Building the Networked City From the Ground Up With Citizens
By Albert Cañigueral
Jun 27 2017
How can technology lead to more participation in democratic processes? Who should own and control city data? Can cities embrace a model that socializes data and encourages new forms of cooperativism and democratic innovation? In the run-up to the OuiShare Fest Paris, Albert Cañigueral interviewed Francesca Bria, the chief innovation officer of Barcelona.
Albert Cañigueral: You were in London working for the U.K. innovation agency Nesta. Why did you accept the offer from the Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau?
Francesca Bria: I was working for Nesta and had already done a lot of work on a European level and with movements around open access, democracy and technology for social good. I was excited to come work for the new government in Barcelona because they have a very new approach to the city. They were making it clear that you cannot have a digital revolution without a democratic revolution. It was the start of my mandate to rethink the smart city, not just in technological terms, but in ways that put citizen needs and the city’s (political) questions at the core.
What have some of the key actions been on the Barcelona agenda since then?
One key point is access to housing. The government is not only tracking down big banks that leave apartments empty but also confronting platforms like Airbnb whose business model has a negative impact on affordable housing.
Another big theme is energy transition and renewable energy. Barcelona wants to create a municipal energy company to fight the current monopoly. We are also looking into more distributed energy models, like smart grids, models that are more affordable and which allow citizens to be in control of their data.
We are also rethinking urban planning with projects like the SuperBlocks(Superilles). Aimed at giving back public spaces to citizens, they were created in a very innovative process with a digital democracy platform for large-scale citizen participation. Opening the debate brought many great ideas, but it also showed us the complicated aspect of participation. There were many conflicting interests and it was learning by doing in an iterative way.
Finally, instead of working only with big companies as governments typically do, we are also rethinking the economic model to support new economies like the solidarity, collaborative and digital economy. This also helps us fight corruption since often a lock-in of the public administration with big companies leaves little space for other players.
Sounds like there are some real challenges ahead. How did you start to address them and what’s the role of technology here?
Over the past year, I created a Barcelona Digital City plan to address how technology and data can help solve urban challenges. It’s divided into three main areas.
The first is digital transformation of the government through technology. This involves aspects like procurement -how we purchase technology — avoiding lock-in by working with smaller companies and ensuring that public money is invested in open technologies. To increase transparency, the city hall is also testing an open and participatory budgeting system in Barcelona neighbourhoods with the Gracia projectfor example, which then can be scaled up.
Together with the activist group X-Net we have also created — and this is pretty unique- an encrypted infrastructure TOR that is integrated into the main city infrastructure. It functions as a whistleblower tool for public workers to denounce cases of corruption and help us open up the public administration.