are developing a 3D printing project with a new biodegradable material made of soil with water-based additives; we are working with our robot arm to be able to manipulate big structures out of clay. We are able to achieve complex designs that were impossible before and also to finalize products. We print our bricks, we integrate an insulation system and a drainage system, and we put it all together.
Buildings consume 40% of the energy that a city needs. If we change how we build our buildings we can change the energy impact.
We are working with smart materials, polymers based on temperature or humidity, designing structures able to move and respond to the sun – because at any moment people may need a clearer space, or a bigger one, or more protection … So it’s about moving organisms, which are dynamic and can adapt.
We can generate energy from different strategies with passive systems. We can cool our spaces using new composite materials, totally passive systems. We have this new system of smart bio-bricks which are able to generate energy without any active process. If we think of multiplying this effect we can imagine walls where we can plug in our phones without there being an active system inside, or bricks of clay and hydrogel, which is a material that can absorb 40 times its own volume in water. We have managed to lower the temperature of a building by 7 degrees in summer, which means less air conditioning and thereby savings in energy. We see future buildings made with bio-bricks and with new smart and advanced materials to cool and heat them.

VP: Are there examples in Barcelona of this kind of living buildings, or buildings with these materials?

AM: One of the best examples in Barcelona, which is still not completely operative, is a building by Enric Ruiz-Geli, where he is working on a component-based façade that is able to become more or less translucent depending on the temperature. The building was built many years back, when they didn’t have the same technology as today, but it’s still a good example of interacting with the environment.

VP: We are at a moment when everything is accelerating to keep up with technological progress. How can we keep a balance between not losing the human aspect in cities and technological progress?

AM: We need to understand the difference between digital and physical speed. Digital speed allows us to exchange information. But when it influences physical speed then we must be aware of the impact it can have on the environment. We are also working on the idea of “slow city – smart city”. Barcelona is a good example: by not allowing cars to enter the centre we help create a more human environment, without losing the perception of space.
We have a project to create a new kind of map for the Metro: what people are actually interested in is not the distance but the time it takes to get somewhere. In fact, there are already panels showing how many minutes until the train arrives at the station. And it’s the same with roads and the traffic. Time is a major factor.

VP: You talked about ideas in Barcelona that can be exported to other places, providing other cities with solutions. Why do you think Barcelona is this model that people look up to?

AM: I think that Barcelona is trying to keep up with a visionary aspect of what the most innovative thing is for a city: biking systems, electric vehicles, the Fablabs etc. But none of these initiatives want to lose the quality of the city: the scale, the human scale, the public space, the efficient connections and the quality of life. They are what place Barcelona among the top cities in terms of innovation and urban complexity.

VP: What are the main challenges facing Barcelona in the 21st century?

AM: I think the same as the other cities in the world. They are related to the global urbanization phenomena and to the environmental and economic crisis. Barcelona needs to look for solutions for the growth of our cities, how to mix an urban space with a more natural looking space, how to minimize our ecological footprint and environmental impact, how to use technology to improve the quality of life. Cities should provide more opportunities for individual growth, innovation, new business and creativity. The challenge and the goal should be the quality of life of the citizens.

VP: Please tell us about the Valldaura lab experience.

AM: In the Valldaura labs we want to look at how we can learn more from nature and get this kind of symbiosis with it, and then bring solutions to the cities. It’s about “naturalizing” our cities. How can we start taking advantage of space that we don’t use in our cities to transform it into productive areas? In Brooklyn they are already doing it: they take food-producing farms and use them to produce energy.

VP: If somebody wants to put a vegetable garden on their roof, how does the city react?

AM: We are not only allowed to do it, we can even get financial support for it. Having a green roof allows you to produce your own food and it can provide insulation for the building. There are so many advantages to it!

VP: The City Protocol Society was launched here in 2012. What do you think it has achieved so far and what can it achieve?

AM: When we started working with the City Protocol project, it was an effort to try to understand the anatomy of the city. The aim of the project is to create an evaluation tool to let us know which projects might allow the city to be more sustainable and efficient. In fact we go far beyond the evaluation, to say not only what is good and bad, but also to suggest projects that could be used in the city. Obviously the environments are different here from in Mumbai, for example, so we cannot apply the same protocols: the protocol has to understand the particularities of the city. What the City Protocol is doing is to create opportunities to develop projects, which are different in each city.

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