ViewPoints: The Smart City Expo World Congress is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year. What was the motivation behind the organization of the first Congress five years ago? What have been the main highlights and things you have learned in these five years? And what is in store for the November 2015 edition, for the fifth anniversary?
Ugo Valenti: In 2011 we heard about Smart Cities and Future Cities: Some companies and cities were starting to talk about it but there was no real event to bring together the cities and the companies. And there was nowhere in the world to learn what a Smart City was all about – whether it was just about technology or whether there was more to it; so we started studying the trend and we decided that we could bring everybody together in Barcelona to meet and talk, and possibly to do business as well.
We have learned that there is real business behind Smart Cities. There used to be mostly just Powerpoints and ideas and visions and strategies … but with no real products behind it all. There were lots of politicians interested in the term, who didn’t know how to make the concept a reality. We wanted to manage it better and most important of all have the citizens benefit from it. And we are succeeding – our cities and the lives of our citizens are really improving. We are very proud of those achievements.
VP: What’s going to be happening in the fifth anniversary edition that is different to five years ago?
UV: There’s one thing which is important. and it’s that we are growing at a huge rate. That means there is one place in the world where everybody related to Smart Cities – from the corporate world to start-ups and institutions – is able to meet together and discuss what’s going on: cities, best practices, case studies and the future of cities.
I don’t like to talk only about the future because I believe that there’s a very interesting and very important present as well. But we will be pushing to try to make an exchange of practices between cities in Europe, North America, South America, Asia, Africa … This is very important for all of us because there are things that different cities around the world can learn, companies can apply best practices around the world and there are, of course, plenty of business opportunities for companies in different parts of the world.
And in 2015 we are going to place a lot of emphasis on Smart Mobility. This is something we are very interested in. We believe that in the near future it is going to change how we live and how we move around in our cities, and also be a great help with problems like pollution and climate change.
VP: One of the pillars of the Smart City Movement is collaboration, sharing information and best practices and finding solutions that can be applied successfully to other places around the world. I think the Smart City Expo World Congress is doing precisely this by exporting the congress to other cities around the world. Can you please let us know a bit more about your experience with this expansion? What have been the biggest challenges and the most important success stories?
UV: We have been very happy with our results so far but we are still at the beginning of this expansion.
We have held events in Bogota, Montreal and Kyoto, we have signed up for Puebla in Mexico and we are working on events in other cities around the world. For us it’s a matter of putting a specific focus on the different places. Puebla is completely different from Montreal and Kyoto. They each have different challenges, even though there are many similarities. There have been some very successful cases. Microsoft is thinking of using Kyoto as a premier location for their business partners; this will help the promotion of their economy. It’s something that has been done with our help and we are very proud of that. In Bogotá we have been able to help boost the local economy and hopefully in Puebla we will see the same and Puebla will become a Smart City.
VP: Barcelona is becoming a world wide reference as a pioneer in the Smart City movement. Why do you think this is and what can other cities learn from Barcelona?
UV: Barcelona saw the opportunity and everybody in the city seized it. Everyone here believes in it, from the Mayor downwards. The citizens are really involved in it. We are very proud of our city and we believe that this can help put it on the smart-city world map. We believe in quality of life and we believe that becoming a Smart City helps achieve it and make our everyday life easier. I really believe that the event helped as well.
As for what Barcelona could teach other cities, there is no one thing. It is a combination of everything that has improved the flow of movement now in the city. It’s about housing, the ”Super-blocks” project, there is technology and how it is applied in the city, it’s how broadband connection has arrived to most homes in Barcelona … It’s about the quality of life itself and how to improve it. It’s about lots of things. It’s a question of how the city managers are thinking about the citizens and how they are carrying out changes on different occasions and in different parts of the city to make sure the whole city is more or less equal; there are inequalities, but the city is becoming more equal every day
VP: Inequality is one of the biggest challenges of cities around the world. What do you think the Smart City movement can do to improve the situation and make cities less unequal?
UV: Technology has something to do with that. It has given us a better access to broadband and this means the economic development of the city can be increased.
There is lots of data and it helps us be better informed. And it lets the city managers know that there is inequality and how they can act on that inequality. And citizens can see whether they are really acting; data is made publicly available so it’s easier to know whether a politician is doing what’s best for the city or only trying to get more votes. This forces the city leaders to make sure they are not only working for their own re-election.
VP: I wanted to go back to the idea of Barcelona as a living lab – somewhere for companies to do their prototype testing. Why is Barcelona perceived as this living lab?
UV: I believe it’s a very good living lab: first of all because the citizens are open to innovations, new ideas and having new technolgies deployed in the city and secondly because Barcelona is a very good marketing location. The city sells very well abroad so when you have tested something out in Barcelona it’s easier to sell it abroad. If a company is creating something here in Barcelona, the product will sell more easily to all the cities around the world. Companies take advantage of the Barcelona brand. It’s a marketing investment.
VP: The title of our publication is “Barcelona designing the city of the future”. From your position as the Director of the Smart City Expo World Congress, in which ways do you think Barcelona is succeeding in this, and what are the biggest challenges along the way?
UV: Full-scale employment is the biggest challenge. We are a wonderful living lab but it’s more difficult to really share out the different jobs – to make sure that the different research projects are widely distributed and therefore available to all citizens. That’s the biggest challenge and it’s not going to be an easy one to tackle because it means real investment, real financing, companies making an effort and the citizens accepting it.
We started to talk about Smart Cities in 2011-12 so it’s still in early stages. It’s going to become really common but we haven’t got there yet. For the moment everyone needs to understand how growth can be achieved. That’s the biggest challenge: how to go from a pilot stage to full-scale employment, not only in Barcelona but in Europe.
There should be a very easy solution to the challenge. The changes in Smart Cities are really economically sustainable. The thing is they are economically sustainable in the long term, so the question is, who is taking the risk at first and what business models can come out of it? Can the Mayor make decisions that affect the city for more than the period of his mandate? Is a company willing to make decisions that will bring ROI in 10 years time?
VP: Now public-private partnerships are one of key pillars of successful Smart City projects. Fira de Barcelona is a great example of a successful public-private partnership. We have also had some great feedback from CEO’s of important foreign companies operating here on public-private partnerships and the fact that Barcelona has a long term vision. Why do you think Barcelona has a good reputation in this area? What can other cities learn from experiences here?
UV: The important thing is to understand who the client is. Companies don’t understand it and cities don’t understand who should be important. It’s not clear who the city leader is, after the mayor of course. And cities are thinking about one thing, the mobility department is thinking about another thing, the environment department is thinking about something else … this makes it much harder to become a Smart City.
The public and private sectors need to understand each other and learn from each other. One is not more important than the other. They need to be able to really work together. But it’s not easy: cities want to make decisions but companies are usually very big and not very flexible. There has to be a transition period but public and private partnerships will work together very well in the end.
Here at Fira de Barcelona, it’s very simple: all our organization is run privately as a business. So if the public sector understands that, we are able to do our work properly; if the public sector wants more than that then it’s an issue.
The situation is changing a lot. One of the biggest challenges that we will be facing is the ageing issue. There are companies on Internet that believe that a human can live up to 500 years! It’s something that people are really thinking about. When we grow old, what will our quality of life be? Will we be with our grandchildren? Where will we live? Can I still live in a 150 square metre house when I am 100 years old and I am alone? It’s not an easy situation to find solutions for. It’s not just a matter of lifts or knowing whether someone feels ill or not; it means housing, transport, work places – a lot of things.
One good thing about Europe is that we are facing these problems before other places and we are really trying to find the solutions. If our company is able to do this, then when the companies in China, India, Africa and Asia are in trouble we will be able to send them the technology to solve the problems.
VP: Why do you think Barcelona was voted the European Capital of Innovation by the EU?
UV: It was because in order to win the challenge, Barcelona thought ‘out of the box’ and presented a project that went farther ahead of the other projects. It’s a comprehensive project; it covers the whole city and how the city itself is renewing itself in different areas. It’s not just technology, not just organization, it’s the whole process. Barcelona is making a future, working on an operative system to make propositions based on open data; but the private data is being kept private; it’s not being used for public purposes.
VP: What is your definition of a Smart City?
UV: It’s a very simple one – and I’m not going to talk about technology! It’s a city that uses innovative processes to be more sustainable from the environmental and economic point of view and to make life easier for the citizens. I’m talking about innovation, not technology. Technology is a means to an end. You can use it as a means to an end. But if you innovate correctly then you will be able to be economically sustainable …
VP: What would be your message to international business community?
UV: I would like to invite everybody to come to Barcelona in November because in the three days you will be able to meet everybody related to Smart Cities from all over the world. It will be the best place to exchange knowledge, to understand what’s going on and to do business.