Spain: City Model Faces Up To The Political Situation

On 14 April 2014, a notice appeared stating that the company Schneider Electric, together with partner companies such as Cisco, had reached an agreement with Barcelona's Council to establish their first Smart City in Barcelona, with the aim of encouraging, in the words of those responsible for the project, "a stable partnership and to convert the city into a paradigm of efficiency, habitability and sustainability management by maximising financial and operational efficiency in the provision of public services".

More than two years later, on 12 September 2016, the suspension of the project was announced, along with the resulting suspension of the direct investment earmarked to renovate the old factory Ca l´Alier del Poblenou (the area chosen for the location of the central hub), the initial phase of which was estimated to cost thirty-seven million euros.

What had happened in this period? Although intuition could lead us to conclude that it was a strategic decision by the companies who are the driving forces behind the project, a product of the collateral damage resulting from the real estate crisis entailing the need to rearrange their initial investment plans, the fact is that the real reason for this was the decision of the new local authority team to re-examine the project and revise the plans for the future occupation and use of this currently disused area.

We are talking about a case, among many other examples that we could mention, that reveals how the comings and goings of successive administrations can have a crucial impact on the refocusing of strategic decisions previously taken, whether they were taken at a local, autonomous or general level.

It is a legal decision? Or, to be more exact, is this decision a response to the genuine interests of the city/citizen?

In order to provide the appropriate context for the questions posed, we must categorically declare that between the main authorities of local government, except for the most relevant, what stands out above anything else is the question of defining what has become known as a model city, this being a dynamic concept subject to revision, refocusing and even changes of direction. On this basis, there are no grounds for objecting to the decision of the Barcelona City Council, doubtless fully empowered to put a halt to projects approved by previous administrations and encourage in their stead others that they deem appropriate and that allow them to shape the city in accordance with criteria related to their political, social and economic ideology. In addition, there is no doubt that in order to achieve the requisite unifying force of space, usage, mobility and the flow of individuals as basic elements of the arrangement of the city concept, there is no one path, the different options (all) being plausible and deserving opportunity chance.

The above assertion does not prevent, however, acknowledging with similar certainty that to alter basic strategic decisions as they are in progress, and to define the city model as clearly as it has been, generates considerable uncertainty and unease, unsuitable travelling companions in the whole process of obtaining investment. On the contrary, it is only cohesion which delivers a project that is perfectly traced out as to the direction in which we are headed and how we want to get there, that is based on stable main concepts and is accompanied by an implementation plan in accordance with its contents, which will offer the group composed of citizens, investors and government agencies the security that they have sought for so long.

Staying on this point, which is perhaps where the biggest problem lies, a potential conflict of interest becomes apparent between the effects of the temporary status (more or less extended over time) over which all local governments preside (and by extension their policies) and the needs of the city itself, that although an organic, vital reality is constructed, which is constantly evolving and changing, it also involves a clear call for political situations and partisan disputes to be transcended, in search of the long-awaited confidence in the project. And if this requires a plan, organized and defined by its basic guidelines and with medium and long term perspectives, we must ask ourselves if the viability of the plan that defines the future model of the city must be made subject to the very uncertainty swirling around the balance of the current political tensions in play.

Let's be realistic. The enormous burden represented by the challenges and overcoming the difficulties presented by the definition of the city model demands that it is supported by those with backbone, in such a way that the taking of decisions regarding the coordination of the model, its realisation and even the possible amendment or suspension of a particular project finds its basis in a highly expert consensus that, transcending squalid majorities or party political aims, responds to the real interests of the citizen, the true end user of the model to be adopted. We are aware that to design an agreed mechanism, which gives a guarantee of obtaining qualified majorities in the taking of decisions pertaining to the city model, is a difficult subject, more so if this might involve a certain degree of renouncing powers on the part of the local authority decision-making body in favour of technical teams or strategic decisions, speaking as authentic multidisciplinary bodies in their professional makeup, technical professional training and vision of the city, whose appointment and tenure in the role should be linked to the timetable set out by the legislatures, and who should be acknowledged to have sufficient legitimacy to discuss, agree and adopt strategic decisions regarding those projects intrinsically associated with the social, economic, cultural and infrastructure-related model, its binding decisions being above whatever political persuasion happens to be in power at local authority level at the time.

Ultimately, this is a challenge for the future which will demand a large dose of generosity on the part of all of the parties involved for the benefit of our common interest.

Barcelona, 7 October 2016

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