Barcelona’s Hidden Tech Culture: The Smartest City in the World

The city of Barcelona is constantly processing hordes of data from all its citizens. With sensors all over the city, the “smart city” tracks everything from movement and noise to air quality and traffic. This has sparked a thriving hidden culture full of entrepreneurs, app developers, and tech giants. But with unemployment and homelessness plaguing the city, some question whether this is what Barcelona really needs.

An unassuming Barcelona street corner is actually covered in hidden sensors, tracking all that is happening in the area.

Barcelona is a city that is constantly moving. Its streets are continuously abuzz with the hustle of everyday life, with locals and tourists pouring out of restaurants and shops into the street; Some are enjoying their time with friends, others are reading the daily newspaper, and still others meander down the Ramblas, perusing different shops and stands.

If you ask any of these people to describe Barcelona, they would most likely refer to its thriving Spanish culture, ice cold Sangria, and tapas bars. “I’m here for the nightlife,” a young American backpacker tells me, as we wander Barcelona’s Gothic quarter together. Miriam Schule, a German artist, says Picasso’s finest work, Gaudi’s stunning architecture, and the unique Catalan-style art is what drew her to the city. “I’ve always heard about Barcelona’s rich art scene,” she says. And as I wander the streets with these two other travellers, they are constantly snapping pictures and recording the scenes we pass. I am hard-pressed to find a single individual who does not have their cellphone, tablet, or electronic device at-the-ready, for any personal use they might require. Schule pauses to search for a WiFi network to upload her photos, and a network named “Barcelona WiFi” appeared at full strength. “That’s cool,” she says to me as she connects to the Catalan capital’s internet.

What most travellers and plugged-in citizens don’t notice is that Barcelona itself is as busy as its inhabitants. As they tweet, record, post, and check-in, the city is doing the same. Amongst the throngs of people, unbeknownst to many, are sensors, cleverly placed in the busiest parts of the city. Perched high on street lights and traffic posts are sleek black boxes that appear unassuming to the untrained eye. But once you notice one, you can’t help but notice the rest. Scattered around Barcelona are hidden computerized systems that regulate the city, buzzing and recording and processing hordes of data.

There are digital chips hooked up to garbage containers, small sensors underneath parking spots, motion and weight detectors for escalators and moving sidewalks, and light sensors for street lamps. This elaborate computer system, called the Internet of Things, collects data on noise, pollution, crowds, traffic, social media activity in the area, and more, and it’s just a minuscule part of Barcelona’s hidden tech culture.

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things Global Standards Initiative defines the IoT as a “network of physical devices, vehicles, buildings and other items— embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity that enables these objects to collect and exchange data.” It is not uncommon for cities to have IoT networks for various service systems. But Barcelona differs in that it has begun to weave together its various IoT applications, referring to it as a “network of networks,” according to Data-Smart City Solutions. This integration of all information into one central system has established Barcelona as a leader on the world stage.

A compact computerized system, halfway up the lamppost, tracks activity outside Mercat del Born (Born Market).

Sentilo, a digital platform, is the secret behind this network of networks. It acts as a mediator between the various sensors— allowing them to communicate via a single grid. “Sentilo allows the city to receive sensor data in a unified way and to share sensor data with municipal applications,” says Gloria Grau, a Sentilo representative. “Barcelona is constantly receiving about 15,000 signals from more than 2,000 sensors installed in the city. It processes more than 3 million records per day.” This information is then implemented by the city to improve ways of life for its citizens.

The movement towards a savvy city can be traced back to almost thirty years ago, when Barcelona installed fibre optic cable underneath the city. Then, after the 2008 recession, the government of Barcelona decided to battle the economic challenges by developing “data-driven, sensing, smart urban systems,” according to Data-Smart City Solutions, a research project focused on innovative cities. Technological innovation became the new focus of Barcelona, with Mayor Xavier Trias forming a “Smart City Barcelona” team. The group implemented responsive technologies to help manage parking, street lighting, and waste management, and to improve the way of life for citizens and businesses. Smart City Barcelona eventually found 12 areas for intervention, and so began a technological overhaul of the city.

Smart City Barcelona

These small and seemingly insignificant additions to Barcelona’s infrastructure have revolutionized the way it functions cohesively as a city. They expanded the fibre network to span 500 km, according to the BBC. The cables now run underneath the pavement, branching off into opposite directions and up into hollow lampposts.

This underground network provides free city-wide WiFi that can be connected to anywhere, anytime, at a decent strength. The fibre optic network has also served as a building block for the IoT system. The city has developed interactive bus stops, that display a GPS-monitored bus schedule and allows users to explore routes and times. Barcelona is also now hooked to a public parking pay app, called ApparkB, that allows residents to bypass the parking meter process and pay with a few quick taps of a screen. “It’s helpful,” says Barcelona resident Alba Carbo. “The changing bus schedule is nice for when I’m trying to get somewhere. I have a better idea of when a bus will come if it is running late.” While she doesn’t drive around the city, Carbo says she has friends that make use of the parking app. “I know it’s been useful for them to find parking spaces,” she says. The in-ground sensors communicate to the driver’s app, and shows them which spaces are vacant. It is designed to save time and avoid drivers lapping around parking lots, in search of spot.

While these features seem more like gadgets and quick fixes, there is more functioning underneath the surface and behind the scenes. Traffic lights are wired to interact with emergency vehicles to make their route easier as they travel to incident sites. The city also utilizes sensors in irrigation systems to save money and water — instead of having an old-fashioned timer that goes off regardless of conditions, the new sensors monitor and control the output of water by collecting and analyzing data on weather, rainwater, evaporation, and drainage. Trash cans are decked out with sensors that detect how full they are, and indicate to the city’s waste removal department when they will need to be emptied.

The lids of these trash cans are equipped with sensors.

These new changes have allowed Barcelona to carve a new path in city planning and urban development, pushing its way to the forefront of innovation. Barcelona now sits as a world leader in “Smart Cities”. It was voted Smartest City in the world in 2015, and was the runner-up— trailing Singapore— in 2016. The selection process is conducted by Juniper Research, and is measured by a city’s use of smart grids, smart traffic management, and smart street lighting. Juniper Research wrote that Barcelona “performed consistently well across all metrics and serves as an exciting model of success from which others can learn, bolstered by strong environmentally sustainable initiatives.”

Energy Conservation

Juniper Research also made a point to highlight that Barcelona’s focus on environmentally positive projects is what set it apart from other leading smart cities, such as New York and London.

Barcelona has improved energy efficiency by installing 19,500 sensors to optimize energy consumption. More than 1,100 lampposts had been transition to LED, according to the Cisco. LED conserves energy, while sensors on the posts will automatically dim the lights when streets are empty. The tops of the lampposts are equipped with sensors to monitor air quality and pollution. Other sensors detect hazardous waste material. It has introduced new

Escalators conserve energy by only moving when it senses weight.

transportation strategies, such as electric cars and bike sharing, while also improving its bus systems  in order to make public transportation more user-friendly. Bus stations now have USB charging stations, free WiFi, GPS updates on bus location, and tools to help riders learn more about the city.

The Tech Culture & Circular Economy

Many contributors to these innovations can be traced back to 22@Barcelona or the Districte de la Innovació (Innovation District). Almost two decades ago, the city introduced a plan to repurpose the Poblenou area. It became one of Europe’s biggest urban regeneration schemes. The goal was to transform this industrial neighbourhood into a technological and innovation centre.

Now, the streets of the neighbourhood are lined with high-rise buildings and modern architecture, where windowed buildings offer glances into offices and work spaces housing entrepreneurs and innovators alike. In some areas, the regrowth is still visible; old repurposed factories, vibrant with graffiti and crumbled brick, offer a stark contrast to the new, sleek, glass-walled buildings. The juxtaposition of old reworked creative spaces and new tech giant centres are an ode to the unique nature of 22@.

Local, organically-grown tech companies have found their home in 22@, serving to cultivate a culture of technological innovation. Financed with $230 million taxpayer funds, neighbourhood companies are given data from the IoT, which they use to create apps they believe could improve the city. This centre is called the Urban Lab. Nestled in the northeast corner of Poblenou near the Mediterranean coast, it is the epicentre of Barcelona’s plan to foster innovation and ultimately create a circular economy.

In essence, entrepreneurs bring their ideas and initiatives, which come to fruition with 22@’s support. Barcelona then allows them to test it around the city before they market their products on a larger scale. These include Worldsensing, a company based in 22@ that developed Barcelona’s in-ground parking sensor, and Fastprk, a parking application designed to make parking vehicles faster and more efficient by guiding users to an open spot. While the city does not always use these companies— Barcelona chose to use a different application, ApparkB, for its city-wide parking— Fastprk’s trial run in Barcelona helped it find business elsewhere.

Urbiotica is another Barcelona-based company that creates sensor-based products for smart cities. Its most recent product, the U-Sound sensor, was recently approved for installation around Barcelona. “Cities are facing more and more problems involving noise pollution,” said Marc Boher, Urbiotica’s Chief Commercial Officer. “Until now, they were making measurements every three to five years to see what the situation was. But this was not enough to regulate the sound level in cities. It is still one of the number one complaints.” Boher explained that Urbiotica’s solution was to create a sensor that continuously monitors city’s sound levels. “Here in Barcelona, these sensors are in different parts of the city where they know that they have conflicts that could be provoked by traffic, nightlife, sports events, etcetera,” says Boher. This solution, designed in Barcelona for Barcelonians, is an example of a functioning circular economy.

Not All Effective

While Barcelona’s plans for apps and digital services are great in theory, some of its apps are not as much of a success with the users. Bicing, an application aimed at making bicycles accessible for citizens, has only a two-star rating on Facebook, with the majority of the reviews rating it with a mere one out of five stars. The concept is simple: a subscription to the service means that users can pick up a bike at stations scattered around the city.

The mobile app-powered bike sharing system, Bicing, was invented and implemented in Barcelona.

But what separates this from other big cities is the ability to track where available bicycles are, using a mobile app. The intended purpose is to save users the hassle of finding available bikes and racks. But it hasn’t been executed in such a way.

One user, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that he has been using the service for three months now, with many issues. “The concept is very cool, unfortunately the service is not reliable,” he says. “What was supposed to make me save time is actually wasting mine.” The user described several instances where the app was incorrect, and there were no open or functioning spots available for him to return his bicycle. He spent up to 45 minutes trying to scope one out. “It’s a gamble overtime I use it,” he says. Bicing user Marta Gomez also commented on the poor customer service, little availability of bikes or spots to park, poor condition of bicycles, unfair fines, and lack of money reimbursement.

Professor Ramon Ribera Fumaz, Director of the Urban Transformation Research Program at the University of Catalonia, described three shortcomings of the smart city planning to students from a RMIT Master of media course.“First, because of the smart city policies, there is not a clear understanding of the needs of the citizens,” he said. “Second, they do not know how to define a citizen. And third, maybe the problems of the citizens doesn’t need high tech technology.” He continued, “You have this kind of top down vision of how technology should help people, without taking into account what are the real needs the city, of the citizens first.” With Spain’s alarming 18 per cent unemployment rate the second worse in Europe, it makes sense that Fumaz is concerned about social programs more than technology. Barcelona is also known for its soaring rate of homelessness and unstable housing. There are over 3,000 people living on the streets — which causes Fumaz to question the effectiveness of smart cities in improving life for all citizens.

“Social problems are not technological problems,” he said. “The lack of food in the city, for instance, is not a technical problem.” Furmaz doesn’t buy into the smart city campaign. “For me, when you use the words ‘Smart City’, you are buying an ideological package… this is driving society or the city towards an agenda and a way of organization that I don’t like,” he finished.

Other professors are also wary of Barcelona’s focus on a “smart city”. Dr. Maarten Hajer, a professor of Urban Futures at the Universiteit Utrecht, wrote in an article in Parliament Magazine that there must be a focus on “smart urbanism” rather than “smart cities”. He critiques the focus on technologies, saying that it is a top-down. The city should focus on social supports, he says, such as “reordering the housing market” and designed a “transport strategy”.

What’s Next?

The municipality recently released its Barcelona Digital City Plan for 2017-2020, to “drive technological sovereignty for its citizens,” according to the Municipality of Barcelona website. Its goal is to involve technology with “social transformation and public innovation,” says the government website. The plan is broad, and lacks specifics.

Under the “circular city” subheading, the city proposes bringing the “Maker technology invention and innovation culture closer.” Similar to 22@Barcelona, the city wants to continue to expand its tech culture. This means activities, events, workshops and projects, that promote interaction between the local community and citizen initiatives. City-led initiatives are the focus here, with Barcelona looking to support its own tech start-ups and continue to build a circular economy.

The city also proposes implementing technology for women, inclusion, training and empowering teachers, although it does not identify the process behind this. It remains unclear as to whether this targets the other social divides characterizing Barcelona, such as homelessness and unemployment.

Despite the uncertainties and criticisms, somewhere in Barcelona, a street light is turning on for a citizen as they pass, a nearly-full garbage bin is being emptied, and traffic lights are responding to waves of cars. People go about their daily lives, unaware of the sensors that are collecting data every second. For now, the tech culture remains to be a hidden aspect of the city.