Barcelona’s Digital Democracy

The utopia of direct democracy can partially become true via new digital tools. The residents of Barcelona can shape the city's policies in effective and secure ways - what are the secrets behind the success?

06/29/2021
6 minutes
Zuzana Pison
Barcelona’s Digital Democracy

In 2015, when Ada Colau was elected mayor of Barcelona, the new administration zoomed in on harnessing the power of technology. The goal was clear – to use innovative tech and data to improve democracy and communication with residents.

To achieve that, the city developed an impressive array of digital tools.  They wanted to get locals involved in policymaking, better solve municipal problems, and ensure that the public data meet openness, security, and privacy standards. The city of Barcelona wanted to become a one-of-a-kind digital democracy.

Decidim: Empowering Residents in Policy-Making

Decidim, which is Catalan for ‘we decide,’ is one of the ways that Barcelona has become a global leader of the smart city movement. Decidim is an online platform that allows citizens to shape the governance of their city. The tool is put together using open-source software and open code to be reused and improved upon.

Developed in collaboration with the public and private sectors, the platform made its debut for Barcelona’s 2016–2019 Municipal Action Plan. Roughly 40,000 residents participated in co-creating a strategic city plan. This resulted in 10,860 proposals from residents, of which 8,142 were approved and incorporated into the Action Plan.

Give people the digital tools to create a better city themselves.

Decidim goes beyond just listening to constituents. The platform allows them to design and improve the participatory process. They can also come up with policy proposals that could turn into binding legislation. Residents can also track the state of implementation of the approved proposals.

One example of a successful bid came from the platform user named ‘Eiyeitis’, who suggested that the information phone line of Barcelona City Council becomes free of charge.  Her proposal got 684 online votes from other residents; it was then discussed among the city officials and finally accepted.

DECODE: Safe and Transparent Data Sharing

Making data widely available increases privacy risks. If cities want to make their data public to improve public services, they also need to give residents greater control over what data they share. To do that, Barcelona has turned to an open-source technology architecture called DECODE (Decentralized Citizen Owned Data Ecosystems), a blockchain-style distributed-ledger system that records every data transaction.

DECODE allows individuals to share only the personal data they wish to share and allows them to see if that data has been passed along to others. How can it be used? We can use Decidim as an example. When it first started, the platform wasn´t collecting any demographic data on its participants. This was due to concerns about invasions of privacy. But now that it’s using DECODE, Decidim is able to confirm a person’s existence — and residence in the city — in a way that protects their privacy.

DECODE also means that Decidim can be used to gather signatures for petitions, which has opened the door to more democratic participation. With 3,750 signatures, residents can call for a council debate on a specific topic; with 15,000 signatures, they can demand a referendum.

Sentilo: Internet-of-Things Platform

The city has also built its own internet-of-things sensor network, called Sentilo. It aims to provide every interested city in the world with a functional, interoperable, and easily extensible platform using open-source software.

In the case of Barcelona, the city plans to use Sentilo to monitor all the city’s waste management and cleaning services. The city’s network of public trash, recycling, and compost bins features QR codes that will be read every time waste is collected. As a result, the city can optimize trash collection logistics, keep track of resident behavior, and develop solutions to influence that behavior.

The platform is now being used by cities and administrations outside of Barcelona. With nearly sixty sensors connected to Sentilo, the city of Reus monitors the occupancy of parking places, the real-time status of electric vehicle recharging equipment, and energy consumption at some municipal buildings. Outside of Spain,  the Municipality of Dubai has used Sentilo to receive data from its air quality monitoring stations.

Tech for Democracy

Cities shouldn’t be making the decision to use new technologies just for the sake of using something blitzy and high-tech. The above-mentioned initiatives are great examples of how tech can impact city governance and democratic participation – by not losing sight of the residents but rather making them part of the change. By fully leveraging the advantages of the digital era, Barcelona is creating tools that can be used by other cities as well. Give people the digital tools to create a better city themselves – this should be the final goal, and Barcelona is leading by example.