In brief

Barcelona is a byword for innovative architecture and design. In 2008, the city council set up Urban Lab, a smart cities initiative in 22@Barcelona, the regeneration area of El Poblenou. SMEs propose ground-breaking, sustainable ideas to enhance life for local citizens and Urban Lab selects the most promising, from intelligent lighting to locating empty parking spaces, and they are trialled on the city’s streets.

The challenge

The city of Barcelona has established a reputation as one of Europe’s major industrial cities, with an innovative approach to urban design. In 2008, it wanted to encourage SMEs to trial novel ideas that could have a positive impact on the lives of Barcelonians. The question it had to ask itself was:  “how can entrepreneurs with ideas to improve urban life test them in a city environment?” [1]

The initiative

The answer was Barcelona Urban Lab. The city council “opened up the city as a site for experimentation, enabling entrepreneurs to pilot products and services.” [2] It forms part of 22@ Barcelona, a project to revitalise 200 hectares of industrial land in the city centre. It aims to convert El Poblenou into a district that fosters innovation through new collaborations between the public sector, SMEs and not-for-profits.

Urban Lab “is a tool to facilitate the use of public spaces in the city of Barcelona to carry out tests and pilot programmes on products and services with an urban impact. The idea is to use the city as an urban laboratory”. [3] It seeks to achieve four main objectives:

  • “Foster business innovation in 22@ Barcelona. [4]
  • Enable companies to test innovative products and services so that if they prove their value they can subsequently be commercialised.
  • Grow the pipeline of innovative products and services that can be procured by the city.
  • Create new products and services that improve urban life for the citizens of Barcelona.”

Urban Lab is a gateway for companies to approach the city council about running pilots or experiments that can improve the city.  The selection process is as follows:

  • Companies with ideas for a pilot submit a proposal to Urban Lab Board, which comprises staff from 22@ Barcelona and representatives of the city council.
  • If selected, Urban Lab identifies places where it can be tested, and pairs the team with the civil servants who manage the locations where the pilot will be based.

The public impact

Since 2008, 80 projects have been presented on a range of topics, a quarter of which have been tested on the streets of Barcelona. Of the projects piloted in the city, Barcelona’s Office for Economic Growth estimates that 90 percent have gone on to develop a business based on their pilot project.

For example, the smart cities firm, Urbiotica, is experimenting with sensors for waste management, installing them in bins along Barcelona’s Avenue Diagonal, to measure levels in public bins and help make waste collection more efficient. This project is in partnership with the city and the provider of waste management.

In 2014, the Urban Lab was chosen as one of the best 20 projects in the world by the i-Teams, a foundation for innovation set up by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the UK’s Nesta. In the same year, Barcelona was recognised as the European Capital of Innovation (iCapital).

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What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.


Stakeholder Engagement Strong

Barcelona Urban Lab’s main stakeholder is the city council, which promoted the initiative to facilitate the use of public spaces for implementing pilot tests. The other main organisation involved is 22@ Barcelona, whose purpose is to regenerate the industrial area of El Poblenou.

The city council provides the relatively modest annual funding through its employees’ salaries. “The only direct cost associated with running the Urban Lab is an annual spend of just under £185,000, which funds the staff.” [5]

The external stakeholders are the SMEs, such as Bitcarrier, Connecthings, Urbiotica and Zolertia, who carry out their pilot projects on the street of Barcelona.

Political Commitment Good

Barcelona Urban Lab was strongly supported the mayor, the city council, and Josep Piqué, CEO, Office of Economic Growth, Barcelona City Council. The fact that the initiative has been in force since then shows the continued commitment of the administration.


Clear Objectives Good

The objectives were clear: “to foster business innovation; … to enable companies to trial innovative products in a real place; [and] … to learn and create new products or services that are capable of offering improvements to the citizens of Barcelona”. [6]

The urban regeneration area of El Poblenou is used a testing ground for innovative ideas to enhance the quality of life and the ideas that worked best in practice could then be implemented throughout Barcelona. “The Urban Lab sees itself as a gateway for companies to approach the city council about running pilots or experiments that can improve the city.” [7]

Evidence Good

Barcelona Urban Labs is one of the first projects of its kind. Therefore, the chances of referring to similar projects are slim. However, the city council took the learnings from the initial years and refined the development pattern by bringing in specific sector focus.

Feasibility Strong

The Urban Lab has developed a low-cost model, mobilising the assets of the city to encourage private sector investment in innovation. The only direct cost associated with running the Urban Lab is the annual spend of just under £185,000, which funds the staff. The selection process works well and there are is “a pipeline of innovative products and services that can be procured by the city”. [8]


Management Fair

The programme requires only three direct employees and the direct involvement of the city council, principally the Office of Economic Growth. The selection process is well managed and there is a flow of potential projects to choose from. In addition, it connects the SMEs with the council’s technical staff who can support the logistical aspects of the innovation.

Measurement Fair

“The Urban Lab measures its impact through the number of pilots it generates [(16 by 2014)], and their duration, public satisfaction with the pilots, the number of pilots purchased in Barcelona or other cities, as well as company performance, such as growth and turnover of employees. The Urban Lab assesses impact using administrative data, user feedback surveys and cost effectiveness analysis.”

Barcelona’s Office for Economic Growth estimates that 90 per cent have gone on to develop a business based on their pilot project.

Although not directly related, the growth in the number of companies and employees in Barcelona after implementing the Urban Lab can also be considered as a yardstick of measurement. By 2010, the number of companies in Barcelona grew by 4.2 percent and the total number of employees by 5.6 percent.

Alignment Strong

There is close cooperation between the internal and external stakeholders in developing Urban Lab projects. The selection process involved 22@Barcelona, Urban Lab staff and the SME floating the idea. If the project is selected, the Urban Lab identifies locations where it can be tested, and pairs the team with ‘city technicians’, the civil servants who manage the places where the pilot will be based.

In 2014, it was true to say that “none of the businesses [had] become vendors to the city of Barcelona and most [had] left the city to locate in other cities in Spain or internationally. This reflects one of the main challenges of this approach to open innovation”. [9]

However, this problem has been addressed. “The French company Connecthings, is currently working with Barcelona City Council having participated in the programme in 2013 … It has now installed labels with the emblem contactless on the smart shelters of the city, the ‘bicing’ bicycle stations and some museums through which the public can obtain information by reading the installed codes ... with their smartphones.” [10]

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