You’d be forgiven if the first thing that came to mind when thinking about Barcelona was its history: the roughly ten million tourists that visit the city each year come mostly to admire the relics of Barcelona’s past. A stroll through the Gothic Quarter can leave you feeling transported in time (if you’re willing to squint your eyes a little and block out the shops selling Gaudí memorabilia on every street corner). And yet in many ways Barcelona is one of the most modern cities in Spain and Europe, pioneering the integration of new technology in its daily life.
The concept of a Smart City is a relatively new one, having only really emerged in the field of urban development in the last decade or so. According to its proponents, a Smart City is one that uses information and communication technology (ICT) to improve the quality of life of its citizens through the improved management and provision of public services. This technology is used across all fronts of public life: transport, healthcare, the environment, energy, public administration services, housing, business, and more.
Despite the appeal of the city to the growing number of tourists that visit each year, life for the city’s residents isn’t always as idyllic as it may seem. With an average of 15,779 inhabitants per square kilometer, Barcelona is the third most densely populated city in Europe, behind only Paris and Athens (London 1,510/km² and Berlin 3,944/km² to compare). And with such a concentration of people comes a concentration of noise: over 50% of Barcelona’s population is believed to be exposed daily to noise levels of 65 decibels and above – with anything above 55 decibels judged harmful.
With statistics like these, it is perhaps no surprise that the local authorities have been eager to come up with new ways to improve the living conditions of its residents and manage its ever growing population. And this means making ICT work not just for the techno-savvy younger generation, but for the elderly, the disabled, and the marginalized as well. The city’s Telecare system provides free 24-hour assistance to over 70,000 residents who, at the touch of a button installed in their homes or worn on a mobile device around their necks, are connected to an emergency call center that can address their needs on demand. As well as increasing user-safety and independence, the system also allows a better management of resources and time in the social service system.
Managing the sometimes competing needs of its residents isn’t always easy, and yet new technology is making it easier for the city to do so. While noise-emitting traffic lights – which notify blind pedestrians of when it’s safe to cross – increase safety and autonomy, the constant beeping noise would simply add to the already unhealthy noise levels in the city. Barcelona’s Smart Traffic Lights are operated via a remote control given to the city’s blind residents and only emits a noise when a user activates it. They can also be operated remotely by the city’s emergency services so that the lights stay green on the route of a fire engine responding to an emergency call.
Managing the city’s traffic and transportation systems is an important task for the local authorities who are keen to promote green energy and to reduce pollution levels. Aside from the ongoing plan to reclaim large parts of the city as pedestrian-only areas, the city is also promoting the use of electric vehicles and has installed some 300 free charging stations across the city. It is also championing the use of electric-powered buses and taxis, as well as having launched a partnership with Siemens to develop hybrid public transport vehicles.
However, the aim is not just to improve existing services, but to offer new ones and new ways of improving the quality of life here in Barcelona. Take the free public Wi-Fi service as an example: it enables anyone with a smart-phone, tablet, or laptop to connect to the internet via one of 461 public access points across the city. All users need to do is enter their email address, and within seconds they are connected to the network, free to roam around the city. Or look at the Apps4Bcn project – a platform where users can find a list of apps designed for discovering and enjoying the city, from arts and entertainment, to healthcare and education.
While in the world of urban planning, critics of the Smart City worry about questions of surveillance and the collection of big data intruding into individuals’ private lives, for many in Barcelona the arrival of these new technologies has brought welcome progress to a city that at times has seemed to be a victim of its own success.