Barcelona and the ‘smart city’

As the world becomes more urbanised, cities are becoming smarter to deal with the complexities of urban life such as overpopulation, energy consumption, resource management and environmental protection. Gaining traction over the past decade, the ‘smart city’ concept has now become popular among policy makers, urban planners and academics alike.  

A key part of being a smart city is incorporating new digital technologies to improve the quality and performance of urban services to benefit residents. Barcelona has incorporated smart sensors and data analytics across the city from parking and transportation to waste collection and air quality.  

Although the idea of the smart city is relatively new, it has evolved from its initial conception. The original smart city was characterised by top-down, technology driven decision making. This then evolved into a more bottom-up approach, with technology driven by the demands of citizens. Finally, what Barcelona calls the Smart City 3.0 has emerged: linking citizen participation with both government aims and new technologies. The key principle behind this is the development of the new open-source data platform, Sentilo, which integrates data from sensors and transmits it to information systems across the city.   

One of the drivers behind Barcelona’s transformation to a smart city was the election of Xavier Trias in 2011. During his time in office he pushed the movement and has led to Barcelona positioning itself as a smart city benchmark; promoting sustainability and inclusivity through smart technologies and citizen participation.  

‘Smart’ mobility  

Over the past decade, Barcelona has redesigned its mobility network and infrastructure, creating an intelligent and user-friendly public transport system. The city has a new orthogonal bus network (horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines), making it faster, more frequent and easier to use, with hybrid buses that are one of the cleanest surface public transport fleets in Europe, and smart bus shelters that use solar powered screens to display arrival times. 

Smart bus shelters in Barcelona. Source: Medium

Traffic lights and queue detectors throughout the city feedback to a central system that adjusts the flow of traffic to avoid congestion and bottlenecks. Smart traffic lights also help emergency vehicles get to their destination by turning green as they approach.  

Smart technologies have also made private vehicle use more convenient, with sensors in street parking throughout Barcelona provide drivers with real-time parking availability through the ApparkB app. After just one year of operation, it had registered more than 4,000 parking permits per day. The data collected also provides the city with information on parking patterns to help improve urban mobility in the longer term.  

‘Smart’ environments 

Barcelona’s new censored waste disposal system. Source: M2M Cafe

Barcelona has also incorporated smart technologies in its waste management system. An automated waste collection system made up of compact waste drop-off locations with sensors that notify collectors when full decreases noise pollution from pick-up trucks and keeps public space clear from overflowing bins. 

The city’s public space has also benefited from smart installations. More than 1,100 LED lampposts and smart lighting sensors across the city have reduced energy consumption by 30%, with streetlights running on timers with motion sensors. Similarly, irrigation of 68% of the city’s green spaces is remote controlled according to real-time data, reducing water consumption by 25% since 2014.  

Whilst Barcelona has clearly made impressive ‘smart’ improvements to many aspects of urban life, the concept of the smart city, and the mostly unseen influence of technology that it brings, has a significant potential to reshape urban environments and power relations.  

The systems of smart technologies and sensors that enable the city to self-regulate create new relationships with environmental flows such as energy and water. These systems also depoliticise urban planning and environmental management, and create a divide in who has power over urban life, with sensors and algorithms on one hand, and natural processes on the other.  The smart city concept has also been criticised for its potential impact on human-nature relationships, with some political ecologists theorising it may affect pro-environmental behaviours.

Whilst the smart city concept could potentially be a means of producing more sustainable, economically prosperous and inclusive cities, it may also be mobilised as a policy tool to reproduce existing socio-political relations, meaning we need to be wary of the driving factors behind the growing number of cities presenting themselves as ‘smart’.

One thought on “Barcelona and the ‘smart city’

  1. Hi Alex, thank you very much for this thorough presentation of ‘Smart’ initiatives in Barcelona. Over my course of study, I have come across the smart city issue in urban contexts of the Global South, where it is often criticized by scholars as a mean for technocratic governance institutions to further privatise urban development policies and take policy-making away from the people. Notably, IBM, the world leader in Smart City technologies and data collection, is criticized for reducing policy-making in Rio de Janeiro or Nairobi to the technical quest towards optimizing a “system”. When thinking Smart city technologies from an Urban Political Ecology perspective, I think this dimension of “systemizing” the city is crucial. Therefore, I wonder who invested in making Barcelona ‘smarter’ and I think you could have detailed how people are – or are not – integrated in the policy-making process. In the penultimate paragraph, you bring up this issue of the “depoliticization of urban planning” and directly link it with “its potential impact on human-nature relationships”. I found this spontaneous link very inspiring.


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