City and Transportation

Smart City: a challenge that Barcelona could win

11 September 2018 | Written by La redazione

A positive example of how a citizen-friendly smart city is possible, Barcelona has on its payroll an “innovation councilor” to make things work. The Italian economist Francesca Bria is doing the job using, even before the citizens’ data, the power of democracy.

The promise is to have infrastructures, citizens services, and more and more technological and connected transportation and infrastructures. The challenge is to provide all of this in the most intelligent and environmentally sustainable way possible. The reality of smart cities is gaining more and more space in our everyday lives – but what are we talking about when we talk about smart cities?

Automatic systems to reduce pollution, roads able to collect and process data to prevent accidents and make a change in traffic, more livable and safer buildings: the spectacular progress made by technologies in recent years made this scenario not only desired but increasingly likely to happen.

Critics’ voices, though, are still rising: Bruce Sterling, guru of sci-fi literature, in an article published by The Atlantic a few months ago, warned us against the dangers of these (not so) smart cities, starting from the risk of creating structures that are profitable for the tech companies that produce them but, on the other hand, completely useless for the citizens who have to live in them.

“The future smart city will be the internet, the mobile cloud, and a lot of weird paste-on gadgetry, deployed by City Hall, mostly for the sake of making towns more attractive to capital.” – Sterling writes – “Whenever that’s done right, it will increase the soft power of the more alert and ambitious towns and make the mayors look more electable. When it’s done wrong, it’ll much resemble the ragged downsides of the previous waves of urban innovation, such as railways, electrification, freeways, and oil pipelines. There will also be a host of boozy side effects and toxic blowback that even the wisest urban planner could never possibly expect.”

But there are also those who decided to bet on a brighter future for smart cities and their citizens: like the Barcelona city administration.

In 2015, activist Ada Colau was elected mayor of the Catalan city: participatory democracy and a revolution from below were the key components of her success and continue to be an important part of her political activity. So much so that the city administration hired a team of programmers and developers with the aim of creating technological tools with a strong democratic push: their work consists in conceiving, and creating, a city that is increasingly at the service of its citizens, rather than the opposite.

It starts from a digital sharing platform, Decim, which in Catalan means “we decide”, through which citizens can interact with the government as in a social network: everyone can propose ideas and changes, discuss openly, vote. “We are experimenting with a hybrid of participatory democracy online and offline. We have used Decidim to create the government’s agenda: over 70% of the proposals come directly from the citizens. Over 40,000 people offered it. And many other citizens have been involved in collective assemblies and collective consultations”. To say this, it is the Italian economist Francesca Bria, enlisted by Colau with the visionary role of Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer: a sort of Barcelona’s “innovation councilor”. And its goal is to reverse the paradigm that until now has formed the basis on which the smart cities were built, that is to build technologies that can extrapolate the data with which to make the city work. Bria instead firmly believes that the direction to be taken is another: “Over 90% of the data we collect today in the cities did not exist until three years ago. And this is only the beginning: the 5G, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence are the first steps for a real revolution, what has been called the 4.0 industry. We want to move from a model of surveillance capitalism, in which data are opaque and not transparent, to a model in which citizens themselves can own their data”.

This concept of smart city as a tool to transform the technological landscape of modern cities is also the protagonist of the book “Rethinking the smart city”, written by Francesca Bria together with her husband Evgeny Morozov. Bria and Morozov were guests, last September 5th, of the Mantua Literature Festival, where they presented the book in dialogue with the journalist Luca De Biase.

La redazione
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