5 lessons for cities on the cusp of a smart revolution

A view of Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes in Barcelona, Spain. Photo by: Jorge Franganillo / CC BY

When it comes to creating an urban space infused with technology, there are many cities in both developed and developing country contexts that are seeing success.

Barcelona, Spain, is just one city gaining a reputation as a leader in smart innovation. In 2014, the Catalan capital was awarded the first European Capital of Innovation Award by the European Commission, “for introducing the use of new technologies to bring the city closer to citizens,” and in 2011 was chosen to host the Mobile World Congress for seven years.

Each smart innovation the city has integrated collectively contributes to improving urban mobility, promoting an inclusive community and transforming public spaces, while impacting citizens’ quality of life, the environment and local economy. In that respect, smart technology is proving to be an effective tool as cities strive to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Munish Khetrapal, managing director of Smart Cities and Internet of Things at multinational technology company Cisco, explained that Barcelona’s energy efficient LED street lighting system alone had lowered costs by 20-40 percent, while a waste management sensor system had improved efficiency by up to 15 percent. In an internal study of 250 cities over three and a half years, Cisco found that if cities start to digitize themselves, “over $3 trillion of incremental value can be created,” said Khetrapal.

So is this progress reserved only for those cities ahead of the technology curve, or can any city learn from Barcelona’s achievements?

“With the whole IoT boom and the technology of digitization, the barrier between developed and developing city doesn’t exist. It’s all about innovation now,” said Khetrapal, adding that it’s important someone working in this space can build and design technology in a global context, and implement it in a local context. This need for local knowledge and understanding could mean a boost in job opportunities for local residents when smart technology comes rolling into their city.

For those working to implement such systems in cities on the cusp of a smart revolution, here are five lessons that can be learned from Barcelona’s transformation.

1. Identify gaps and priorities

Pilar Conesa, founder of the innovation consultancy Anteverti, as well as the annual Smart City Expo in Barcelona, said that it is important cities first “identify what their gaps and priorities are.”

Upon its creation in 2011, the Urban Habitat Department in Barcelona did just that. It identified 12 significant areas for improvement, including architecture, water and urban planning, and then devised 24 programs, such as the smart water project and the zero emissions mobility project, to tackle these.

Conesa explained that when addressing a city’s needs the focus should not be concentrated on improving a single area, but balancing and evolving different areas.

“There are some cities who have already improved a lot in sustainability or mobility, but Barcelona has a balance between sustainability, energy and developing technology platforms in order to connect all the information around the city,” she said.

This means that funding should be made available for projects covering a variety of areas, such as health care, mobility and economic development.

via YouTube

2. Think for the future

A big part of achieving this balance is planning ahead. Barcelona has been forecasting for the possible effects of global warming by introducing smart infrastructure such as the hybrid bus network. Khetrapal said cities in India are beginning to replicate this same forward thinking.

“It’s not only about the next step and where the next wave of cities are going, [and] it’s not about finding out what the city needs to do today — that’s a journey they have already started,” he said. “It’s what they need to be doing for tomorrow [that’s important].”

While for Barcelona that could mean looking to combat pollution and excess waste, Khetrapal said that many cities in India are concerned with traffic accidents, and are using new data derived from smart systems to predict climate and congestion patterns. From there, they can look to prevent accidents and traffic build-up by setting up alternative routes, which could not only potentially save lives, but also protect the environment by reducing fuel emissions.

This innovation is happening in India because of their ability to build on the learnings cities across the world have already implemented, said Khetrapal.

3. Involve citizens in the process

Josep Roig, secretary general of United Cities and Local Governments, a global knowledge-sharing network for city leaders based in Barcelona, highlighted that when going through the urban development process, people should be considered just as much as the environment.

“Local governments have to look at people and place at the same time,” said Roig. “This is our main aim — how we develop or urbanize to make sure this is for the well-being of the people living there.”

That means keeping residents informed of changes, explaining new processes and asking them for input. While this may be standard procedure for organizations implementing development projects, such a collaborative approach could be new to many city leaders.

In Barcelona, one way this is being done is through neighborhood FabLabs. These are spaces equipped with digital technology that help empower citizens to create smart innovations to improve their local area, while tapping into the knowledge of a global community.

“The change in cities has to come from an understanding of your own context, which is why we talk more about inspiration than replication.”

— Sara Hoeflich, UCLG’s director of learning and cooperation

There are currently 1,033 such spaces worldwide. In the town of Bohol, Philippines, this kind of space has been used by local innovators to repurpose plastic and reduce the amount of waste.

4. Consider context

Understanding the local area is another point Cisco’s Khetrapal said is important for city managers and project implementers to remember.

“In a smart city it’s not just about technology, it's about understanding what culture is there — what works well in one city doesn’t necessarily translate to another,” he said. “Barcelona has the ability to transform visionary leadership, but also understands that you have to maintain local culture as you intersect it with technology.”

Citing Cisco’s parking sensor project in Barcelona, Khetrapal explained the same system couldn’t automatically be implemented elsewhere, because the sensors won’t work if there is snow, for example. While that isn’t a problem for Barcelona, or Bangalore, India — where the system is currently being replicated — it could be an obstacle elsewhere.

Sara Hoeflich, United Cities and Local Governments’ director of learning and cooperation, agrees that considering context before replication is key.

“Bilbao or Barcelona are [examples of] very inspiring cities and great things are being done, but replication is rarely possible because we never have the same context,” she said. “The change in cities has to come from an understanding of your own context, which is why we talk more about inspiration than replication.”

5. Work with local partners

That’s where working with local partners comes in. Multinational companies are working with local companies to implement smart systems, because “innovation is happening on the ground,” Khetrapal said.

Cisco partnered with Worldsensing, a Barcelona-based technology company, to implement the city’s parking sensor system, and worked with Israel’s Takadu to manage and collect information on wastewater management.

As an increasing number of cities begin to navigate their way through smart city transformation, there are others that have already begun the process and their experiences can be accessed and adapted. Barcelona is one among many other cities, such as Medellin, Colombia, and Seoul, South Korea, that are already on that journey, and their lessons can be tapped into via sharing platforms, city partnerships and high-profile events.

While the journey a city goes through is its own, and should be crafted considering its local context, it is important to remember that whatever the challenges encountered — what’s important is how the course correction is made, and how project leaders and city managers are applying lessons learned along the way.

Over six weeks, Devex and our partners will explore what it takes to build a successful smart city, how climate resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure and technologies are being implemented, and how actors in the global development community are working together toward common goals and engaging local communities in an inclusive way. Join us as we examine what it takes to create our smart cities of the future by tagging #SmartCities and @Devex.

About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.