Barcelona is acclaimed as one of the leading Smart Cities in the world, with studies such as those by Juniper Research, as well as the , corroborating this statement. However, it begs the question – how did Barcelona manage to do this, and can their methods be replicated in other cities or locales, such as Malaysia?
In pursuit of these answers, the SITEC Media team managed to catch Maria Sisternas, CEO of Mediaurban, a Barcelona-based content creation agency that specialises in urban and smart technology solutions to answer these questions.
But first, a virtual tour of Barcelona!
According to Sisternas, Barcelona believes strongly in citizen engagement, as well as cooperation between the private and public sector — the city is investing a large amount of money towards finding out what their citizens think about their projects.
In fact, a clear trend is emerging in Smart cities: the strategic approach to Smart will be defined by its citizens.
“Barcelona is a very ‘Left’ city, and urban issues are very contentious and much discussed. One of the challenges faced by Barcelona was to broaden the network, and provide tools to the public to be able to give their feedback,” said Sisternas, referring to the socialist-leaning socio-political climate there, and its effect on governance and citizen engagement.
For some context, it is important to understand a little bit about Barcelona first. There, citizens freely exercise their rights to expression, and the socio-political landscape is anti-authoritarian in nature, unlike much of other right-leaning nations in the world. As such, one key to enacting change is simply to have the citizens at the heart of decision making, effecting a bottom-up as opposed to the usual top-down approach instead.
But just how is Barcelona engaging its citizens? According to Sisternas, the city council utilises an online platform that allows its people to propose initiatives, discuss matters, or cast their votes, which has seen more and more usage as familiarisation rises, and which is easily available on desktop, mobile and tablet, such as via apps for mobile devices.
However, this is not an anonymous system, considering that the point is civic engagement. Another app by the city council allows citizens to perform government-related errands such as tax filing, summons payments and others, without having to trouble themselves to physically head to government offices. Sisternas notes that, though the app currently provides only simpler functions, the plan is to incorporate more functions in future, as well as allow the city council to collect general data on its citizens.
“Data is crucial for any company or entrepreneur, and the information collected is needed by Barcelona to plan the city,” explained Sisternas, adding that the public sector has the legitimacy to collect and store this data for the use of public planning.
What this means is that, in terms of urban development and mobility, with these insights, urban developers and city planners can leverage on details such as travel time, mass travel patterns, traffic patterns, accessibility and mobility options can go towards strategizing efficient urban design that will, in the end, benefit citizens and governments.
When asked if this may seem a bit overbearing or ‘Big Brother’-ish, Maria responded that one potential solution is to use an alias system.
“An alias system would allow the collection of data linked to an alias, rather than to a person. Personally, I would not mind if the city council knows about the times I go to work, the times I leave, and whether I encounter congestion along the way; as long as it is used for the purpose of building a better city. Eventually I will be the one benefiting, so having an alias system in place would circumvent this.”
When it came to the development of these apps, as well as other Smart solutions, Sisternas explained that the city council tapped the city’s entrepreneurial network. Not only does this allow for the entrepreneur network to grow, the city council will also be able to receive proposals for solutions from people who live in the city, with the best ideas implemented, and the others kept in mind in the event they are needed.
“The city needs to be responsive in addressing the issues faced by the public, and only those that have a better idea of how the people’s daily life is like will be able to ask the right questions when it comes time for planning,” said Sisternas.
The government engaging citizens in order to progress the country? Definitely a smart way to progress, in our books!
Stay tuned for our upcoming interview with Dr. Fahmi Ngah, Deputy Programme Director of the Smart Selangor Delivery Unit, on his thoughts about the Smart Selangor programme and government-citizen engagement.
Xavier Kong and Jamilah Lim contributed to this article