Wander the streets of Barcelona, Spain, and one of the most striking features you will observe is the legacy of centuries of innovation.
From the Roman ruins of the Gothic Quarter, through the Modernisme facade-studded grid of the Eixample, to the landmark buildings by architects such as Jean Nouvel or Sir Norman Foster, the Catalan capital carries the imprint of successive waves of new urban thinking.
Today, this history is a draw for the millions of tourists that make Barcelona the fourth most visited destination in Europe. But Spain's second-largest city is not resting on its laurels. It is forging ahead with plans to stay at the forefront of urban development, using information and communications technology as a motor for innovation.
In July, alongside Cisco and the French infrastructure giant GDF SUEZ, it announced the launch of the City Protocol, a cooperative framework among cities, industries, and institutions to address current and future urban challenges such as sustainability and quality of life.
The initiative followed the 2011 unveiling of a strategic pilot program aimed at advancing the city's vision for sustainable urban development, and plans to create a Smart City Campus in collaboration with Abertis, Agbar, Cisco, Schneider Electric, and Telefónica.
"Barcelona has always been a pioneer in the construction of its urban infrastructure," says Vicente Guallart, the city's chief architect and director of urban habitat, "and has always been a city that has looked to the future. In 1859, the Cerdà plan integrated what were then new transport technologies such as the train in its urban structure, along with ecological concepts in the organization of the city."
Like many other urban centers, the challenge Barcelona faces today, he says, "is to build on this existing structure and enable it to become more efficient, with greater added value. IT is an important medium for allowing us to add value to the city."
Guallart sees technology as critical in integrating and coordinating different services and increasing the resilience of the city, besides helping make the move from centralized to distributed systems in areas such as power generation.
"Some people would call this a smart city," he says. "For us, it is just part of our tradition to use the technologies within reach. In 20 years we will probably be talking about biotechnologies, and Barcelona will no doubt be using them, too."
What else will be happening in Barcelona in 20 years' time? Currently, the impact of IT on daily life is still quite subtle; to the casual observer, from a technology perspective there is little to distinguish the city from any other major European hub.
But behind the scenes, high-speed connectivity supports an important biomedical research cluster and MareNostrum, Spain's second most powerful supercomputer. IT is helping to bring greater efficiency to the city's transport system, including streamlining the bus route network and providing real-time arrival information at stops. And a dedicated technology district, 22@, acts as an incubator for innovation-led companies such as Barcelona Media and EfiData.
Going forward, Guallart believes a pervasive, underlying technology infrastructure such as the Cisco Smart+Connected Communities architecture will enable real-time interactions not just between people and organizations but also between systems and devices.
This will be the key to the introduction of more responsive systems that will be at the heart, for example, of efficient traffic systems or distributed energy networks allowing citizens to generate part of the power they consume from solar panels on building rooftops.
These systems will one day bring about changes that will benefit everyone in Barcelona, and in other smart cities around the world.
"Imagine, for instance, that everyone tells the city where they want to go when they get in their cars, and the city tells them which is the best route," Guallart says.
"The city would create a real-time information system where you could tell where cars were headed to and where they need to be directed. It could even change the direction of some streets if everyone is heading out of town at the same time."
In the future, says Guallart, more efficient transport and green energy generation, coupled with the introduction of electric vehicles, will result in cleaner air and quieter streets.
City planners are also working to ensure communities can be productive at a local level, so most people will one day be able to walk to work and many goods and products will be manufactured within neighborhoods rather than being shipped in from afar.
Not all of this will flow directly from technology, of course. The Spanish legislation around distributed energy generation is unclear, for example, so in areas such as this, city planners will need to come up with smart regulations as well as using smart technologies.
"The arrival of information in cities should enable the creation of new laws and regulations that allow some things which may even be extralegal to be ordained," states Guallart. "It is also fundamental that the regulation is made to benefit people and not just organizations.
"This is where the civil society and the administration have to work hard in order to foster innovation as quickly as possible. We are working on it, not just on next-generation projects but also on the regulations that will make sure they can function efficiently."
The results of this work will be of interest. Not just to the citizens of Barcelona, but also to those of all the other cities around the world whose leaders aspire to a better urban model.
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