ViewPoints: Barcelona is a pioneer in the Smart Cities movement worldwide, but each city has a different reality. So what would be the definition of a Smart City according to Barcelona’s experience?
Xavier Trias: We are convinced that there is a great change taking place in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia. For the time being this region isn’t a state. But we are banking very strongly on it becoming a reference in the South of Europe, and being an important Mediterranean capital. It has always been this way. In the 18th century the Industrial Revolution started in Barcelona. I think now we are facing another revolution, although this time it’s not industrial: it’s the new technological revolution. And anyone who isn’t supporting it will be left behind. Three years ago we decided we wanted to take the lead in this revolution. This city has industry, trade, services, logistics and so on, but we said, ‘We also want to be at the forefront of emerging technologies’ – not so that the administration can make a profit out of the new technologies, but for these to be at the service of the people. We are obsessed with this idea. People say a single city can’t do it, that it demands the collaboration of cities, universities, companies and so on. Well, we have been working at it and struggling with it for three years. People used to laugh at us, but now they are realizing that it is true. We know perfectly well that we cannot compete with LA, San Francisco and places like these. But we can demonstrate that in this city we can create things which will later be useful in other cities throughout the world.
This is our Smart City proposal: ‘Come here and you’ll meet very creative, intelligent people. You’ll see that they have a distinct talent for research. And since the Barcelona brand is a strong one, you’ll find that whatever is made here can later be applied elsewhere.’ Upon this we base whatever strength we have!
VP: A Smart City is a reality but its development depends greatly on the vision of those who design it and promote it.
XT: Yes, it’s a medium to long-term project. It’s closely linked to research and creativity, and it demands collaboration from a large number of sectors, such as social services, health, electricity, water and transport. A lot of sectors need to believe in it.
VP: How do you see Barcelona in 20 years time?
XT: I think what’s most important about cities is that they need to be for people. In the future, 70% of the population will live in cities and metropolitan areas. Now one of the dangers is to dehumanize cities. We need to do the opposite – get closer to people. And how do we get closer to people? In small cities, the mayors do it by walking around and saying ‘hello’ to people. I do that quite a lot too. But how else do you achieve this? Mostly, by offering people services, by making public services really accessible to them.
We are really pleased with the award we have received from Bloomberg Philanthropies. It is for a project called Vincles, which is about putting new technologies at the service of elderly people who are alone. This way they are protected, and they can be alone without it being a serious social issue. And how does one contact the family, friends, neighbours, social and health services? It all needs to be done in an easy and entertaining way so that one feels one is really in touch with people, not with a machine.
Apply technologies to other things and it makes everything work better: for saving energy, for example, or for the lighting in the city, or for preventing pollution. Very soon we might find ourselves with a lot of atmospheric pollution because there is an anticyclone coming. It’s due to last for several days and it is going to create a lot of pollution. Well, for us to be able to detect this in time and to be able to make decisions is vital. It’s something people usually don’t value. Then we have water deposits in this city, and they fill up when it rains and then we let the water out into the sea little by little, so that the residues don’t end up in the sea and so our beaches are nice and clean. All these are the things which can be transformed by new technologies.
What will the city of the future be like? More humane. Some people say that new technologies disconnect people. I don’t agree. My grandchildren are learning from new technologies. They are being interactive and doing things with others –and this doesn’t always mean someone is playing with a device! Sometimes I tell my fellow-workers off because we spend the day sending Whatsapps. There are people who see this as negative, but I believe quite the opposite: it opens the group up. It’s important to belong to a group somewhere. Some people are in chess groups or sports teams; I’ve been in my football team for 50 years, and even though now we don’t actually play, we’re still in touch. This contact is so much easier now, and it can change people’s lives. Instagram is spectacular. It’s true that there can be problems, and technology can have negative consequences if it isn’t used properly. But we mustn’t always see the bad side of things; I say that technology is very positive as long as we know how to use it properly.
VP: Barcelona is a leader in innovation. But what cities does Barcelona look to?
XT: Many! We learn from San Francisco, LA, Boston, London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam. We learn from Medellin. We learn from and collaborate with Rio de Janeiro. I think you can learn from any city. That’s why there is this City Protocol invention. It’s not about one leading city, but many cities. In Spain, there are cities which do things very well from the technological point of view, like Santander or Vitoria. I am a Bilbao enthusiast for sentimental reasons: I was very fond of the former mayor who passed away. We collaborate with Madrid a little less because they are in a difficult economic situation at the moment. But Madrid and Barcelona are two cities which should collaborate more and understand each other better. We have a good relationship with Shanghai, Chen Zhen, and some Japanese cities. We have to go to Japan, though, and we should go to Korea more too. We have a great relationship with Hong Kong, and not only regarding new technologies but also in relation to urbanism and sustainability, which I think is very important.
Some cities want to transform their docks, or their coast, or they are very interested in transport. I think Barcelona can contribute interesting experience in all these areas. We underwent a very important change after the Olympic Games, not only because of the Games themselves but also because we used them to transform the city. This has been a success, and it has placed us in a relatively favourable position. Something we also use and which we collaborate with other cities over is the healthcare system. It is a good, high quality system for a very reasonable price, and it has taken us around the world explaining its advantages and how it works. It combines public and private care and I think it works very well at a very cheap price.
VP: These cooperation networks are really a pillar of the philosophy of the Smart city protocol society; could you briefly explain its mission?
XT: It is based on cities which reach agreements with companies and universities. We collaborate with MIT, with Columbia University, with several universities worldwide, and best of all, with many cities. And we also collaborate with companies, such as Cisco, Schneider, Philips, Telefonica and Huawei. There are a lot of companies keen to work together with us.
VP: And other cities are inspired by Barcelona, mostly in order to learn about the healthcare system and urbanism.
XT: Indeed, and also for another important matter which is tourism and logistics. Barcelona is a city with a very important port and an airport which is working better every day and which is really opening itself up to the world. We have the Fira Barcelona which is very important, and it has helped us to become a city of congresses and company events. Our Zona Franca industrial zone is important, and we have a public-private system of tourism management. People sometimes don’t understand this: it means that many things are not done by the administration alone, but they are carried out jointly with society in general, with the Chamber of Commerce or with other entities. It is something that is better understood in the USA. There is Barcelona Global, which is an entity that acts as ambassador for other countries in Barcelona and ambassador for Barcelona in other countries. Another strong asset is research, biomedical research, photonic research, and creativity related to design. We have just inaugurated an important design museum which is very beautiful.
And also I think things sometimes club together and give you an image of what the future could be like. Like Plaça de les Glòries, where there was a huge road network, what I call a “tortell” [a bun shaped like a ring] and we’ve demolished it to turn the area into a park plus an antique market like Encants. Then next to it the museum is already open. But it won’t be just a museum, it will also host organizations like the Design Center and the FAD [Fostering Arts & Design]. And there will also be a space for design-related startups. And a new concept of city is being created around all this.
The Media-Tic is another important building nearby, which we have created in collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce and the Mobile World Capital Foundation, and the first startups are arriving. In fact, we already have some startup accelerators, which have agreed to come and settle here. There is a certain revolution in the things that are taking place, and we are becoming a mobile world capital. I said from the beginning that this was going to generate economic activity. There are going to be people coming and settling here.
VP: Some people who come to settle here are worried about the economic situation. How are you working to improve Barcelona’s offer at a global level?
XT: 15 years ago Spain and Catalonia had high economic growth. In Catalonia we’ve gone from 6 to 7.5 million people in 15 years which is 1.5 million more people in 15 years. People have come from Asia, from South America, from Africa, from everywhere. In the metropolitan area in the past 15 years we have received 300.000 people from Asia, 250.000 from South America and 200.000 from Africa. It is spectacular.
Then around 2008 the crisis began, and some of these people have since been left without a job. The years 2008, 2009, 2010 were very dramatic. Many of these people had arrived without qualifications. So our challenge is economic activity. Everything we do with Smart Cities is to create economic activity. We aren’t forgetting industry, commerce, tourism and services. But economic activity, economic activity and economic activity – this is very important for us.
This has resulted in Barcelona right now being the city in Spain with the least unemployment. Spain reached about 27% unemployment two years ago, and now it must be around 22%. Catalonia must be at around 19% and Barcelona currently has around 15-16%. This month we have gone down for the first time from 130.000 unemployed to less than 100.000. But we won’t be satisfied until we eliminate unemployment altogether. And in order for this not to create a social problem, because my obsession is for this city to be on show to the world as a city of well-being, what we do is offer very strong social services. In the past 3 years we have generated a very important increase in social expenditure of almost 40%, in order to respond to people’s needs. There are many people with difficulties and these need to be addressed. The truth is, I think things are now working in our favor, and this means people can live well. But we are carrying out very important programs in response to people’s needs.
We’ve decided that homeless people should not be sleeping in the streets, so we go and look for them. In the past they were housed in sports complexes and industrial units. Not any more. Now we place them in individual rooms because what matters is to bring them back into society. There are people who don’t want rehabilitation. Some have alcoholism issues. We try to get closer to them, offer them services and give them decent accommodation. And once they’re settled they often try to look for solutions. And this is the other side to Barcelona: in addition to the creative, talented, intelligent people, you’ll also find an important welfare society, with high quality healthcare and social services.
VP: Which brings me to the challenge of inequality in cities nowadays: how can we design a fairer city for the future?
XT: For there to be a fairer city where it’s easier to live together, the first thing is employment. If people are not employed, it doesn’t work. The second thing is housing, social housing at an affordable price. Housing is my other obsession. There has been a housing boom here, and people have been selling apartments like mad. I have fought against this. I proposed council-owned quality housing at a low price. We buy homes, we repair them, and we put them back on lease at low prices for people with difficulties. This is a program with a 15-20 year horizon but I think it is a very important approach.
Another very important approach is universal education and training. I think here the schooling system works very well; universities work very well and they give plenty of opportunities without being too expensive; one can get academic training at a very reasonable price, and at the same time we have business schools and so on which are top-notch, leading universities.
The other great approach is to try to get all the Barcelona districts having housing and economic activity hand in hand. We have just started an original initiative in the form of 3D production centers, the Fab Labs, which we are going to have in all our districts. We have begun with one of the least favored areas with the highest unemployment, which is Ciutat Meridiana. People thought we were crazy but now they see it working and it fills them with satisfaction.
We also need to give various neighborhoods a facelift. It’s not enough to restore Passeig de Gracia or Diagonal. Something beautiful for example is Torre Baró, above Ciutat Meridiana in a hilly part of Collserola. There was a sort of half demolished house there and when we were running for election, we vowed to restore this to its previous dignity. We have renovated it and it has turned into something people now call their tower. This is important because people need to take pride in where they are and where they live. There’s a place near Barcelona which was also in a difficult situation as regards services and so on, called Bellvitge. Well, now it’s a place which works very well.
VP: Which brings us to the Poblenou area.
XT: This is one of the neighborhoods which has changed the most! People have no idea what Poblenou was like. The whole coastline was industry and slums. The factories and their pollution were removed for the Olympic games. There are some industrial units left but little by little there is a great transformation taking place, which we have called the 22@ district.
So now we have non-polluting industries. We need to know how to combine all this with creative people with artistic abilities and with new technologies. This weekend the Palo Alto market opened. In his day Mariscal set up this design up and now he has decided to create a market there. The opening was a success, perhaps even too much so. Then Fabra y Coats are busy creating what we asked for: a toy factory which is like an replica of where the Three Kings prepare the toys, read the kids’ letters, and so on. And we’ve organized a show for children to enjoy. I went with my grandchildren and the queue was two hours long. 22@ and Poblenou have become a huge success.
VP: Another public-private project is the Smart City Campus…
XT: Yes, Telefonica, Cisco, Abertis, Agbar, Schneider, and many, many small companies are also doing lots of things there. There is the fabric bank, which is a great success, and the GAES hearing aids company that has become a worldwide reference. And then many call centers and businesses are establishing themselves there, there’s a bit of everything.
VP: Maybe one of the criticisms of Smart Cities is that they focus too much on the economic side. Would you agree that citizenship participation is crucial?
XT: I think these things generate money, but they’re not only based on economics. If they are, then they fail. They have to be designed to give services to people and to bring the administration closer to people: open administration, with the application of new technologies and with people able to participate.
VP: Could you give us some examples of citizen participation projects in Barcelona?
XT: There are many. Most of the civic centers are now run by what we call civic management. Then everything we do, like the Plaça de les Glòries itself, involves the participation of the people. What is difficult here is how to do it so that there are not only a few participating. Through new technologies you can open up to people who wouldn’t otherwise take part. For example, the Barcelona City Council, decided one day to organize a referendum which resulted in 80% voting against the tramway going through Diagonal. Then the Federation of Neighbors’ Associations of Barcelona, a very big federation which theoretically represents all the people living in Barcelona, called again for the tramway going through Diagonal. I asked them, ‘Who are you representing here?’ These representation issues are quite difficult. Using technologies so that people can express what they think is positive. It does mean that many old people cannot express themselves, but we try.
So there we are, we have to think who we are going to listen to, whether it’s people from one street or from the whole city. These participative projects need to be looked into, so we can get people involved. There have been participation processes which haven’t worked so well; others have been exemplary, like the one for the Lesseps square. Though in the end the architect designed Plaça Lesseps and then the neighbors didn’t like it. Didn’t they participate? Yes, they did, but they don’t like the square. And then there’s Paseo de San Juan; people like that. Or the Diagonal Avenue. Now people who walk along it say, ‘In the end this Diagonal thing has turned out well’.
VP: Going back to the economy, Smart Cities market growth predictions for 2020 are more than positive. How is this growth being felt in Barcelona?
XT: I think we are the spearhead of the way out of the crisis. If there is a city in Spain which stands a chance of moving forward, that’s Barcelona. Madrid too. Bilbao, Valencia and the Balearic islands can help. But I think we are in the lead and this is being felt, because unemployment is decreasing, economic activity is being generated, commerce is still struggling to adapt and tourism is rising, with the problems that it entails. Still, if we didn’t have it, we would have a big problem.
VP: What is your message to the international business community looking for investment opportunities in Barcelona?
XT: It is a very attractive city for investment: for investment in new technologies, in startups, linked to different sectors; and in food and agriculture, in biomedicine, which is very important, and in design. Right now, here in Barcelona, prices have gone down so there are many opportunities in real estate. Great investments are being made in the port, important investments are being made in other areas of the city like the Marina del Prat Vermell; then very important investments are going to be made in Sagrera because the biggest station so far in Barcelona is going to be built there and the city will grow around it. There are important investments being made right now by people who see Barcelona as an opportunity for the nautical business, another very important and spectacular change. In just six years, Barcelona has set up a large yacht repair industry which has become the most important in the Mediterranean. And I think the world of design and creativity is going to increase a lot. And in tourism there are also important opportunities to come: tourism hasn’t reached its peak yet. And there is another very important thing, though I don’t know if it’s that attractive for investors, and that is the third sector, the non-profit one, related to health or social services. This generates a lot of jobs in this city and has very professional people.