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Article Article May 10th, 2018
Innovation • Delivery

Building up Barcelona

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The city of #Barcelona is famous for more than @FCBarcelona. @JosepMPique ‏tells us about its use of innovation and sustainable urban design

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#Barcelona's innovation district, @22network, is spearheading efforts to turn the city into a platform to test innovative ideas

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Barcelona's #UrbanLab is selecting and testing ground-breaking, sustainable ideas that can enhance life for local citizens

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This interview is part of our policymaker interview series. In this series, we talk to policymakers from across the world about their policies, policy-making and life in government.

Barcelona. One of the world's greatest cities. Famous for its architecture, diversity, culture, beaches - surely it's in no need of an urban innovation lab? Actually, like any city, it is not without its challenges. But Urban Lab, a smart cities initiative from 22@Barcelona, a project to revitalise 200 hectares of industrial land in the city centre, is seeking to change all that.

The Lab is tasked with selecting ground-breaking, sustainable ideas to be trialled on the city's streets. In other words, it acts as a gateway for companies to approach the city council about running pilots or experiments that can improve life for local citizens.

Since its creation in 2008, 80 projects have been put forward on topics, a quarter of which have been tested in the city. Of these projects, 90% have gone on to develop a business based on their pilot project.

You can read about our assessment of the Lab on the Public Impact Observatory and here, we speak to Josep Piqué, former CEO of the Office of Economic Growth, Barcelona City Council, to find out more…

Can you tell us a little bit about your role?

Before I took up my current role as executive president of La Salle Technova Barcelona, I was CEO of 22@Barcelona, which meant I was managing the city of Barcelona's district of innovation. I discovered that some of the entrepreneurs were knocking on the government's door, asking to start a pilot in the district or to get some evidence about the impact of the ideas that they had.

At the same time, I was speaking with public procurement teams who were, for instance, delivering lighting systems or delivering any kind of public service really, and they told me that they couldn't use new technologies such as LED for lighting the streets of the city without having seen it being used. So I discovered there was a gap between new innovations and how they could turn into new improvements for citizens.

This meant that I had to create a link between public procurement on the one side, and entrepreneurs on the other, and at the same time enable government teams to learn about a product or service before spending taxpayers' money on it, which is very important.

So we were using the district of innovation to transform the city into a platform of innovation, allowing entrepreneurs to test new products before selling and scaling up.

What has been the impact of the Lab, in your view?

The first impact has been a change of mindset. The city is now a goal of innovation itself. Universities, research centres, incubators, entrepreneurs and venture capital investors can now be used to develop a better city by improving citizens' quality of life.

The second impact has been the connections made between people and different sectors. We have been learning by doing. Thanks to the Lab, every single sector has a place where they can test new ideas for the city.

And the third impact has been the fact that the Lab operates at the epicentre between universities, industry, city government and its citizens in order to combine their capabilities.

The city in the Urban Lab is providing to be the first customer, but more than that, it's a golden reference. It means that if you are the city, you are the first customer and you are demonstrating to other cities that this concept is running. This is very important when you are developing a new idea. It's about including the demand side, the real consumers, and market in the process of innovation.

When you have evidence, the investors are happy to invest in you, but you have to show them that you have a customer. If the customer is the city of Barcelona, this is incredible because this is not just a customer. It's a golden reference - one that can help to sell this idea to other cities or to other companies. That's the key idea.

In hindsight, would you do anything differently?

The only thing that I could do differently is that I wish we had started the Lab earlier. When we were the European Capital of Innovation we discovered that we had many innovators in the city, but we didn't have a system of innovation and every department had their own way of pursuing innovation and advancing their respective ideas.

We were creating the Candy Innovation Model as a common tool for understanding challenges, stimulating ideas, developing pilots and scaling solutions. This model is now an international reference for managing the deal flow of innovation in public and private institutions.

If you were advising another city to do something similar, what advice would you give them?

City managers need to understand the challenges. If they don't know the challenges then it is hard to understand the innovation. They also need to be able to receive ideas not only locally but also internationally, and create a clear process between the pilots and then the evaluation. Finally, city managers need to be able to scale the ideas and create a team that combines the cultures and strengths of different departments from across the city's government.

What do you think innovation does for government more broadly?

At the end of the day, innovation means that you understand that you have to manage the present in order to create the future. And it means that the services that you were doing last year are perhaps not solving the problems of next year. Innovation means that you have to create tools, as the Urban Lab, for learning what's next and to put this future on the agenda. And this is something that only innovation can do.

This interview is part of our policymaker interview series. In this series, we talk to policymakers from across the world about their policies, policy-making and life in government.



  • Lab lessons. Andrea Siodmok and her team at the UK's Policy Lab are blazing a trail across the civil service. She tells us about designing new services around people's experiences
  • Different by design. Christian Bason is not one for the status quo. He takes time out from running the Danish Design Centre to tell us about a new way of creating policy
  • Laws from the lab. Stephanie Wade is not one for the quiet life. As director of the Innovation Lab at the Office of Personnel and Management, she is driving design-led innovation across government - and having quite an impact…
  • Provincial powerhouse: Alberta's new government lab. CoLab's Keran Perla tells us how a new lab is driving innovation across the government of Alberta, Canada, benefiting citizens and policymakers alike
  • Briefing bulletin: Design for policy and public services. We take a look at how Design offers a set of tools with which to attack a problem
  • Transformation from the grassroots. Driven by the belief that the best solutions to challenges can be found in communities across the country, the Obama administration created the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation to find new ways to solve old problems. Here, Dan Vogel talks to the Office's first director, Sonal Shah, about her experiences in reshaping American government
  • From imagination to innovation. Faced with what are often seen as mountainous challenges, policymakers are increasingly reliant on creativity to power their ascent. Alan Iny explains why thinking outside the box is just the start
  • Welcome to the lab. Governments worldwide share an insatiable hunger for that flash of inspiration that can transform public services. To do so they increasingly rely on a lab, a bespoke group of individuals dedicated to driving innovation and impact. We speak to the director of Denmark's MindLab, Thomas Prehn, about this pioneering approach to policymaking

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