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Francesca Bria, CTO of Barcelona Smart City

written by Laura Traldi

«Those who control data, AI and digital infrastructures will determine the nature of future institutions. To maintain European social models and defend values and rights, citizens must hold the reins of technology». The Smart City according to Francesca Bria, Chief Technology Officer of Barcelona

Before talking with Francesca Bria one might think that in Barcelona Smart City is such due to its high tech services. Like tunnels that suck up the tagged trash thanks to pneumatic vacuum, delivering it to the landfill. The Apps that find free parking and the ecosystem of 400 startups, incubators and FabLabs. Or the digital infrastructures: 300 recharges for electric cars, 500 km of optical fiber, 1123 WiFi points. Or for the 5 nodes for the 5G test, which will cover 20% of the territory by 2020.

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Yet, explains Francesca Bria, Chief Technology Officer of the City and head of Barcelona Smart City, what makes the Catalan city a digital city at the forefront is invisible. «It’s the drive to give technological sovereignty to citizens», she says.

What is the technological sovereignty of citizens?

Francesca Bria: «It is the determination to put urban policies and the big challenges of the city before technology. Because the Smart City as it is conceived today (a marketing concept invented by technology vendors that provide services) does not work.

And so many now have noticed. I coordinate a network of Chief Innovation and Technology Officers all over the world and I see other cities who want to follow us. Already Amsterdam, Berlin, New York are inspired by the Barcelona model of democratization. Because if the Smart City does not start with a clear social purpose, it’s just a flood of sensors and dashboards. Very expensive, that do not interact with each other, offering services whose usefulness is doubtful. But the biggest problem of the Smart City as it is understood today is another … »

What is the Smart City’s biggest problem?

«The Smart City driven by marketing does not produce a sustainable economic model for cities. Because it is companies that manage the fundamental asset of data. Today, data is like a meta-utility, a public infrastructure like roads, air, water and energy. And smart services that could favor the local economy travel on these data».

«Being Smart Citizen means being aware that control over data, AI and infrastructure will determine the nature of the institutions of the future»

Services such as a European Uber, managed publicly and in collaboration between cities. A platform that allows access to small local businesses or cooperatives and free competition by offering them the use of data to build their own apps. Instead now there is a big business that comes and wins over everyone because it has this digital heritage and therefore the most intelligent pittaform. And it does away taxis and cooperatives».

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«The Barcelona outlook does not glance backwards and it is not a closure towards technological innovation. Quite the opposite. But in Barcelona Smart City we reflect on how data and technology can implement models that take into account workers’ rights. That prevent the monopolization of the market. And that force companies to pay taxes».

So what is the Barcelona Smart City model inspired by other cities?

«In our vision, the Smart City are services that respond to the real needs of the city that citizens themselves have helped to define through the tools of participatory democracy. Services that the city itself develops, using the data that citizens spontaneously decided to donate».

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Thus it is technology that starts from why and what and only later worries about how…

«Exactly. For Barcelona Smart City, citizens have decided that the priorities are popular housing, sustainable mobility, increasing public and green spaces, the energy transition to renewables, water as a common good. And only once the objectives have been set have we asked ourselves the question: how can technology help us? And how can we govern it instead of being governed? Giving technology sovereignty to citizens means making them co-creators and owners of services. Which obviously are designed to dialogue with each other».

Participatory democracy means giving citizens the chance to speak on complex issues. The world is divided between those who think it is a good idea and those who think it is very bad

«It’s a bad idea if you think of a Facebook democracy: a place where everyone says his without a real exchange of information or a constructive dialogue. On the other hand, it is a good idea if it is part of a larger project, starting with the political will to bring citizens and institutions closer together. Promoting informed participation, transparency, the exchange of ideas, the creation of a collective intelligence. In Barcelona we have a platform for participatory democracy, which is called Decidim. 70% of the government decisions come from Decidim. But it’s not just online democracy. There is also a municipal multi-disciplinary department that deals with training and informing citizens, organizing free courses, open events, neighborhood assemblies. Because a Smart City can not exist without Smart Citizens».

How does Decidim work?

«It is a platform in open software managed by a community.

A neighborhood assembly linked to the Decidim participatory democracy platform

Read here about how Decidim works.

«It has “App” graphics and an easy-to-use interface. On Decidim, City Council, citizens and associations publish projects and proposals. And then they can follow them, argue them, link them to relevant content, control their implementation, react. Decidim is a platform created to grow information and dialogue. From the regulatory plan, to the budget, from social issues to bus routes: everything is discussed on Decidim. But to vote or take a position on the issues you must participate and inform yourself .. And, of course, the same process also takes place offline, in neighborhood assemblies, in association meetings, etc.».

Do we have something similar in Italy, with the Rousseau by M5S?

«Between Rousseau and Decidim there are similarities but also great differences. The most fundamental one is that Decidim is built with free software and not owned by a company. And so it is totally transparent (and those who work there must abide by a Code of Ethics defined by the municipality). Moreover, Decidim belongs to the people, not to a political party or a company. Lastly, its architecture is scalable, configurable and integrated on other tools and apps, but without any manipulation of data, or algorithmic, is possible. They are not details. The technological question is fundamental when it comes to the sovereignty of citizens. And the first question to ask is: how are the platforms built? If they are owned by someone and not by the community there is something wrong. And the second: who collects and governs our data».

On this topic of data collection and data management you are working with the Data Commons

«It is the most important project we are carrying out in Barcelona. A system of licenses that allows citizens, when they use any type of app, to control who and how to provide their data. An example of practical implementation is the one we are carrying out in Amsterdam within the European DECODE project.

«Citizens must be aware of the fact that in order to maintain the European social model, to defend acquired values and rights, we must hold the reins of technology»

This is a digital register through which Airbnb must pass when registering a property. On the one hand, the city can evaluate the number of days of rent and the legality of the relationship and prevent real estate from using the platform to raise prices. And on the other hand it creates a collective intelligence of data that will allow it to create public platforms with clear rules. To promote the work of citizens and develop a local eco-system.

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For Barcelona Smart City, for example, where we supported startups and fablabs that now help us in the development of digital services, we have already achieved good results. In the irrigation system for example. We have made sensors that activate the plants where and when needed (and the result is 500 million euros a year saved and more manicured parks). And on the production of renewable energy. In some homes, they are distributed at cost price and in the necessary quantity, thanks to environmental detectors (with a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions)».

How are citizens educated in digital culture? And what is a Smart Citizen?

«We hold free public courses: in schools, in social centers, at the MediaTIC of the neighborhood-lab @ 22. And at the public FabLabs».

Sensore realizzato dal FabLab di Barcellona per misurare l’inquinamento acustico nelle abitazioni

«We have numerous initiatives that promote privacy awareness. Not everyone has to become an expert, of course. But being Smart Citizen means being aware that control over data, AI and infrastructure will determine the nature of the institutions of the future. As the case of FB and Cambridge Analytica has amply demonstrated. Citizens must be aware of the fact that in order to maintain the European social model, to defend acquired values and rights, we must hold the reins of technology. Cities are perfect pilot places to build an alternative and are networking. And their voice will be heard ..

Read also Rethinking Smart Cities by Evgeny Morozov and Francesca Bria, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung New York.

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