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Building a Smart City: Lessons from Barcelona

Smart Internet-based infrastructure is one thing but will be ignored without the public's continuing engagement.
Building a Smart City, illustration
  1. Introduction
  2. Key Insights
  3. Characterizing Smart Cities
  4. Barcelona's Smartness
  5. Conclusion
  6. References
  7. Author
  8. Footnotes
Building a Smart City, illustration

Over the past few decades, the challenges faced by local governments, like urban growth and migration, have become increasingly complex and interrelated. In addition to traditional land-use regulation, urban maintenance, production and management of services, governments must meet new demands from different actors regarding water supply, natural-resources sustainability, education, safety, and transportation.2,16 Moreover, cities today compete with one another for companies, tourists, and especially human talent18 while addressing unprecedented socioeconomic crises. Innovation, particularly technological innovation, can help local governments address the challenges of contemporary urban governance, improve the urban environment, increase their competitive edge, and cope with environmental risks. To prevent and manage them, cities must innovate and become smart.

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Key Insights

  • “Smart cities” is an umbrella term for how information and communication technology can help improve the efficiency of a city’s operations and its citizens’ quality of life while also promoting the local economy.
  • Smart-city branding often produces better results in terms of external identity and image than implementation of specific smart-city initiatives alone.
  • The active participation of city stakeholders and residents in smart-city development is a key success factor.

Although current research regarding cities is rich in references to the smart city, it is also fragmented, as smart city is still a fuzzy term that is not used consistently, even by experts.13 This fragmentation is also reproduced in terms of the strategies that different cities follow to become smarter. There is no single route to being smart, and different cities have adopted different approaches that reflect their own very local circumstances.

Barcelona, Spain, is viewed as being among the top most advanced smart cities in the world, according to several recent surveys and is thus often considered a model for other cities to follow. Exactly what makes Barcelona smart is a topic worth exploring and could help guide other cities in their own development processes. Barcelona is particularly interesting because it has reinvented itself over the past 30 years. Following an era of traditional manufacturing (mainly textile) and commerce, its economy was near collapse in the 1980s, with stagnation and widespread unemployment. The challenge for Barcelona’s governmental leaders was to transform the economy and social profile, moving to a new economy based in knowledge industries, modern-city tourism, and quality infrastructure for residents, investors, and visitors alike. Technology has been an essential tool supporting the multi-faceted innovation process at different times, facilitating an evolution from a 2.0 modela based on e-government initiatives aimed at taking government to citizens through more flexible, straightforward, efficient service, to a 5.0 model, aiming to make the city more inclusive, productive, self-sufficient, innovative, and community-oriented.6,9

Here, I assess Barcelona’s smart-city strategy from 2011 to 2014 when Mayor Xavier Trias of the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia Party, a liberal, regionalist Catalonian party, was elected, took office, and promoted a political strategy of government-driven innovation based on technology to tackle the city’s socioeconomic challenges.

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Characterizing Smart Cities

Despite academic attempts to define and conceptually describe a smart city,1,8 there is thus far no universally accepted definition. However, several articles and reports have identified certain urban attributes that can help give us an idea.

For example, in 2007, Giffinger et al.10 ranked 70 European cities on six dimensions: smart economy (competitiveness); smart people (human and social capital); smart governance (participation); smart mobility (transport and ICT); smart environment (natural resources); and smart living (quality of life). As a result, they defined a smart city as “a city well performing in a forward-looking way in these six characteristics, built on the ‘smart’ combination of endowments and activities of self-decisive, independent and aware citizens.” Likewise, in 2012, Cohen5 said smart cities could be understood and evaluated through a different set of six dimensions—environment, mobility, government, economy, society, and quality of life—to account for several working areas measured by one or more quantitative indicators.

Taking a simpler view, Nam and Pardo15 identified three conceptual dimensions of a smart city—technology (the key to transforming life and work in a city), people (human capital and education), and community (or support of government and policy)—concluding, “A city is smart when investments in human/social capital and IT infrastructure fuel sustainable growth and enhance a quality of life, through participatory governance.”

In 2014 and 2015, respectively, the IESE Cities in Motion project in Spain11,12 launched a benchmarking effort focusing on smart cities, producing a more complex model because it included 11 dimensions: human capital, social cohesion, economy, public management, governance, mobility, transportation, environment, urban planning, international outreach, and technology. Each one includes multiple different indicators.

Meanwhile, in 2012, Chourabi et al.4 presented one of the most comprehensive and integrative frameworks for analyzing smart-city progress, characterizing smart cities based on eight dimensions, both internal and external, affecting design, implementation, and use of smart-city initiatives (see Table 1). It is now used by the Smart Cities Smart Government Research Practice Consortium at the Center for Technology in Government (at the University at Albany-SUNY; to assess “smartness” in cities worldwide, including Medellin in Colombia, Seattle and Philadelphia in the U.S., and Milan in Italy. I thus consider it to be a valuable tool for analyzing Barcelona’s own smart-city strategy.

Table 1. Smart-city integrative framework.

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Barcelona’s Smartness

Although technology has always been at the core of the Barcelona City Council’s modernization processes, a notable effort has sought to evolve from an e-government focus to a smart-city focus, gaining momentum after 2011, a year involving a change of the city’s government.

The new government proclaimed its desire to reinforce Barcelona’s smartcity brand as a promoter of a new economy of urban services. The goal was to promote Barcelona as an essential reference for all cities seeking to redirect their economies and external views of themselves following this paradigm.9 The Smart City Expo and World Congress, held for the first time in 2011, helped launch and promote this policy.

During the first two years under Mayor Trias, the Barcelona City Council had begun planning new projects, in addition to finishing ones that had already begun (such as the Smart City Campus at 22@ and development of the City Protocolb). Different projects, with links to one another that were not spelled out explicitly, were individually implemented and together made Barcelona smart. However, in 2013, the City Council recognized the importance of having a comprehensive yet explicit smart-city strategy and declared its willingness to become the first truly smart city in Spain. The City Council thus established this definition of a smart city: “a self-sufficient city of productive neighborhoods at human speed, inside a hyper-connected zero emissions metropolitan area.” Technology and built infrastructure, economy, people and communities, and natural environment were key components in this characterization.

Barcelona’s aim was twofold: use new technologies to foster economic growth and improve the well-being of its citizens. The strategy to achieve it included international positioning, international cooperation, and 22 smart local programs implemented primarily by public-private partnerships (see Table 2). The unit in charge of realizing it was Urban Habitat, which is responsible for the maintenance of the city and improving the urban landscape, including urban transformation and regeneration.

Table 2. Barcelona’s 22 smart local programs following Ferrer6 and Gavald à and Ribera.9

In terms of general results, Ferrer6 reported €85 million of added GDP impact in 2014, as well as 21,600 jobs, of which 1,870 were the direct result of smart-city programs. The City Council invested €53.7 million in smart projects in 2014; in return, for each invested euro from the municipal budget, an additional €0.53 euros were invested by third parties, including private businesses. As reported by Ferrer,6 the projects added €43 million to the city’s economic activity between 2011 and 2014. The smart-city projects were also expected at the time to save 9,700 tons of CO2 and 600,000 liters of water consumption annually.6 Galvadà and Ribera9 were more skeptical of such projections, arguing that most of the initiatives did not make a clear contribution to environmental sustainability and lacked bottom-up approaches involving people and communities. They also argued that specific projects aimed at making the economy more dynamic had a socially negative impact, because they favored the concentration of talent and an influx of new types of residents in certain districts while displacing people already there, mostly of low-middle socioeconomic status who were vulnerable to increased costs for housing.

Barcelona’s aim was twofold: use new technologies to foster economic growth and improve the well-being of its citizens.

Barcelona is still viewed worldwide as a leading smart city, with several studies ranking it among the smartest in Spain, Europe, and internationally. Additionally, in March 2014, the European Commission awarded it the European Capital of Innovation, or “iCapital,” prize for introducing new technologies to stay better connected to citizens ( This recognition helped make Barcelona the “Mobile World Capital” through 2023. Meanwhile, the United Nations established its international office for urban resilience in Barcelona and, along with IESE Business School, the Center of Excellence for PPP [public-private partnerships] in Smart Cities. And the World Bank identified Barcelona as a knowledge hub for exploring the use of ICT in city management.

Analysis. Table 2 outlines the city’s comprehensive strategy, including programs and projects aimed at developing the eight dimensions of the Chourabi et al. framework.4 However, many specific projects focused mainly on technology and built infrastructure, which was consistent with the city’s previous expertise in the use of technology. I analyzed the program’s specific contributions to the various dimensions by conducting 19 semistructured interviews with Barcelona city officials and stakeholders, including the former deputy mayor for urban development of the Barcelona City Council, former e-government and smart cities directors of the Barcelona City Council, managing director of 22@, and several academic experts.

Regarding management and organizational issues, Barcelona’s management and organizational structure were part of a broader management model based on new public management and thus on territorial decentralization, service externalization, and adoption of managerial tools (such as strategic plans), an approach with technology at its core. Castells and Ollé3 wrote that for a long time, Barcelona’s governance paradigm focused on deployment of the Internet to help increase internal efficiency in local government, improving public services, and rearticulating city governance processes. Meanwhile, Mayor Trias actively supported development of the smart city. So did the Urban Habitat department, politically and technically. The Computer Municipal Institute also helped implement the strategy, adapting to its evolution, from siloed to citywide effort.

Technology was, and still is, at the core of the Barcelona urban-development model and essential crosswise tool supporting the innovation process. Unlike many other cities, Barcelona’s key smart projects reflected and continue to reflect the strategic use of technology in development of a smart city.8

Regarding governance, Barcelona involved several local and regional stakeholders in the definition and implementation of its smart-city strategy, particularly businesses and universities. Indeed, public-private partnerships and collaboration with other public administrations proved highly effective in the implementation of the various local programs, though each such program has been managed differently. In the case of Barcelona, a lot of support/cooperation thus came from the Autonomous Government of Catalonia, particularly in relation to wider projects that included other areas in Catalonia, in addition to Barcelona. Cooperation with other cities in Spain, along with European Union support, was also important.

However, this involvement essentially took place by adopting a top-down perspective, with the Barcelona City Council leading efforts in the city: though other actors participated, the City Council provided explicit direction regarding strategy, programs, and projects in the smart-city effort.

In terms of policy context, the smartcity strategy clearly expanded while always keeping in mind the need to prioritize urban-transformational projects. However, the strategy’s political and institutional components proved fragile after a new government took office in May 2015, replacing Mayor Trias. The new officials, including the new mayor and her appointees, offered no enthusiasm for or agreement with the smartcity strategy, resulting in cancellation of most of its projects and development of another vision for the city (called Barcelona Digital City

Even under Mayor Trias, Barcelona had rarely implemented projects that required the participation of individuals and groups or communities. Generally speaking, there was a lack of bottom-up approaches. The failed electronic consultation on the 2010 transformation of Diagonal Avenue, the city’s main street, forced the City Council to be cautious regarding any citizen participation. Additionally, citizens were not aware what it means to develop a smart city, with many not knowing what a smart city even is, thus further inhibiting their participation.

Barcelona has a dynamic economy. The city was awarded the European Capital of Innovation (iCapital designation) in March 2014 for promoting a broad-based innovation culture. Other economic factors also made it particularly competitive, including an entrepreneurial culture and promotion of technology-based economic activities in specific districts. The economic boost Barcelona experienced followed the same pattern as its smart strategy, following both the City Council and the Autonomous Government of Catalonia.

Over the past 30 years, Barcelona has prioritized development of technological infrastructure. In particular, following the Barcelona 2.0 model framework and local elections in 2007, it implemented several projects, including Barcelona WiFi (a service allowing citizens to connect to the Internet through WiFi access points) and the WiFi mesh network (a municipal network for ubiquitous services). In 2011, it further invested in physical and technological infrastructure. The projects under the 22@ umbrella regarding urban transformation and urban innovation motivated development of a modern network of energy, telecommunications, district heating, and pneumatic garbage-collection systems.

Figure. Torre Agbar (Agbar Tower) in Barcelona is covered with more than 4,500 luminous devices capable of creating 16 million colors.

Regarding the natural environment, many Barcelona smart-city projects were designed to help deliver environmental sustainability but achieved no clear goals. Gavaldà and Ribera9 reported, “The effects of the economic crisis have put in standby the achievement of higher levels of quality of life and have paralyzed investments in environmental sustainability at macro level.” It is a revealing statement for a city aiming to achieve sustainability, including self-sufficiency, eco-efficiency, and zero emissions.

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Three main conclusions arise from the analysis I have presented here. First, Barcelona’s smart-city strategy has evolved over time. Before 2011, but also during the first two years of Mayor Trias’s term, 2011 to 2013, the model the city pursued was intended to make Barcelona a smarter city by providing a local public administration that was simple, effective, closely connected to citizens, ubiquitous, and innovative. Barcelona was getting smart essentially through e-government/e-governance programs and projects, but there was no overall smart-city strategy that embraced these projects, linking them and giving them purpose. However, in 2013, such links and direction did start to attract public attention and support.

Second, two years of financial and political investment was not enough by itself to make the city smart. Although several projects were implemented in 2013 and 2014, by the end of 2014, there were still no clear results. Moreover, most smart-city-related accomplishments were reported in terms of output (such as number of things done and number of users) rather than outcomes (such as economic growth or environmental improvement). Also, although Barcelona’s approach to urban transformation followed a long-term vision, the change of government in May 2015 when Mayor Trias was voted out of office showed his vision was not shared, hindering its sustainability and the possibility to earn a greater return on the financial and political investment already made.

Even so, Barcelona’s reputation as a smart city remains positive. Indeed, Barcelona is viewed by urban planners and scholars, as well as progressive politicians worldwide, as a leading smart city to which many other cities turn for inspiration and real-world guidance. Barcelona invested financially and politically to build a smart city, with mixed results but successfully established a brand—the Barcelona Smart City—by following a city-management model that had already proved successful.

Finally, following Mintzberg,14 Barcelona’s smart-city strategy was driven more by deliberate components than by emergent components, or learning and interacting with stakeholders. It was the City Council that conceptualized the smart-city strategy and implemented it, involving other actors, mainly businesses and research centers and universities, to pursue what it thought was best. However, ordinary citizens did not have a say nor did they understand the smart-city concept. The city’s aim was to become smarter for the benefit of its citizens but without including or educating them.

No smart city can involve its citizens only as recipients of its interventions but include them as partners deciding the type of city they want to live in when designing, implementing, and evaluating related projects.

What lessons can Barcelona teach other public managers and politicians? My research found that management and organization, governance, people, and communities are especially important dimensions when planning a smart-city initiative. On one hand, Barcelona’s experience shows that real projects matter but that public image and marketing are also important. Barcelona’s smart-city marketing strategy has indeed proved even more successful than the city’s “real” strategy. Clear vision and strategy are also crucial. On the other hand, a smart city’s sustainability depends on sharing the vision and goals with key stakeholders who might end up being responsible for continuing work begun by others. A smart city is not just another technological project but long-term urban transformation defining the type of city the public wants to live in, a decision that cannot be changed with each new election. Finally, no smart city can involve its citizens only as recipients of its interventions but include them as partners deciding the type of city they want to live in when designing, implementing, and evaluating related projects.

No matter how advanced a city is technologically, what drives smartness is the capacity of public organizations and public servants to plan, implement, and assess a strategy, as well as engage citizens and other stakeholders in its development. From a practical point of view, this entails developing a city model co-conceptualized and co-implemented with ordinary citizens and other stakeholders.

Figure. Watch the author discuss her work in this exclusive Communications video.

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    1. AlAwadhi, S. and Scholl, H.J. Aspirations and realizations: The Smart City of Seattle. In Proceedings of the 46th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (Maui, HI, Jan. 7–10). IEEE Computer Society Press 2013, 1695–1703.

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