“Now we have a big contract with Vodafone, and every month Vodafone has to give machine readable data to city hall. Before, that didn’t happen. They just took all the data and used it for their own benefit”
Their efforts have centred on two things. The first is opening up governance through participatory processes and greater transparency. And the second is redefining the smart city to ensure that it serves its citizens, rather than the other way around.
The group started by creating a digital participatory platform, Decidim (“We Decide”, in Catalan). Now the public can participate directly in government as they would on social media, by suggesting ideas, debating them, and voting with their thumbs. Decidim taps into the potential of social networks: the information spreading on Twitter, or the relationships on Facebook. All of these apply to politics — and Decidim seeks to channel them, while guaranteeing personal privacy and public transparency in a way these platforms don’t.
“We are experimenting with a hybrid of online and offline participatory democracy,” says Francesca Bria, Barcelona’s Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer. “We used Decidim to create the government agenda — over 70 per cent of the proposals come directly from citizens. Over 40,000 citizens proposed these policies. And many more citizens were engaged in offline collective assemblies and consultations.”
Barcelona is not alone in this. DECODE is an EU-funded project and sits neatly alongside the incoming General Data Protection Regulation, which will update regulation for internet companies. Together, they’re a kind of one-two for the data-driven internet economy. Barcelona also leads a network of rebel cities, “Fearless Cities”, that is adopting its tools and practices. They hosted the first conference last year, bringing together more than 180 cities from 40 countries and five continents. They are watching as Barcelona leads the way with its experiments in open democracy and data protection. Everything Barcelona has developed is open source, and all the code is posted on Github. They want these ideas to spread.
“I think in the technological world it’s very important to put forward a narrative that’s different to the surveillance capitalism from Silicon Valley, and the dystopian Chinese model, with its Social Credit System that uses citizen data to give them a rating that then gives them access to certain services,” says Bria. “We want to lead Europe to put forward an alternative model.”