• 12.19.11

Barcelona: A Smart City Model For The Planet

If you’re looking for cities innovating their way out of climate problems, look no further than Spain, where Barcelona is proving that it doesn’t take national governments to make cutting-edge policies.

Last week I wrote about the need to move to Plan B for climate action by exploring ways to promote municipal collaboration with the private sector. While there was some progress made at the last minute at this year’s Conference of Parties (COP) in Durban, it is clear that the multi-lateral UN process for getting a new global climate treaty is years, if not a decade or more, away.


Many cities have decided to forge ahead, taking action on climate change and participating in the 21st century. I have been consulting with and researching sustainable cities around the globe for the past several years. Early this year, I conducted research and published rankings on the top 10 climate-resilient cities.

One of the cities that scored well in those rankings was Barcelona, Spain (it was number 3). Barcelona is a major innovator, introducing a solar thermal ordinance in 2000 that requires all new buildings over a certain size to generate hot water from solar thermal energy. More recently, an initiative known as LIVE Barcelona promoted electric vehicle adoption. There are currently almost 200 EV charging stations throughout the city.

Barcelona recently held the Smart City Expo, which attracted more than 6,000 participants from 51 cities around the globe. At the Expo, Barcelona’s mayor, Xavier Trias, formally announced the launch of the Smart City Campus. Coined 22@Barcelona, the campus will “transform the city into an experimentation and innovation laboratory, the center of which will be the Smart City Campus, a cluster where companies, universities, entrepreneurs and research centers can set up in the spheres of information technologies, ecology and urban development. One of the possible joint proposals is the establishment of a pioneering research center for exploration of new technological possibilities in the service of the city and people.”

Mayor Trias announced an initial partnership with five international and Spanish companies to experiment with new smart city technologies. These include Abertis, Agbar, Cisco, Schneider Electric-Telvent, and Telefónica. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of the public-private collaborations that will emerge. For example, the city created the DiPolis Project, which is designed to foster collaboration between the private and public sectors in the area of smart city technologies.

One really interesting early pilot project emerging from 22@Barcelona is the smart city initiative in one of the outlying towns, Sant Cugat. Sant Cugat has a population of about 80,000 people and lies about 20 minutes from Barcelona.

This video (in Catalan unfortunately) illustrates the level of innovation the town is experimenting with. In the video, you can see EV charging stations, sensors on trash and recycling bins to minimize costs and the environmental footprint for city waste and recycling collectors, water sensors in parks to ensure water is used more intelligently, sensors in parking areas to indicate empty spaces (minimizing driving time and emissions), and sensors on streetlights that detect movement and adjust the illumination accordingly. As the video states, this is an initiative to allow Sant Cugat and its residents to save money, be more efficient, reduce their environmental footprint, and illustrate the potential of smart cities.

So what does all this mean? For one thing, it demonstrates that cities are where sustainability, innovation, and low-carbon solutions are at. Many of us in the field of climate change have been too focused on federal and multi-lateral policy and agreements. Cities like Barcelona are showing a desire to proactively engage the private sector and citizens as a whole to modernize their energy, transit, and health care systems, among others. While many national governments, like the U.S. and Canada, refuse to take meaningful action or commit to binding emission reduction targets, cities around the world are continuing on with smart, eco-friendly solutions.

About the author

Boyd Cohen, Ph.D., an urban strategist helping to lead communities, cities and companies on the journey towards the smart, innovative and low carbon economy. Dr.