Capdevila, I. and Zarlenga M.I., 2015. Smart City or smart citizens? The Barcelona case. Journal of Strategy and Management8(3), 266-282
Authors’ preprint copy
To cite, please refer to:
Capdevila, I. and Zarlenga M.I., 2015. Smart City or smart citizens? The Barcelona
case. Journal of Strategy and Management8(3), 266-282
Smart city or smart citizens? The Barcelona case.
In recent years, the term “smart city” has attracted a lot of attention from policy-makers,
business leaders and citizenship in general. Although there is not a unique definition of what
a smart city is, it is generally accepted that “smart” urban policies refer to local governments’
initiatives that use information and communication technologies in order to increase the quality
of life of their inhabitants while contributing to a sustainable development. So far, “smart city”
approaches have generally been related to top-down processes of technology diffusion. This
article intends to have a broader view on “smart” initiatives to analyze both top-down and
bottom up dynamics in a smart city. We argue that these two perspectives are complementary
and its combination can reinforce the collaboration between different city stakeholders. Top-
down and bottom up initiatives are not opposed forces but, on the contrary, can have a
synergistic effect on the innovation capacity of the city. Both perspectives are illustrated by
providing examples of different “smart” aspects in the city of Barcelona: smart districts, open
collaborative spaces, infrastructures and open data.
Smart city, smart citizens, smart districts, open collaborative spaces, open data, top-down,
More than half of the world’s population live currently in urban agglomerations, This figure is
expected to grow to 66% by 2050 (United Nations 2014). Cities face challenging issues related
to economic development, social inclusion, security, sustainability, infrastructures, transport,
housing, etc. At the same time, the advent of the new information and communication
Capdevila, I. and Zarlenga M.I., 2015. Smart City or smart citizens? The Barcelona case. Journal of Strategy and Management8(3), 266-282
technologies has allowed an increased democratization of the production capacity of citizens
and has empowered them to participate in the innovation dynamics of their cities.
Cities can be conceptualized as complex ecosystems, where different stakeholders with
diverse (and potentially opposed) interests are forced to collaborate to ensure a sustainable
environment and an adequate quality of life. In this context, new technologies can allow the
interaction between the different stakeholders in order to co-develop solutions to the most
important challenges that cities are facing.
In recent years, the term “smart city” has attracted a lot of attention from policy-makers,
business leaders and citizenship in general. Although there is not a unique definition of what
a smart city is, the concept could be briefly described as cities that use information and
communication technologies in order to increase the quality of life of their inhabitants while
contributing to a sustainable development.
While all the smart city approaches intend to have a positive impact on the everyday life of
their citizens, “smart” policies have usually been focused on top-down initiatives. The smart
city concept has been popularized in political discourses that, even if taking in consideration
the citizens, are usually translated into policies designed and implemented by institutions.
Citizens are often considered as users, testers, or consumers rather than producers and
sources of creativity and innovation.
The aim of this article is to analyze the concept of smart city by differentiating two different
types of initiatives. From one side, the ones designed and implemented by public and private
organizations in a top-down approach. From the other side, other types of initiatives that have
their origin at the individual and local community level, and that emerge in a bottom up manner.
The article argues that both types of approaches are complementary and that their
combination reinforces the “smart” side of a city, by allowing a two-direction circulation of
knowledge and by contributing to the collaboration between local public administration, firms,
universities and citizens. The contribution of the paper is to go beyond the generalized
technologic discourse around smart cities by adding the layer of the citizens’ initiatives. To
illustrate our arguments, we analyze the case of the city of Barcelona providing examples of
top-down and bottom up initiatives in four different smart city aspects: smart districts, open
collaborative spaces, infrastructures and open data.
The smart city concept
The concept of the smart city itself is blurry and eludes a clear definition (Hollands 2008; Lee
et al. 2014). Nevertheless, taking a general definition, a city is considered to be smart “when
investments in human and social capital and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT)
communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic growth and a high quality of life, with
a wise management of natural resources, through participatory governance” (Caragliu et al.
The smart city concept is related to several other concepts like the “intelligent city” (Komninos
2002), “information city” (Castells 1996), “wired city” (Dutton 1987), “knowledge city” (Carrillo
et al. 2008; Edvinsson 2006; Ergazakis et al. 2007; Yigitcanlar et al. 2008; Dvir & Pasher
2004), “digital city” (Yovanof & Hazapis 2009) or “ubiquitous city” (Lee et al. 2008). These
Capdevila, I. and Zarlenga M.I., 2015. Smart City or smart citizens? The Barcelona case. Journal of Strategy and Management8(3), 266-282
different concepts share some similarities but focus on a particular aspect of the use of
technology in urban environments.
Some of these concepts (as “information city”, “ubiquitous city” or “digital city’) tend to take a
technologic perspective, putting ICT at the center. A digital city can be defined as “a connected
community that combines broadband communications infrastructure, a flexible, service-
oriented computing infrastructure based on open industry standards; and innovative services
to meet the needs of governments and their employees, citizens and businesses” (Yovanof &
Hazapis 2009). The digital city approach has mainly focused on the use of online services for
different city actors, including institutions, firms and citizens. As in the “ubiquitous city”
approach, the digital city focus considers the need to make data ubiquitously available
regardless of time and location to local actors through a distributed infrastructure while
providing citizens with services and contents, including those for energy and environmental
monitoring (Lee et al. 2008). According to this view, the provided services improve the quality
of life of citizens and the city's competitiveness. Nevertheless, the
ubiquitous/digital/information notions put more stress on the technologic aspects than on the
social uses of infrastructures from a more human and social capital perspective (Lee et al.
The concept of “intelligent city” suggests that a city is smarter by enhancing its citizens’
inventiveness and creativity. To capture the distributed collective intelligence, ICT providers
participate in the design of services that are interrelated with technologic infrastructures like
sensors and interactive devices (Komninos 2002; Komninos & Tsarchopoulos 2013). The
notion of “intelligent city” is intimately related to the knowledge economy and the changing
spatial agglomeration of knowledge-based urban development (Carrillo et al. 2008).
The discourse on smart cities, initially strongly centered on ICT topics, has evolved into
conceptual variations that tend to progressively take a more holistic view by considering three
core factors: technology (infrastructures of hardware and software), people (creativity,
diversity, education) and institutions (governance and policy) (Nam & Pardo 2011; Lee et al.
2014). Giffinger et al (2007) propose a ranking of “smart cities” of European medium-size cities
based on an analytical framework composed of six characteristics: smart economy, smart
people, smart governance, smart mobility, smart environment, and smart living (Giffinger et
al. 2007; Lombardi et al. 2012). A smart city would consequently be a city being able to perform
well in those six characteristics, “built on the ‘smart’ combination of endowments and activities
of self-decisive, independent and aware citizens” (Giffinger et al. 2007).
This paper focuses on how cities are progressively becoming “smart cities”, from one side by
implementing top-down strategies based on decisions of the public governmental bodies and
from the other side, responding to bottom-up initiatives lead by citizens and social local
movements. Before illustrating our arguments with the case of Barcelona, the next section
clarifies the notions of top-down and bottom up.
Top-down and bottom up approaches
A top-down approach refers to a process that is fostered or lead by actors of an organizational
upper level in a hierarchical structure and that is progressively diffused and implemented by
involving actors of lower levels. Such an approach is likely to be based on a central authority
and control. The process management is orchestrated by an actor with authority and this risks
to not take into account the plurality of all involved stakeholders (Sabatier 1986).
In contrast to a top-down perspective, a bottom up approach considers initiatives that
organically emerge out of actors from lower levels of the hierarchical structure or by actors
outside organizational structures. These community (or grassroots) movements are thus
initiated at the base of the power structures and developed gradually by the progressive
involvement of higher hierarchical levels.
From an organizational point of view, a top-down approach is linked to the hierarchical
character of organizations that bases the structure on power, chain of command, bureaucracy
and authority (Fayol 1916; Weber 1947). In the case of cities, the two concepts refer to the
relationship between the higher and the lower levels of complex organizational systems
(Simon 1962) rather than referring to organizational hierarchies.
In this article, the differentiation between top-down and bottom up is relative to the actors that
are at the origin of the smart innovation processes and to the actors to which the initiative is
directed. Smart city policies are consequently considered as top-down whereas citizens’
initiatives using technology to solve urban problems are considered as being bottom up.
The case of Barcelona
In 2014, Barcelona was awarded the European Capital of Innovation ("iCapital") prize of
Europe (European Commission 2014). Four years before, Barcelona's city council launched
the “Barcelona as a people city” project by using new technologies to promote economic
growth and the welfare of its inhabitants. The city project was structured around five axes: 1)
open data initiatives; 2) sustainable city growth initiatives (smart lighting, electric-vehicle
mobility and residual energy; 3) social innovation; 4) promotion of alliances between research
centers, universities, private and public partners; and 5) providing “smart services” based on
ICT (Barcelona City Council 2014). Barcelona’s sustainable innovation ecosystem labelled as
iCapital is supported by public institutions (including public services as well as universities and
research centers), the private sector (from global corporations to start-ups), and the citizenship
and it is grounded on the city’s infrastructures (Barcelona City Council 2014).
Barcelona has been acknowledged as being able to successfully develop an ecosystem where
urban development, business opportunities and quality of life have improved in the last
decades. Even though the current global crisis has particularly affected Spain, Barcelona has
been able to pursue policies that benefit the local dynamics of innovation. The global visibility
of Barcelona as a tourist hub, has been reinforced by the fact of becoming a knowledge-
intensive city, reaching the fifth position in the 2010 ranking of Europe’s best cities for hosting
new business (Cushman and Wakefield 2010). Barcelona has also been able to capitalize
their experience of being one of the first cities developing an innovative district, the
22@Barcelona (Oliva 2004).
This paper intends to analyze the different “smart” initiatives that take place in Barcelona in
order to better understand the intertwined character of the innovation dynamics that
constitutes a smart city. The goal of this research is to illustrate the complexity and the
complementarities of different strategies, some of them planed and others emerging, that
configure the reality of a smart city, beyond institutional discourses and city branding
initiatives. To do so, the paper focuses on one single case in order to provide a deeper level
of detail. The case of Barcelona is especially illustrative due to the interest of the city council
and local governmental bodies to develop policies regarding urban planning, economic
development, and increasing the quality of life of their inhabitants while building on the global
visibility and branding of the city.
The methodological approach used in our research was qualitative, based on a case study
(Yin 1984). The data collection was done considering mainly two sources: first, semi-
structured and in-depth interviews; and second, an analysis of public documents related
to government projects (such as the case of the 22@) and cultural institutions.
The primary data were interviews that were done in two rounds. The first round consisted
of 50 semi-structured interviews undertaken with social actors belonging to the artistic
sector, the neighborhood sector (neighbors and neighborhood associations) and the
administrative sector (staff of the Barcelona’s City Council related to the creation and
development of the 22@ project). Through a second round, we gathered 29 more
interviews that were conducted with other city council representatives as well as managers
of local public institutions, like economic development offices, as well as local
organizations like for instance coworking spaces, Fab Labs and artists’ workshops. We
also interviewed specialists on the innovation history of the city in order to validate our
data. All conversations were conducted in a manner as open and informal as possible.
Interlocutors brought up topics themselves, without or with only few general directions
from the researcher (Whyte & Whyte 1984). Thus, the gathered material reflects the topics
and notions particularly important for interviewees, and is not intended to fit into any prior
theoretical framework. All field material was analyzed and interpreted through
categorizations, following the principles of grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss 1967).
In addition, we used secondary data such as reports on the 22@, and documentation on
the Barcelona innovation policies. We also compiled press articles and the online content
of the institutional webpages.
Triangulation of data, researchers and methods was used to increase the richness of data,
as well as to draw on other perspectives within the study (Fetterman 1989). Data
triangulation was based on using data from different organizations (public institutions,
firms and social agents). Researcher triangulation involved two independent scholars
gathering data for about two years, with one of the researchers mainly studying the
development of the 22@ project and the artistic urban environment and the other mainly
researching on community-based projects in Barcelona. Methodological triangulation was
based on using several methods, as above described. All together, we have followed a
data triangulation strategy to seek data validation based on the cross verification of the
analyzed data sources. Even being aware of the current critique of triangulation (Blaikie
1991; Denzin & Lincoln 2003; Kleine 1990), we considered convenient to widen the
picture, even at the cost of occasional incongruence.
Smart districts: 22@Barcelona
22@Barcelona is the city’s innovation district (22@ 2006). The project officially began in 2000
and was promoted by the city council together with other local actors. The 22@ is part of the
strategic plan aiming to an industrial renewal of the old manufacturing district of Poblenou
(Marti-Costa & Pradel 2011). Poblenou was an old industrial zone named the “Catalan
Manchester” in the beginning of the 20
century due to its intensive manufacturing life (Oliva
2004). In the late 80’s the district was in a run-down situation. The municipal government
planned to develop an urban cluster with the intention of developing projects linked with the
new economy (Gdaniec 2000). To do so, the city council identified different strategic economic
fields that they defined as “clusters”: information and communication technologies, energy,
medical technologies, media and design (Barcelona City Council 2010). The companies that
are dedicated to these fields represent over 56% of the total amount of businesses located in
Despite being an industrial renewal operation was developed using a top-down approach, the
22@ management has tried to generate cross-industrial dynamics between co-localized
companies to encourage collaboration and innovation. To this end, the 22@network was an
initiative to bring together the local firms in search of synergies and the creation of networking
dynamics (Oliva 2004). New firms have decided to locate in the district to profit from the
positive spillovers of clustering (Breschi & Lissoni 2009).
The 22@ has given support to initiatives that add value to the business located in the district
and to the city. Among these projects, Barcelona Urban Innovation Lab & Dev (BUILD)
illustrates the public-private partnership to implement innovative projects that benefit both
firms and the city. This project aims to facilitate the involvement of the private sector in the
development of innovative solutions to current urban problems (Bakici et al. 2013). The city
council provides human and technical resources as well as giving access to the urban
infrastructures while firms profit of having first-hand access to real-life testbeds for their new
products while contributing to the innovative capacity of the city. The urban space serves as
an experimentation sandbox and a field for urban research, creating synergies between public
and private institutions.
In the process of the 22@ project development, the relationship with the former social,
industrial and urban environment tended rather towards substitution rather than integration
(Zarlenga et al. 2013). There was an absence of social interaction with the people outside the
cluster and a limited involvement in the district social daily life. In this sense, the 22@ initiative
led by the city council encountered considerable opposition from local actors representing the
district inhabitants that have accused the municipality of taking a top-down approach to benefit
the private interests neglecting the citizens’ concerns (Cruz i Gallach & Martí Costa 2010). To
illustrate this fact, the urban development of the 22@ represented the disappearance of most
to the local artists workshops, leading to a certain loss of the local artistic and social identity
of the district (Marti-Costa & Pradel 2011).
Contrarily to how it was initially conceived in the early 2000’s, the implementation of the 22@
has partially failed in the integration of the citizenship in the local creative and innovative
processes (Cruz i Gallach & Martí Costa 2010; Marti-Costa & Pradel 2011). In the last years
some initiatives have emerged to counteract the commercial and corporate side of the district.
Bottom up initiatives such as the “Poblenou Urban District” or “Mapa creatiu del Poblenou”
(Poblenou Creative Map) are platforms that have contributed to bring together the different
artists located in the district. Some artists’ workshops like La Escocesa, Palo Alto or Hangar
have also been able to survive the gentrification effect of the real estate urban operation by
dealing their status with the city council. Furthermore, periodic events like the “
del Poblenou” (Poblenou Open Workshops) and the “22@outside” events contribute to
diffuse the artistic production of the district to the neighbors and outside visitors. Overall,
the 22@ continues to be a lively place that nurtures the emergence of art, creativity and
Open collaborative spaces
The democratization of technology that we have witnessed in the last decades has allowed
the empowerment of citizens that can now easily become producers of technologic solutions
rather than being mere consumers or users. Technology has also facilitated the knowledge
sharing and the collaboration of individuals with the same interest and hobbies. Communities
of innovative users have emerged co-developing innovative endeavors while sharing
knowledge and best-practices. The increasing use of digital social networks and online
platforms has facilitated the interaction between members of those communities. In parallel,
some communities have organized themselves around localized spaces like Fab labs, Living
Labs, maker spaces or hacker spaces. These are open collaborative spaces where individuals
develop their personal and collective projects using shared resources. Co-location facilitates
the sharing of physical resources (3D printers, laser cutters, and other prototyping devices) as
well as the transmission of tacit knowledge.
The democratization of technology and the increasing complexity of the competitive
environment has forced firms to rapidly adapt to market trends by constantly innovate. To
accelerate the innovation pace and to launch products that better correspond to the users’
needs, organizations seek to tap on external sources of creativity by adopting an open
innovation approach (Chesbrough & Appleyard 2007). The open innovation principles
advocate for the openness of firms to external ideas. To do so, firms have to put in place the
means to capture the distributed creativity of their environment. Open innovation
intermediaries provide firms with the resources to be able to capture, filter, analyze and use
the ideas and innovations that might be enrich their innovation processes. In many cases,
these intermediaries consist on online digital platforms (Dodgson et al. 2006). However, in
recent years there has been an increasing interest in using physical spaces as environments
of experimentation where different stakeholders, from developers to citizens, engage in the
co-creation of innovative endeavors (Almirall & Wareham 2008). Examples of this kind of
spaces are Living Labs. Most Living Labs are public-private partnerships which provide
services both to the local community and to the businesses that contribute to their funding
Barcelona is one of the European cities with the highest number of Living Labs. Apart from
the 22@Urban Lab described in the previous section, there are other Living Labs in the
Barcelona metropolitan area such as LIVE, BDigital Cluster TIC Living Lab, i2Cat LivingLab,
Hangar, Citilab-Cornellà, Fab Lab Barcelona, BCNLAB, Guifi.net and Barcelona Laboratori.
The Barcelona Laboratori initiative deserves a further explanation. This initiative was
developed by the city council to encourage innovation through public and private collaboration
between the arts, science and technology. What distinguishes this project from previous ones
is that, as they claim:
“For the first time, the City is adopting a peer to peer attitude towards civil society, no
trying to patronize the innovation communities […] For the first time, peer to peer
relations between City council and citizens is the main principle that is helping to
Barcelona Laboratori to involve users […] This is the first time in the last decades that
City council “descend to the arena” and meet the different urban innovative tribes of
the city, allowing the creation of a new kind of peer to peer relationship.” (Barcelona
The social collaboration and association movements are rooted in the historic Catalan
tradition. Spaces for meeting, socializing and sharing have an historical base. Current
collaborative spaces such as coworking spaces or maker spaces also represent the natural
evolution of the local tradition of associativity and collectivism that characterizes the social-
economic substrate of the Catalan society.
In the last years, Barcelona has experienced the emergence of a great amount of collaborative
spaces of different kind. Most of these spaces are initiatives of private actors that, in some
cases, are driven by a non-for-profit objective. This is the case of local communities of artists
and hobbyists that have launched some of the artists’ workshops, maker spaces and hacker
spaces in the Barcelona districts of Poblenou, Ciutat Vella, Raval or Gràcia.
In other cases, collaborative spaces are opened by local communities that are driven by a for-
profit objective. That is the case of coworking spaces, initiated by entrepreneurs to help other
entrepreneurs and freelancers to develop their professional project by sharing resources and
collaborating (Capdevila 2014). There are currently more than one hundred spaces in
Barcelona that define themselves using the term “coworking”. Barcelona is the European city
with the highest density of coworking spaces per inhabitant and one of the main hubs for
coworking in Europe. New coworking spaces are being inaugurated in a regular basis, while
many others are still almost half empty. As a space manager put it: “Currently, there are more
coworking spaces than coworkers”. One of the main reasons of the coworking explosion in
the city can be attributed to the economic crisis that Spain has suffered in the last years. From
one side, many companies were forced to reduce their workforce and their office surface. To
monetize the empty workspaces, some of them decided to rent out part of their offices
publicizing them as coworking spaces. Another reason is linked to the increase of
unemployment due to the economic crisis. Consequently, many jobless professionals decided
to start their own business as freelancers, entrepreneurs and autonomous workers and to join
a coworking space to reduce costs and increase their networking. Coworking spaces
represent third places (Oldenburg 2002) where members can work, socialize while avoiding
the high costs related to renting an office.
Barcelona has also become a European coworking hub due to its attractiveness for foreigners
(Leon 2008). Many professionals have moved for short or long periods to work in the city and
coworking spaces have offered them the possibility to have a flexible work environment and
the opportunity to get in contact with local social and professional networks.
Infrastructures play an important role in the implementation of a smart city as they represent
the ground to the development of technologic services. Capital-intensive investments are often
required in the construction of technologic infrastructures, like for instance in the case of cable
networks or energy grids. In such cases, the involvement of governments is required not only
to contribute to the funding but also to clear the administrative work to modify the urban hard
infrastructures. Nevertheless, ion some other cases, the accessibility to technology allow
private actors to develop low-cost ICT infrastructures, as it is illustrated below through the
Since the 90s, Barcelona city council has been planning and investing in the modernization of
its infrastructures to adapt them to the current citizens’ needs, mainly in terms of integrating
the ICTs. For instance, this involves expanding the optic fiber network, providing Wi-Fi
connection in public spaces or developing sensor networks configured to be accessible for
different purposes and providers.
Nevertheless in specific districts of Barcelona, like in the 22@, the city council has especially
invested in the development of new infrastructures through a Special Infrastructure Plan (SIP).
The 22@ used to be a zone with a deficit of infrastructures in the 80s. Through its renewal for
the Olympic Games and the latter 22@ project, the district has experienced the more important
change in terms of infrastructures. The goal of the City council was twofold. On the one hand,
the plan aimed to develop infrastructures that became a differential element of the district quite
above the standards. The objective was to attract big firms dedicated to the knowledge and
technology-based industries. On the other hand, the plan intended to put in place an innovative
approach by improving the quality of public spaces. To do so, the network was designed to
differentiate the public and the private networks (Oliva 2004). The new infrastructures involved
the following systems: telecommunications, water system, selective waste collection, energy
and mobility in public spaces. The total cost of the plan was funded by landowners (60%), the
city’s public-service operators (30%) and city council (10%). A public-owned company (called
22@) was created by the city council in order to manage the planning, the execution of the
infrastructures as well as the relationship between the town-planning authority and the
developers (Oliva 2004).
In some cases, the deployment of technologic infrastructures does not necessarily require
large investments or to modify physical structures as they have a limited impact on the physical
environment. In such cases, infrastructures can be deployed in a more organic manner using
limited resources. For instance, as it is the case of Guifi.net, local wireless Wi-Fi networks
represent a type of infrastructure needed to the development of online services that can be
spread out incrementally by the organic involvement of citizens who add connection nodes.
Guifi.net is an open network infrastructure that started in Catalonia and has progressively been
extended to other regions. The network structure is completely distributed. Anyone is able to
extend it by adding a Wi-Fi access node after accepting an interconnection agreement that
ensures the respect of the project principles. Currently, Guifi.net is the largest free network in
the world (Vega et al. 2012). In 2008, the project was labelled by the ENoLL as a Living Lab,
providing more visibility and legitimacy to the initiative (Guifi.net 2008). The internationalization
of the open network infrastructure allows providing a free Wi-Fi connection to a larger amount
of people at a very low cost and at the same time reinforces the innovative and creative
capacities, diffusing the knowledge on technology and its applications.
Guifi.net is a bottom-up initiative created by engaged citizens without initial institutional
support, created by citizens which has become the biggest free network in the world. The
administration of the network is completely distributed. Everyone can extend it by accepting
an interconnection agreement which guarantees the preservation of its principles. The project
was inspired in the free software movement (Stallman 1985) that promotes the free circulation
of knowledge and applies the principles of the open hardware (Powell 2012).
Open data allows the analysis of complex problems by gathering large quantities of datasets
and involving different actors (Arzberger et al. 2004). It can be valuable for public organizations
in order to improve their services or for private firms (for example in the case of apps
developers using public traffic information).
Open data can be defined as “non-privacy-restricted and non-confidential data which is
produced with public money and is made available without any restrictions on its usage or
distribution” (Janssen et al. 2012). This definition only considers open data from governmental
public sources. In this perspective, citizens passively (and often unconsciously) generate data
that is afterwards compiled and shared openly by governmental bodies. In this article, we refer
to these initiatives as top-down initiatives. However, in some cases citizens themselves have
taken the initiative of generating, compiling and diffusing the data in a free mode through a
The Barcelona city council has started to implement projects related to the open governance
(Barcelona City Council 2014). One of them focuses on open data, as a way of sharing
datasets that are collected at the city level. The open data project does not only provide free
availability to the data but also contributes to the integration of the data as inputs to usages
from external actors. To facilitate the integration in other platforms, the data is provided in
standard, comprehensive, open, and digital formats, with a clear structure and support
information. The data included in the open data project has been compiled or generated by
the city council, and it only excludes the data related to privacy, property or personal data
protection or related to security, as well as the data that is contrary to government regulations.
The main goals of the open data project are fourfold. Firstly, the aim is to increase the
transparency of the city council towards citizens, business and public administration.
Secondly, the intention is to detect the needs for open data of other actors and try to satisfy
them. Thirdly, the project aims to reinforce the open data movement and foster the reuse of
the available data. Fourthly, it focuses on reinforcing the economic sector providing new
business opportunities (Barcelona City Council n.d.). In short, this top-down initiative pretends
to increase the open database by including new datasets and creating new datasets according
to the needs of users.
As has been argued above, current definitions of open data generally refer to data compiled
by public institutions. Nevertheless, there are initiatives that emerge from other kind of actors
that also openly share data. Engaging citizens to collect data by themselves solves the
difficulties that public actors have due to their limited resources. Considering the easy access
to technology, citizens can in many cases collectively generate the data that they require,
without governmental intervention.
The Smart Citizen project serves as an illustrative example of how a grassroots initiative can
be gradually adopted by citizens and by public institutions. The Smart Citizen project has been
developed by some of the members of the Fab Lab Barcelona. The goal is to allow individuals
to easily collect and share data about different environmental variables such as the measure
of the air composition (CO and NO2), temperature, light intensity, sound levels, and humidity
(Smart Citizen n.d.). This project is an open-source (open hardware and open software)
environmental monitoring platform that consists of an Arduino-compatible hardware, a data
visualization web API, and a mobile app. The device is able to stream the measures by the
different sensors over a Wi-Fi connection and share the data over internet in real time. The
obtained open data can be freely used by public or private actors to develop applications or
services. For instance, data on air quality can be used to create local maps of humidity, air
quality or sound levels in order to report to local city governments or to raise awareness of
issues that matter to the local community (Smart Citizen n.d.).
After being partially financed through a peer-to-peer funding platform, the project is currently
in pre-production phase with over one thousand kits functioning. Several European cities have
shown interest on the project and tests are currently being made in Barcelona, Amsterdam
and Manchester, supported by local administrations. The project is also enriched by an active
online community that supports the project, by sharing experiences, usages and technical
improvements. In 2013, the Smart Citizen Kit project won the World Smart Cities Awards.
Discussion and conclusion
The smart city concept is strongly dependent on the adoption of technology. The literature on
smart cities and other related approaches (digital city, intelligent city, information city, etc.) has
focused on the importance of the deployment and accessibility of technological infrastructures.
The concept of smart city has been related (often almost uniquely) to this aspect, as the
following definition suggests: “The use of Smart Computing technologies to make the critical
infrastructure components and services of a city — which include city administration,
education, healthcare, public safety, real estate, transportation, and utilities — more intelligent,
interconnected, and efficient.” (Washburn et al. 2010). In this article, we have showed that
technology and infrastructures are pre-requisites for a smart city, but not enough. They
represent the first layer that will serve as a base to implement the smart city services (Al-Hader
et al. 2009). However, infrastructures and technology will be useless if the citizens that are
supposed to benefit from them do not use them. The contribution of this article is to enlarge
the current use of the concept of smart city to include a citizen-driven innovation perspective
into the picture. From the theoretical point of view, the smart city literature has captured the
innovative changes introduced by new technologies in urban areas but has often failed to
recognize the crucial role that citizens play in the development, implementation and
acceptance of technology in their cities.
According to several critiques, the smart city concept reinforces the idea of urban spaces seen
from a neo-liberal perspective, where business-friendly cities would aim to attract new
businesses while having an “underlying emphasis on business-led urban development”
(Caragliu et al. 2009). So far, policy makers have used the smart city approach to provide
more efficient and innovative services and to approach technology to citizens. Firms have also
seen a huge opportunity in developing technology and infrastructures for cities embracing the
concept. Big technologic firms, such as IBM, Orange or Schneider electric, just to cite a few,
have identified the huge business opportunities that providing services to cities can represent
and consequently, they are dedicating vast resources in order to strength their commercial
relationships with urban decision-makers. Smart city policies might provide technologic
solutions to urban problems, but they also risk to be responding to commercial pressures from
the private sector. Consequently, a potential problem of smart city policies is that they risk to
be more focused on technology-push than on demand-pull (Nemet 2009), being more porous
to private firms’ interests of commercializing their services rather than to the citizens real
concerns. Local governments are also under a great pressure to embrace the smart city
approach, in order to reinforce their image in front of their citizens, to improve their city
branding and international visibility (Begg 1999; Giffinger et al. 2007). City rankings have
become double-edge swords that, by simplifying concepts and compiling statistics, compare
cities in aspects that might be hardly comparable (Giffinger et al. 2007). City administrations
are confronted to the global competition between cities and risk to introduce measures that
respond to private interests rather than public. Furthermore, as it is the case in the “Creative
City” concept (Landry 2000; Florida 2008), the concept of “smart city” risks to be converted
into a “urban labeling” phenomenon (Hollands 2008) that is used more with a city branding
intention rather than as a real improvement to empower citizens by the use of technology.
From this perspective, the bottom-up initiatives provided in this article exemplify how citizens
can actively contribute technologically in the city and how their intervention can impact their
The smart city concept involves the development of the technological infrastructures of the
city that allow the development of new businesses to emerge. Consequently, by investing in
being “smarter”, cities supposedly attract talented individuals, companies, and the creation of
universities and research centers, and thus contribute to develop an entrepreneurial character.
In line with these arguments, the creative class approach advocates that urban environments
that encourage technology, talent, and tolerance will improve social and economic local
environment (Florida 2002). This represents a more human perspective that goes beyond the
focus on technology. Following this line of arguments, the current problems associated to cities
can be solved by means of the distributed creativity and the collaboration between different
local actors. In this sense, the concept smart city is in consonance with the concept of smart
citizens. This view underlines the importance of creativity, social integration, education and
tolerance while resonating with the vision of Jane Jacobs (1961) about the richness of urban
diversity and cultural mix. Nevertheless, we argue that the social/community/human aspect of
the smart city has not been sufficiently integrated in the smart city policies and subsequent
research. For instance, only one criteria of the smart city ranking (out of six) concerns directly
smart citizens (Giffinger et al. 2007)
A smart city is related to the learning capacity of their citizens and institutions, dealing with the
relationships between local communities that advanced in the solution of their common
problems. Consequently, we suggest that policies aiming to the reinforcement of the smart
city approach should give more importance to emergent phenomena of citizens’ technologic
appropriation. Policies aiming to the detection, identification and support of citizens’ initiatives
would reinforce other top-down policies and overall contribute to build more consistent and
perdurable smart city practices.The role played by local governmental bodies is a crucial
ingredient in the smart city approach. Public institutions are often an intermediary between the
citizens and the firms that propose their technologic solutions. The role of the administration
as broker makes institutions essential in the design, implementation and final success of a
smart city strategy. Government agencies are necessary to create an administrative
environment that supports the different private or public smart city initiatives. The role of
intermediation is also important to deal with opposed priorities of the different stakeholders
and to contribute to the coordination of actions. Therefore, smart cities do need smart
governments (Gil-Garcia et al. 2013) and transparent smart governance (Willke 2007) that
includes the participation of all involved agents to interconnect effectively and dynamically
citizens, firms, universities and administration.
In the context of the smart city concept, the implementation of “smart” policies has generally
referred to initiatives conceived and implemented by top-down governmental institutions and
involving citizens in a second step. Comparing organizational and urban innovation, many of
the current smart city policies can be assimilated to the Open Innovation projects applied in
firms (Chesbrough 2003). They both are designed by organizations (public or private) to
incorporate the input from external actors. The aim of this article is to widen the concept of
smart city by considering other initiatives that are originated by citizens rather than by
organizations. Continuing with the analogy, we suggest that the literature on smart cities
should consider the citizens’ innovations in the same way that the literature on innovation in
organizations has studied the user-driven innovation (von Hippel 2005). Smart city policies
prioritizing private firms’ interests risk to neglect the innovative capacity of citizens thus offering
services based on technologies that are not adapted to citizens current needs. Actually in
some cases, the citizens’ needs in terms of green and sustainable environment are sometimes
in opposition with economic and commercial logics.
A smart city will be a city whose community has learned to learn, adapt and innovate (Coe et
al. 2001). People need to be able to use the technology in order to benefit from it (Caragliu et
al. 2009). A “smart city” (top-down) and a “smart citizens” (bottom-up) perspective can coexist
providing a fruitful environment to innovation. For instance, as it has been analyzed in this
article, city councils can pro-actively develop initiatives to include citizens’ voices in their smart
projects. For instance, the Barcelona Laboratori initiative is a clear example of the will of the
local administration to empower emerging community initiatives.
Nevertheless, our analysis has its limitations. Even if we have emphasized the importance of
the bottom-up initiatives, citizens do not have often the resources to act without governmental
intervention. This is the case of services that require high-cost infrastructures or regulatory
changes. Also, as it usually happens in the case of disruptive technology, it is hard for citizens
to understand the possibilities of its use. In these cases, firms and institutions must play an
important role in the first phases of the diffusion of innovations, by informing and incentivizing
its use. It is also important to note that some of the emerging usages of technology are
confronted to legal or regulatory issues. For instance, distributed and shared Wi-Fi networks
might be in opposition to economic interests of internet providers, that often difficult its
expansion. It is also the case of services of the sharing economy that represent a menace to
established institutions (like the tensions between Uber and taxi companies, or Airbnb and
hotels). In these cases, city halls like it is the case in Barcelona, tend to respond to these
emergent uses of technology by regulating to ensure protection to existing corporate services.
This article intends to have a broad view on “smart” initiatives to analyze both top-down and
bottom up dynamics in a city. We argue that these two perspectives are complementary and
its combination can reinforce the collaboration between different city stakeholders. Top-down
and bottom up approaches are not opposed forces but, on the contrary, can have a synergistic
effect on the innovation capacity of the city as the Barcelona case has shown. By empowering
the citizenship and distributing the technologic resources to different actors, territories also
increase their resilience as both central actors as well as peripheral actors have access to
knowledge and resources to develop creative and innovative solutions.
In conclusion, the transformational process that leads a city to become a smart city has to take
in consideration the complexity and the plurality of the urban reality. Beyond considering
citizens as being users, testers or consumers of technology, local administrations that are able
to identify, nourish and integrate the emerging citizens’ initiatives would contribute to the
reinforcement of a smart city reality.
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