The Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, Barcelona

Barcelona: the world's smartest city?

Many cities say that they are the world’s “smartest”. It’s an easy claim to make, as there is no agreed criteria to define what makes a city “smart”. Barcelona is one of the leading contenders for the Smart City crown, with regular appearances among “Top Five Smart City” rankings and even topping some of them. E&T went to the Catalan capital to investigate.

Barcelona is one of Europe’s top tourist destinations - but as groups of visitors stream into the stunningly beautiful basilica Sagrada Familia designed by Antoni Gaudi, I explore another of the city’s attractions, at a bus stop just a stone’s throw away.

Call it a technology gimmick, but it’s one of many things that set Barcelona apart from other cities. The bus I get on has not only an environmentally friendly engine, but also a number of USB mobile chargers onboard, free to use. And so do many of the bus stops dotted around town, right next to the huge interactive touchscreens that are connected to the Internet and help you find your way around the city. Most locals in Barcelona take such amenities for granted these days, but at least the tourists notice. It’s just one of several things that have earned Barcelona the label of being one of the world’s top ‘smart cities’.

Being smart is not only about being digital. “We have started changing our whole bus network, showing our bus lines on maps in a way that’s similar to the lines on the metro, with transfers clearly indicated on a map,” points out Alberto Fonseca, director of business technology at TMB, or Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona. As we hop off the bus at Avenida Diagonal, one of the longest roads cutting straight through the city, the metro heritage of the bus map is obvious: each bus line has a different colour, and interchanges are clearly marked.

Barcelona has tried hard to get smarter for a decade now. The previous city administration even created a ‘smart city’ department - until May last year, when a new city government was voted into office, which seems less keen to see smart technology as one of its priorities.

Still, Barcelona continues to be considered ‘smart’, thanks to the efforts not only of many start-ups but also technology giants such as Cisco, IBM and Philips. When E&T asked experts around the world to name their smartest city, Barcelona featured in the top five of every list. Just last year, a report by Juniper Research boldly proclaimed it the planet’s smartest. Just last year, a report by Juniper Research boldly proclaimed it the planet’s smartest – even though in this year’s ranking it was narrowly edged out by Singapore. 

“Of course our city is the smartest in the world, and the best one to live in, too!” Eduard Martin, director of the City Council’s office for knowledge society, tells me when I meet him.

But what is a smart city? Is Barcelona really that much ‘smarter’ than all the others? Does the term ‘smart city’ still mean anything, or is it similar to technology buzzwords like ‘cloud computing’ and the ‘Internet of Things’, which have become incredibly over-hyped? If one were to believe the press releases, nearly every other big city in the world now claims the accolade of smart city - but, on closer inspection, with little to show for it. So E&T went to Barcelona to see whether the city is really as smart as experts claim.

Getting smarter

One starting point to understand Barcelona’s ranking is to look at the smart city criteria set out by Juniper Research. The organisation looked at each city’s ‘intelligent’ capabilities, with a particular focus on the use of smart grids, smart traffic management and smart street lighting, as well as other aspects such as how well a city’s agencies work together, whether citizens are engaged, and how open data is used, among others. Sam Smith from Juniper says that Barcelona performed consistently well across all these metrics - and serves as a “model of success” for others.

Indeed, as the author of the report, Steffen Sorrell, points out, there are plenty of smart projects dotted across Barcelona. Water shortages, for example, are tackled by using sensors and a data-driven municipal irrigation system. There are charging points for electric vehicles aplenty, and companies such as Worldsensing, Streetline and Fastprk provide smart parking solutions. Open software platform Sentilo gives access to open data; a city protocol for intra-city information and shared learning rounds off the picture. There are “of course other factors, such as the city’s bike-sharing scheme, transit system and waste management system,” adds Sorrell.

He believes that Barcelona’s smart city approach is impressive not least as the city is trying to tackle its citizens’ real needs rather than imposing technology for technology’s sake. “For example, it has addressed its water shortage through networked sensors,” says Sorrell. “The software platform that analyses this data is open, and available for other cities to make use of via Github. So effectively, the city is addressing real concerns ... while sharing knowledge to spur innovation.”

Sorrell also explains why this year, Singapore has overtaken Barcelona for the top spot. The Asian city received high scores for its transportation system, which in this year’s smart city ranking was given a higher weighting than ever before. "[It is] our belief that an effective strategy towards urban mobility is fundamental to a city’s economic potential as well as the city’s ability to reduce ‘brain drain',” says Sorrell.

Other factors pushing Singapore to the top of Juniper's smart city ranking were improvements in broadband services and higher smartphone penetration, Sorrell explains. These aspects have “a positive impact for both commercial enterprises as well as developers looking to innovate and offer smart city services.”

Juniper’s rebalancing act may have swapped the top two positions, but does not take anything away from Barcelona’s Smart City credentials and its leading role in the global drive to smarter urban infrastructure.

So far, so impressive. However, when I ask locals I meet in coffee shops or on public transport what they think of Barcelona as a smart city, I get plenty of blank looks. To them, Barcelona does not feel especially smart; it’s not a term they are familiar with. But this does little to deter Ignasi Errando, a smart cities manager at the local branch of US tech giant Cisco.

A long journey

“Young people in Barcelona are using a lot more technology than their parents and grandparents used. And their grandparents are now using smartphone apps that never existed when they were young,” says Errando. It’s a quiet adaptation, he adds. No one walking around will necessarily be actively aware that their city is smart; rather, they will gradually use more and more technology, from smart buses to smart parking to smart rubbish collection. ‘Smartness’ is quietly becoming a part of people’s lives, without them even noticing. “Becoming a smart city is a journey, not a one-day project,” says Errando.

Cisco has been involved in Barcelona’s smart city concept for several years now, and recently, together with the city council, it has begun to develop a multi-vendor software platform called Fog Computing. The collaborative effort involves local start-ups (Sensefields, PrismTech and PLAT.ONE), a technology partner (Schneider Electric), and academia (the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre, the Technical University of Catalonia and i2cat). The platform will consolidate existing hardware, services and open data platforms, and can support third-party apps. The current pilot shows how Fog Computing can be used to manage traffic, do event-based video monitoring, manage power systems, conduct sensor telemetry and ensure connectivity on demand.

Cisco is not the only technology giant that has invested heavily in Barcelona’s smart city promise. Dutch company Philips has installed intelligent LED street lights in some parts of Barcelona. Working alongside the big boys are numerous start-ups , including Worldsensing and TheThings.io. Thanks to their efforts, Barcelona has not only smart street lights, but also smart parking and uses a network of sensors to monitor both air quality and noise. The irrigation system in parks is smart, as is the waste management, while a fleet of city vehicles includes hybrid buses, electric trucks and scooters, plus a bicycle rental scheme that is integrated into the public transport system and costs residents a mere €47 a year. A network of free Wi-Fi access points across the city, beaches and other public areas aims to stretch to 1,500 hotspots.

It’s all the result of a grand Smart City Strategy hatched by Barcelona’s previous administration, with 122 projects organised into 22 programmes covering different aspects of running a city - from lighting, water and waste management to innovation and many others.

Barcelona’s voters, however, had other priorities and elected a city administration that seems considerably less enthusiastic about retaining smart city status. The city has already cancelled plans for several ‘smart projects’, and techies are now wondering how much will remain of the original strategy. The dedicated Smart City Department has been disbanded, although there are promises to maintain the existing smart infrastructure.

As Marc Sans Guanabens of Barcelona’s City Promotion Department takes me on a smart city tour through the historic Barrio Gothic district, he points out the air quality sensors on lampposts and pneumatic rubbish collectors.

There are also plenty of sensors and actuators, feeding data into Barcelona’s smart city data platform, Sentilo. This is the bottom layer of the data collection platform, accumulating raw data produced across town. It feeds and supports the city council’s wider IT infrastructure, like helping to manage staff and administrative processes. The data also feeds into the city’s information systems that underpin the wider infrastructure and mobility solutions, alongside data gathered from social networks and various Internet apps.

Global efforts

Barcelona is not alone in all these ‘smart’ pursuits. Cities around the world are trying hard to become more intelligent, each taking a slightly different path.

The Danish capital Copenhagen, for example, has a much more hands-off approach to open data and citizen engagement than Barcelona, says Ignasi Vilajosana, the head of Worldsensing, a smart parking solutions company.

Amsterdam, meanwhile, is focusing the use of smart technology to strengthen the city’s public engagement and improve the environment.

In the US, Atlanta is trying to boost public safety by installing a network of surveillance cameras, while Kansas City and Boston hope that easy access to high-speed Internet services will improve the digital skills and entrepreneurship of citizens.

Singapore, another perennial in ‘top five smartest cities’ lists, is pouring smart technology into the island state’s transport network and a wide range of public and private services.

Gemma Galdon Clavell, a policy analyst at the University of Barcelona, however, questions the many claims to smart city status. Before a city can call itself truly smart, she says, people need to understand what is happening with their data. After all, with that many sensors around a city, it may become pretty difficult to lead a private life - and citizens should have the right to know where the data collected about them actually ends up.

Her criticism is echoed by Marc Pous of TheThings.io, a platform for the Internet of Things. He says that data must be both anonymised and open - not only so that citizens know that they enjoy data protection, but also so that inventors can come up with fresh ideas and services to make the city truly clever.

This may be a matter of perspective, though. Ignasi Errando at Cisco argues that thanks to Sentilo, Barcelona is already following an open data approach.

Smart junk?

While Barcelona may have indeed earned the ‘smart’ label, the overall effort feels rather bitty and piecemeal - in a way, similar to what an early feature phone, c 2001, would be to today’s smartphones. The technologies show promise, but still feel more like showcases rather than part of the fabric of city life.

And as we’re still at the very early stages of the whole ‘smart city’ development, Barcelona’s smart projects could end up on the scrapheap, abandoned mid-way like, says Clavell, the Projecte SIIUR of intelligent LED streetlights. Launched in 2011, the lights along the Passatge de Mas de Roda were supposed to improve energy efficiency by detecting human presence, temperature, noise, pollution and humidity - but they quickly fell into disrepair.

Another failure, says Clavell, is Barcelona’s green and futuristic-looking Media-TIC building; tourists still come to take pictures, having read that it is one of the most energy efficient buildings around. In reality, she says, it has turned out to be one of the most energy-hungry structures in the city. And there are others like this, she claims, with sensors here and technology there that fail to achieve the desired results because of bad design, poor integration, or simply lack of funding.

Barcelona, adds Clavell, risks becoming a graveyard for ‘smart junk’, and it is telling that the official ‘smart city tour’ for journalists has shrunk from 14 projects to the mere six highlights I was shown.

However this is not a surprise, and Barcelona isn’t alone in its struggle to prove its ‘smartness’. Most technology concepts follow a ‘hype curve’ - huge enthusiasm quickly turns an interesting technology idea into a meaningless buzzword, followed by rapid descent into the ‘trough of disillusionment’. With many ‘smart’ ventures in cities around the world trying hard to scale or gain traction, the smart city concept could be seen as having reached a tipping point.

There is still hope, though. Many of the technologies, software and sensors needed to power urban technology projects are only now becoming cheap enough to guarantee a scalable rollout. And the future 5G high-speed Internet may finally make the Internet of Things a reality and take smart cities initiatives to a whole new level.

Who knows, maybe one day the citizens not only of Barcelona but of many other places around the world will wake up and realise that they are living and working in a smart city - with the same ease that they use their smartphones today.

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them

Close