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6 October 2017

Barcelona - How Smart Technology is Underpinning an Urban Tech Revolution

Written by Adam Nethersole

Adam is Senior Director of Marketing at Verne Global and has worked within the area of sustainability for the last 15 years.

With family in Barcelona it regularly gives me the chance to go and visit this fantastic city. Not all of my time is spent wandering las Ramblas, watching football or eating tapas. On recent trips there I’ve started to notice the tremendous advancements being made to propel Barcelona into the forefront of the ‘smart city’ movement. The interface between social geography, sustainability and technology is a really interesting one and Barcelona is rightly considered to be at the cutting edge of this progression.

Over the last decade Barcelona has deployed a sophisticated network of sensors, IoT devices, and computing systems that span the city, interconnected by the city’s 310-square miles of fiber optic cable. Driven by a series of forward-thinking municipal leaders with a commitment to sustainability, Barcelona has employed its enviable ICT infrastructure to launch over 200 unique smart city programs and applications (many utilising cutting-edge machine learning technologies) to improve efficiency across the city and slash municipal budgets. An integral backbone to this transformation is the city’s data centers, which provide the analytic power that officials need to pull actionable information from the deluge of data pouring in from these new smart devices.

An area where the city’s embrace of data technology has had a very visible impact is in improving the sustainability and efficiency of its transportation system. Until recently, Barcelona (a city of 3.2 million) attributed about 3500 annual deaths to air pollution. In order to reign in that number, while also providing a more enjoyable experience for residents and tourists, the city has launched a multi-modal transportation strategy that includes bicycle sharing, electric cars, and an improved bus system. The new transportation system features numerous smart technologies, like digital bus stops that provide updates on bus location that enables riders to better plan their journey, and the ApparkB program below, which allows drivers to easily locate and pay for municipal parking spaces. A similar system, called Fastprk, has been deployed to help to help coach buses carrying tourists find parking near the Sagrada Familia (one of the city’s popular tourist destinations), save carbon emissions, and reduce the traffic crunch around the site.

These larger projects are augmented by other, more targeted transportation projects. This includes a new system of modular traffic lights that can be configured with network connectivity and photovoltaic panels for improved energy efficiency, and “smart crossings” that use sensors and a data processing station to reduce the time that vehicles and pedestrians spend waiting to cross the street during pre-programmed times.

Barcelona’s commitment to smart technology extends far beyond transportation and carbon emissions, and has helped make the city more sustainable in other key areas, like water efficiency. It wasn’t long ago that Barcelona literally ran out of water! Faced with the prospect of ongoing water supply issues, the municipal government has made water conservation a core part of its smart city strategy, rolling out a number of initiatives to help manage the city’s resources better. In order to maximise the efficiency of the city’s parks, the municipal parks department has installed sensors to control park irrigation and the water levels in public fountains. By monitoring rain, humidity, salinity, temperature, wind and other factors, park administrators can not only determine how much to irrigate a given area, but can easily manage the system of irrigation valves using a convenient mobile interface. The program, which has been implemented in 68 percent of public parks, has helped the city achieve a 25 percent increase in water conservation with a savings of approximately $555,000 per year.

As separate entities these achievements are impressive, but they don’t really fulfil the city smart ideal laid out by experts, like those at the International Electrotechnical Commission, C40 Cities and others. In order for a city to truly achieve smart city status, there must be horizontal integration to coordinate and orchestrate between all of these disparate systems. The city must become a true “system of systems” that allows data to flow between government offices, the population, and its infrastructure in a quick, responsive manner.

Barcelona achieves this horizontal integration with a three-tier model. At the lowest of the three levels is Barcelona’s open-source Sentilo sensor platform, which collects and broadcasts gathered city data. At the next level up is CityOS, a platform designed to derive practical value from the sensor data using data analytics and predictive modeling. Like Sentilo, CityOS is an open-source solution built by the government of Barcelona and its partners that’s designed to help spur the growth of a smart city software ecosystem. Finally, a service layer on the top mediates access to City OS, allowing city data to flow out and power third-party applications.

But ambitious smart city initiatives like the one in Barcelona also bring challenges, such as how to effectively tackle the explosive volumes of data that smart city and related technologies are generating. In 2016, global networks generated 96 exabytes of IP data traffic. By 2021, this number is predicted to reach 278 exabytes, driven in part by IoT, smart city, and other big data technologies.

What can stakeholders in a smart city solution do to ensure that the energy cost (and carbon emissions) of collecting and processing all of this newly generated data doesn’t negate the sustainability benefits that the smart city was designed to produce in the first place? There are a few options. Some cities have started to recycle the enormous amount of heat generated by data centers by heating buildings, for example. Others have proposed a model of generating electricity with heat from the data center’s hot aisle, creating a closed loop of power consumption.

Municipal governments across Europe have another options as well. Because of the low latency and excellent connectivity across the continent, cities can partner with strategically located, low-latency data centers that are powered by 100% renewable energy, like our data center here at Verne Global. A city is no less ‘smart’ if the data center supporting it’s trailblazing activities is located outside of the city boundaries. When your city is located in countries with dwindling power supplies and expensive energy, it could be argued that is actually the smartest option!

Processing smart city data in locations like the Nordic region (even if this is the data not linked to actual members of the public) can greatly alleviate costs and ensure that the net benefit of their smart city projects yield as dramatic a sustainability boost as possible, without impacting their budget. I feel it’s exactly this kind of innovative model, which helps cities manage their large data volumes while also increasing sustainability and saving money, that’s truly worthy of the term, “smart city solution.”


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