A city reinvented: How Barcelona is leading the smart city revolution

edie's insight editor George Ogleby travels to Barcelona to uncover how a technological revolution has enabled the city to unlock the benefits of a smart-city transition for its citizens.

A city reinvented: How Barcelona is leading the smart city revolution

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“We thought it was impossible to make this quantum step.”

It is hard not to be captivated by the deep sense of enthusiasm in which Vicenç Rius Moreno delivers his message, as he pounds along the balmy cobbled Catalonian street with great purpose.

Signalling to us with a hurried wave of the arm, we are ushered eagerly by Vicenç across the pedestrian crossing; struggling to keep up with the frenetic walking pace set by our de facto tour guide.

Vicenç stops in his tracks. Those who defy the odds to stay within earshot are rewarded with a brief anecdote about the origins of Europe’s longest driverless metro line.

“Back in 2002, we understood the basic requirements for a mobility service: fast, stable, reliable,” we are told by Vicenç, the long-serving automated metro project manager at Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona (TMB) – the main public transport operator in the city. “In those days, thinking about automation, we had a traditional model where we had drivers and station masters. It was a different world, even though the customers were the same.”

Before we have any time to digest this information, we’re on the move again. Vicenç motions to us with his hand pointing downwards, and with one last breath of fresh Mediterranean Sea-breeze air, we dutifully descend the escalator into the cool surroundings of the Les Corts subway.

We wait patiently as Vicenç holds a brief conversation with a young, slightly embarrassed metro worker, who is presented to us like the official unveiling of a new FC Barcelona football superstar.

“This is Pedro,” asserts Vicenç, right hand clasped on the young man’s shoulder, “we don’t have train drivers anymore, which means that roaming staff like Pedro can be freed from repetitive tasks, and instead provide an end-to-end service for customers.

“Our staff feel they are the owners of the service because they are dealing with customers and the systems… they feel more empowered and operating staff are peers as there is no hierarchy.”

As we take the short ride on the driverless metro towards the Smart City Expo World Congress on the outskirts of Barcelona, I gradually begin to appreciate Vicenç’s glowing pride in the phenomenon he has played such a central role in creating.

At more than 30km long and with 23 stations, the automated Line 9 runs through the whole city of Barcelona. Since opening for business in 2011, automation of the city’s metro has marked the way to significantly improved services. It has not only increased the technical safety of the line, but sophisticated control and monitoring systems mean that trains can run more frequently at peak times and better responds to the needs of public mobility.

It represents a major shift towards using data to manage assets and resource efficiently in the city, and has helped Barcelona to firmly position itself at the forefront of the international trend towards a smart-city revolution. From street lights and parking spaces through to waste disposal and bus transit systems, sensor networks have been deployed across various urban systems in the city to solve major social and environmental issues. 

Indeed, smart city technology is becoming ubiquitous throughout Barcelona. A plethora of internet of things (IoT)-enabled networks across the city streets now communicate with each other, while also managing services such as electric vehicle (EV) recharging stations, Wi-Fi, and 500km of fibre-optic cabling to local homes and businesses.


To improve energy efficiency, the city has installed 19,500 smart meters that monitor and improve energy consumption in targeted areas of the city. Households now deposit waste in municipal smart bins that monitor waste levels and optimise collection routes. In transportation, Barcelona has advanced the use of EVs and bike sharing, while new digital bus stops turn waiting for business into an interactive experience, with UBS charging stations, free WiFi and apps to help passengers learn more about the city.

Smart city origins

The benefits of this smart revolution cannot be understated: an estimated 47,000 jobs have been created by embedding IoT solutions across Barcelona so far; a saving of €42.5m has been made on water use, and €36.5m is now being created annually through a new smart parking system. A dramatic reinvention from the city which was on the brink of economic collapse – and resulting stagnation and widespread unemployment – in the 1980s.

Eager to understand the origins of Barcelona’s remarkable technological upheaval, I enlist the views of Xavier Vilalta, head of smart strategy at ACCIÓ, the trade and investment arm of the Catalonian Government.

I meet Xavier outside the Smart Catalonia exhibition stand at the Smart City Expo, the behemoth three-day show which brings together the world’s top decision-makers to discuss new and innovative solutions for transforming cities. The sheer size of the Congress – receiving 20,000 visitors, exhibitors and delegates from more than 700 cites – demonstrates just how far the smart city concept has come since its inception over a decade ago, with Barcelona nestled firmly at the centre of developments.  

“Barcelona’s smart city story starts in 2000,” Xavier tells me, “when Barcelona underwent the refurbishment of an old neighbourhood, called ‘22@’.”

It all began, Xavier explains, as a Government initiative to transform the dilapidated cotton district of Sant Marti into a booming technology and knowledge-driven economic powerhouse. “They had to renovate this neighbourhood in Barcelona in order to bring new industrial development as well as mixing it with residential areas and the University,” he says.

“So, it started there. It was time to put together services such as fibre optics for this new industry, and then the leadership of the municipality saw an opportunity to develop a new type of neighbourhood. That is what brought about the idea of a smart city for Barcelona.”

Today, the 22@ district plays hosts to universities, research and training centres, start-ups and cutting-edge tech companies alike – a model of innovative urban design for cities around the world. With the implementation of this project, the city of Barcelona has been able to provide the international business community with a real motive to stay and invest in the city, Xavier says.

Some of the homegrown companies are already starting to find market success. One 22@ Barcelona resident, Worldsensing, has developed an in-ground parking sensor that cities can use to manage citizen parking. Another of these startups, thethings.io aims to become the primary service provider for the IoT world.

Sustainability challenges

The challenge now, Xavier says, is to ensure the city remains at the forefront of smart technological global growth while maintaining an ability to make that growth sustainable.

In its transformation since the 1992 Olympics into the fourth-most visited city in Europe, the Catalonian capital has become something of a victim of its own success:  Barcelona is now one of Europe’s most densely populated cities, with around 16,000 people per square kilometre. Making room for this growing population has led to immense pressure on urban land use and public transport. Barcelona’s poor air quality is now thought to contribute to around 3,500 premature deaths every year, and in response, the City Council is seeking to ban diesel cars and vans from the city centre by 2025.

With this challenge in mind, I ask Xavier about the extent to which environmental and sustainability factors play an influential role in public and private sector decision-making around Barcelona’s smart-city agenda.  

“It is critical,” he replies. “Barcelona is a very dense city. We have a lot of pollution because of a sea breeze, and we need to have a focus on the environment and sustainability.  It is true that the beginning the smart city concept began with a focus on technological improvements, but more and more everybody has understood that the technology would have to serve the concept of sustainability and produce a better quality of life for Barcelona citizens. So, it is absolutely key.”

By the people, for the people

Regardless of the originals motivations that influenced Catalonian policymakers at the turn of the 21st Century, it cannot be disputed that the current crop of leaders are today placing social and environmental issues right at the heart of the smart transformation.

In 2015, Ada Colau became Mayor of Barcelona. She was previously an Occupy activist with no experience in Government. Since then, City Hall has placed a focus on redefining the smart city concept to ensure that it serves its citizens, rather than the other way around.

Before Colau was elected, data was controlled and monitored by public and private partners where it was analysed for insight into how the city could be run more efficiently, or used to develop services and products for sale. Working with civic-coders and cryptographers, Colau helped to establish a digital participatory platform – Decidim, or “We Decide” in English. Decidim has fundamentally shaped the policy agenda – more than 70% of the proposals today come directly from citizens. Among these proposals, issues such as affordable housing, the energy transition, air quality and public spaces top the list.

Back at the Smart City Congress, I am reliably informed by ACCIÓ’s Xavier that the Mayor of Barcelona will pass through the hall within the next hour, and I am buoyed by the prospect of hearing from a lady that has been described as “the world’s most radical Mayor”.

Colau’s arrival is met with great fanfare, the Mayor surrounded by a huge entourage of security guards who bat away the jostling horde of television crew and news reporters.  A rousing speech delivered by Colau earlier that day at the Congress outlined the city’s “indisputable” leadership in finding smart solutions to major challenges such as climate change, education, health and population growth. I witness the great applause to which this speech is greeted by the huge crowds, and bear it in mind when I later ask Xavier to enlighten me with the secret of Barcelona’s smart-city success.

“As you can see with our current Mayor, the key is to make it understandable to all people,” Xavier asserts. “You have to communicate with people and get the input from citizens and businesses. You cannot go further with the smart city and sustainability if you don’t communicate a lot and exchange ideas with your citizenship.

“Companies will buy into it because they will see the opportunity, and Government’s will follow the lead of the people. To me, it is about participation, communication, and if these things go on, the rest will continue.”

As I head back to Barcelona Airport after a long yet truly inspiring day at the Smart City Expo, I reflect on the emergence of Barcelona as a smart city; a movement which started as a step forward in the deployment of technology to improve the city’s economic troubles. The resulting “quantum leap”, which Vicenç described so passionately at the start of my trip, may have indeed seemed impossible, but not for a human-centred approach to a technology-driven revolution that fundamentally focused on serving the needs of the people.

George Ogleby

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