Smart City Initiatives

Leading examples of smart cities across the globe

Barcelona Smart City: By the People, for the People

In 2011, Barcelona was one of the first European smart city initiatives to implement data-driven, smart city technologies to improve its services. The city invested heavily in infrastructure, including an extensive Internet of Things (IoT) sensor network collecting data about transportation, energy, and air quality, over 500 km of fiber-optic infrastructure, and an extensive Wi-Fi network.

In 2015, new mayor Ada Colau took the smart city initiative in a new direction. Colau, a housing activist, set a goal of democratizing smart city infrastructure, with a vision of a smart city developed by the people, for the people.

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Citizen Participation in the Barcelona Smart City

Francesca Bria, a technologist who specializes in social innovation and acted as an advisor on the subject for the European Commission, was recruited in 2015 as the city’s CTO. Bria’s charter was “to rethink the smart city from the ground up, focusing on what it can do to serve the people, instead of a technology push agenda”.

Under the leadership of Colau and Bria, Barcelona created several platforms for citizens to participate in the technology and policy of the smart city:

  • Fab Labs: classrooms where citizens can learn about the principles and applications of digital technologies, and gain access to tools that allow them to innovate technologically and participate in smart city projects.
  • 22@Barcelona: a space designed to attract startups and skilled innovators to develop new technologies leveraging the data produced by the city’s extensive IoT infrastructure. This has led to several successful pilot projects, including successful product launches related to mobility and parking.
  • Cisco Barcelona Co-Innovation Center: Cisco is a major technology partner behind much of Barcelona’s infrastructure. Their innovation center collaborates closely with local Cisco customers, governments, startups, academia, accelerators, and developers to develop new business models, innovative ideas, and technological solutions.
  • Decidim.Barcelona: a participatory democracy platform that allows Barcelona’s citizens to see and discuss proposals put forward by the city government, and submit their own. Decidim is used to create Barcelona’s government agenda, with over 70% of proposals coming directly from over 40,000 participating citizens.

Learn more about smart city initiatives in our guide: Amsterdam’s Smart City: Ambitious Goals, Collaborative Innovatio

Barcelona’s Smart City Solutions

Barcelona has implemented several technological and community innovations that improve city operations and quality of life.

Transport Solutions

  • Orthogonal bus system: the city’s bus network is based on an orthogonal grid scheme, which promotes intermodality, strategically placing bus stops to allow connection between bus lines as well as trams, metro trains, bicycles, etc. Because buses are laid out on a grid, every bus line intersects with multiple other bus lines, so citizens can reach any point in the city without changing buses more than once. Hybrid buses are used to decrease emissions, and solar-powered signs show the times of arrival at bus stops.
  • Bicing - a bicycle sharing system: the system offers 6,000 bicycles which can be borrowed for short trips across the city. Bicycle pickup stations are placed near public transportation and parking areas, making it convenient for citizens to pick up or drop off bicycles. Citizens pay an annual fee and check for bicycle availability using the Bicing app, which has more than 120,000 users.
  • Smart parking spaces: Barcelona implemented wireless sensors underneath roads to guide drivers, via an app, to available parking spots. The app also enables paying for parking and provides parking data for use by other smart city systems. The system had operational challenges, as the original magnetic sensors were set off by passing trains and falsely reported parking slots as occupied, and as a result, the project was deprioritized.

Environment and Sustainable Energy

  • Waste management system: smart bins detect the amount of waste they contain and sanitation workers plan their collection routes according to the data they receive from the bins. Some bins connect directly to underground repositories; waste is sucked out by vacuum via underground pipes. This reduces the smell of garbage and the noise and congestion caused by garbage collection trucks. Energy generated from waste incineration is later used for the city’s heating system.
  • Smart lighting: Barcelona street lights are powered by energy-efficient LED lights and use sensors to detect when lights are required, saving energy and reducing the heat generated by the old lamps. The lights include sensors that detect changes in temperature and pollution levels and are used as Wi-Fi transmitters. Originally, LED lighting was expected to be turned off when bystanders weren’t present. But a new use case emerged, in which city officials turned off the lights in parts of the city in order to draw visitors to events or activities.
  • Renewable energy systems: Barcelona uses sustainable energy sources to support its power grid, such as solar panels distributed throughout the city. Barcelona has required the use of solar water heaters by households since 2006. Since 2000, Barcelona required new large buildings such as hotels and hospitals to produce their own domestic hot water, lowering emissions. These regulations were the first of their kind to be enacted in a European city, and other cities have followed suit.

Learn more about smart city initiatives in our guide: London Smart City: Tackling Challenges With 20 Initiatives

Urban Mobility Apps

Barcelona citizens can use a variety of apps to remain updated, connected, and to better utilize services. Among these apps are:

  • TMB virtual: an app that uses mobile phone cameras to navigate citizens to the most relevant public transport stations.
  • Trànsit: a navigation app for drivers, updated with real-time traffic conditions.
  • ApparkB: an app that helps direct drivers to an available parking spot.

Sensor Networks

  • IoT sensors and Barcelona’s open data platform: Barcelona has a dense network of sensors that compile data from a wide variety of sources. The gathered data is fed into an open-source data platform called Sentilo. Application developers can leverage Sentilo to gain access to sensor data in a convenient and structured manner. Sentilo has been successfully deployed by other city councils that followed Barcelona's lead.
  • Noise and environment sensors: Barcelona implemented low-cost sensors that detect noise levels, pollution, temperature, and humidity, which can be accessed directly by citizens. These sensors helped identify and counter violations of city policy with regard to noise levels and pollution. For example, Plaza del Sol is a central location in Barcelona frequented by young residents. For the past 20 years, noise levels in Plaza del Sol have become unbearable for residents living nearby. Via the sensors, residents were able to detect that noise levels were beyond the recommendations of the World Health Organization, which led to city actions to reduce the noise.

Barcelona: Smart Technology Aligned with Citizen Needs

In a recent McKinsey report on smart cities, Barcelona ranks behind many other smart cities in terms of the number of applications, awareness, and usage of digital services. However, this hides the fact that Barcelona created a unique model of participation between the public and private sectors. Barcelona is actively involving citizens both in policy decisions related to the smart city and in the development of smart city services. Early on, Barcelona invested in IoT sensors and has become a global model for the use of widespread IoT infrastructure in smart cities, giving the private sector open access to this rich sensor data via the Sentilo platform. With this combination of a solid technology platform and a commitment to citizen involvement, Barcelona is on the right path to leveraging smart technology for the benefit of its citizens.