Tech is making life in Barcelona better, even if you don’t know it’s there

Your city is dumb. The potholed streets, coin-operated parking meters, and drafty brick buildings many of us interact with every day haven’t changed much in a century. But it’s finally happeningFrom Oslo to San Diego, cities across the globe are installing technology to gather data in the hopes of saving money, becoming cleaner, reducing traffic, and improving urban life. In Digital Trends’ Smart Cities series, we’ll examine how smart cities deal with everything from energy management, to disaster preparedness, to public safety, and what it all means for you.

Does a smart city require savvy citizens? The goal of many smart cities is to make residents’ lives easier, be it finding a parking space easier or paying for a ticket online instead of through the mail. But Barcelona doesn’t just want an easy-to-use app. The people using the solutions are providing data, and they should own it, Francesca Bria, Barcelona’s digital chief, told Alphr.

Barcelona is trying to get its citizens involved as it evolves into a smarter city, including through its waste management initiatives and Fab Labs, maker spaces focused on helping residents produce goods usually shipped in from the outside.

An Olympic legacy

In 1992, Barcelona hosted the Olympics. In preparation for the event, officials installed 310 miles of fiber-optic cable and worked to revitalize the run-down industrial neighborhood known as Poblenou . Thanks to their efforts, Poblenou is now the site of @22, a with green space, subsidized housing, and mixed-use buildings. is still underway, and is set to be the location of Cisco’s Innovation Center. The company has heavily invested in Barcelona, and the Center houses a lab for developing projects aimed at smarter parking and energy management, as well as a space to demonstrate how these solutions would look in the real world.

“Barcelona has probably come up there as one of the one or two smartest cities in the world.”

Barcelona just completed its first “superblock.” It’s a bit like having a block party, every day. Pedestrians are a priority, and while vehicles can use the streets, they’re restricted to 10 kilometers (about six miles per hour), according to The Guardian. Picnic tables, trees, benches, chairs, bike racks, a running track, and ping pong tables are all planned for one area, El Periódico reports. None of that sounds particularly tech-y, but it reflects Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau’s agenda and priorities. Colau has built upon the previous mayor’s interest and focus on technology but also made sure that citizens are involved in the process.

“What we’ve been seeing in the past year is really a renewed focus on including citizens, including the different neighborhoods of Barcelona in the definition of this smart city strategy and making sure this smart city strategy is designed by and for citizens,” Cyril Maury, manager at consulting firm Claro Partners, told Digital Trends.

Previous Mayor Xavier Trius and his smart city team had originally identified 12 areas for intervention and improvement, including transportation, energy, waste, and water. Today, the city’s roadmap to 2020 focuses on using open-source technology that is “more democratic and accessible” to find solutions for “long-term social and wage inequality, climate change, scarcity of natural resources, and employment.” According to the report, “The current government does not renounce the work done” thus far in making Barcelona a smart city but wants to go further in making it “open, equitable, circular, and democratic.”

Some of its goals include closing the “digital divide” that shuts out some residents, like elderly residents who don’t have internet access, from modern amenities. It will also implement more responsible water-use practices, and helping bring down rents by identifying vacant and illegally used buildings.

With plans to improve everything from transportation to waste management, it might be easy to forget how connected the city already is. “Barcelona, I would argue, over the past five years, has probably come up there as one of the one or two smartest cities in the world,” said Arvind Satyam, Cisco’s managing director of smart cities and digitization division. He said Trias was a driving force. “The thing that got Barcelona on the map was not the city, it was the leadership.”

During his administration, Barcelona became known as one of the smartest cities in the world.

barcelona smart city technology aerial view of eixample district  spain
Barcelona’s Eixample District is home to the cities’ first “superblock”. (Photo: Iakov Filimonov/123RF)

What waste?

Cisco has been involved since 2011 and has been operating its Smart+Connected Digital Platform in stealth-mode for three years, publicly launching it last November. “It connects and collects all the data from different sensors and devices — water sensors, parking sensors, street lights, waste bins, environmental sensors — and brings that data and provides an API to different existing applications in a city to improve productivity and efficiency,” said Munish Khetrapal, managing director of Cisco’s smarter cities and IoT department. “When you’re deploying a smart city, for us what is very important is you don’t have to replace your current waste management application and systems, but you improve and enhance their capability.”

“You don’t have to replace your current waste management application and systems, but you improve and enhance their capability.”

Barcelona has 19,500 smart energy meters, more than 1,100 LED streetlights (many of which can monitor noise, weather, and traffic), sensors embedded in the asphalt that relay parking information, sensors that detect rain for less wasteful irrigation systems, Wi-Fi on its buses, and one of the most innovative waste management systems around.

Barcelona was spending a fortune on waste and recycling – 1.5 billion euros over four years. In an effort to reduce cost, city officials approached Cisco for a solution. They wanted to know if it would make a difference if they only emptied trashcans more than 50 percent full.

“The answer is absolutely,” Satyam said.

Now, sensors detect how full the bins are, and trucks empty them accordingly. “Sustainability is probably the area where they are most advanced,” Maury said of Barcelona. It’s also an area that requires heavy citizen participation. Homes often have five different types of waste bins: one for glass, one for paper, one for plastic, and so on.

“This is a good example of a way to have people do the right thing, the sustainable thing, precisely because it is very convenient,” Maury said. “It doesn’t add any more complexity to their life.”

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