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Smart City Zaragoza
Jon Glasco1. July 201810 min read

Smart City Zaragoza: The Power of Citizen Innovators

Zaragoza: Pioneering a Citizen-Centric Smart City Vision

Fifteen years ago, Zaragoza - the historic Spanish city situated between Madrid and Barcelona - pioneered a vision of a future digital district and knowledge-based society. Since then, the city has developed an impressive portfolio of smart city projects and new urban services. According to Daniel Sarasa, Urban Innovation Planner in Zaragoza and internationally recognized smart city innovator, one of Zaragoza's unique strengths is its culture of citizen involvement and participation. This culture has its roots in the reawakening of democracy. In the late 1970s, the city of Zaragoza (like other cities in Spain) looked back on thirty-five years of dictatorship – and looked ahead to an uncertain future. During the years of dictatorship, Zaragoza had grown in population from approximately 235,000 to more than 500,000, but the civic infrastructure and public services needed to support this urban growth were inhibited by an autocratic national government which maintained severe austerity measures.

With democracy regaining a foothold in the early 1980s, the citizens of Zaragoza knew that the recovery of their communities and the development of civic infrastructure would depend on them taking matters into their own hands. From this awareness was born a grass-roots determination and pride-of-community mindset to reclaim rights to the city and to build new infrastructure. This resulted in citizen-inspired plans and actions to build neighbourhood civic centres, kindergartens, centres for the elderly, public libraries and sports centres.

In the early years of democracy, citizens and city planners in Zaragoza could not have imagined that, decades later in the early 21st century, the city would become a leader in making the transition from a technology-centric to a citizen-centric smart city vision. Trust in citizen-inspired innovation was embedded in Zaragoza's culture, waiting to be nurtured and developed.

The Power of Citizen-Innovators

In 2003, local government leaders in Zaragoza decided to design and build a digital district and knowledge-based society. With the help of MIT's Media Lab and Joint Program in City Design and Development, Zaragoza created a plan for an ambitious flagship project known as the Digital Mile, an innovation district to focus on the benefits and deployment of digital technologies in the public sector.

In the ensuing years before the global financial crisis, the city made important strides toward their vision. However, the financial crisis dealt a severe blow to the city's plans, and many urban innovation proposals, including the Digital Mile, were curtailed or cancelled. According to Daniel Sarasa, who has been a driving force in Zaragoza's smart city plans and their implementation since its initial phases, Zaragoza's unemployment soared from 8% to 24% after the financial crisis and led to a situation where frustrated citizens questioned the legitimacy of government and public institutions.

But in an era plagued by economic and political setbacks, Sarasa and his colleagues dared to imagine urban innovation beyond the crisis.

A key decision made by Zaragoza's urban planners early in the recovery process was to build upon the city's civic engagement strengths. They went back to work by salvaging ideas from the Digital Mile and searched for opportunities to engage with citizens to create a smarter, more connected society.

In 2012, Sarasa served as co-author of Zaragoza's Open Government Strategy. The release of this publication communicated to citizens and other stakeholders that the city was embarking on a new chapter in its path from recovery to reinvention – and served as a convincing vehicle to get citizens involved in the city's process of innovation. The new strategy represented a commitment to change, open data, transparency and smart citizenship.

To implement the strategy, urban planners in Zaragoza recognized that their job description must evolve from traditional urban planning to a wide-ranging role of facilitators, design thinkers and agile urbanists. Adoption of this new role enabled them to create a process for energizing and nurturing citizen-inspired innovation with diversity and intensity not often seen in a mid-sized city.

Creating a Portfolio of Citizen-Inspired Projects and Services

Although many cities throughout the world embraced the largely undefined concept and potential benefits of being smart cities, the planning focus was usually on big data, high-tech solutions, the Internet of Things (IoT), and a top-down approach to smart city solutions. However, Sarasa and his colleagues understood that "data by itself cannot drive your government”. They recognized that connectivity involves more than broadband networks, big data and the IoT. The potential of smart city connectivity depends on a cohesive society of citizens, local government and local companies. In Sarasa's view, the value of a cohesive, connected society—and the return on the city's smart investment—will derive from enabling citizens at the local level to co-create and adopt smart city services.

"Many of our ideas for smart city services originate from hackathons where citizens bring their own ideas to the event. They do not have to know about technology. In fact, technology is a barrier for many of them. They only have to know about a problem. We strive to reduce the technology barrier and keep the citizen-promoter of ideas in the process of co-creation, co-design and co-management,"
says Sarasa.

The process of co-creation is easier when pilot initiatives are small. However, some projects must make the transition from small, locally promoted pilots to large-scale implementation. According to Sarasa: "This is when citizen-innovators may feel uncomfortable as we move toward the public procurement phase of our process. This phase is most difficult."

When smart city pilots grow in size and complexity, the private sector stakeholder expects to see a contractual opportunity, and the citizen-innovator often feels excluded from this part of the process: "Therefore, part of our role is to manage disappointment and communicate with citizen-innovators to clarify our limitations as urban planners and facilitators."

A recent success story in Zaragoza is their initiative to establish CrowdsourcingZGZ, a lean startup approach for funding projects. Recognizing that a major challenge in smart city development is deciding which projects to fund and how to fund them, Zaragoza created a citizen-centric approach of soliciting project ideas by using crowdfunding as a way to raise funds and also as a filtering mechanism. If citizens are willing to invest their own resources in a smart city project to solve urban problems, then the city provides matching funds. With this approach, urban planners solicit funds from citizens for citizen-inspired urban proposals. Under the terms of the initiative, the city matches each euro offered by citizens toward a proposed project. When the level of proposed funding reaches a specified threshold, the project is approved for the development of a minimum viable product.

Although the curtailment of the Digital Mile project was disappointing, its vision stayed alive in the hearts and minds of Zaragoza's urban planners. Today, planners envision a Productive Mile – a new approach to transform an urban void filled with chemical debris into a citizen-centric space with productive infrastructure (solar panels and windmills, street orchards and neighbourhood cultural facilities). Such a transformation would enable the Productive Mile to become part of the adjacent urban fabric and contribute to the quality of urban life.

Zaragoza's far-reaching perspective on municipal government and services—and how to create value that delivers sustainable benefits—is evident in the city's projects such as:

  • Open Urban Lab: an R&D centre and "human API" to reduce the technology barrier for citizens and enable the co-creation of new urban services.
  • Business incubators to foster innovation and entrepreneurial strengths which benefit Zaragoza society, managed through a transparent public-private partnership with key performance indicators for economic sustainability, social sustainability, business collaboration and cooperation and environmental sustainability.
  • 100ideasZGZ: a civic and innovation ecosystem created to allow all citizens to participate in the improvement of the city.

The Future of the Smart City Process in Zaragoza

This is an inspiring portfolio of smart city initiatives, but it reveals only part of the Zaragoza story. Looking behind the scenes of the city's innovation process - its workshops, hackathons, citizen engagement, pilot projects and entrepreneurial ventures - it is apparent this is a still-unfolding story of how citizens, civic leaders, urban planners, private companies, entrepreneurs and universities work together to collaborate and overcome barriers to innovation. For Sarasa and other visionaries in the Zaragoza smart city ecosystem, a fundamental objective is to create sustainable and equitable urban solutions which yield digital and societal inclusion and a high quality of life for all segments of society.

Zaragoza's success in urban innovation was recognized in 2017 when the city received Europe's Green Digital Charter (GDC) Award for Citizen Participation and Impact on Society. The award was based on Zaragoza's innovative Citizen Card. "The Zaragoza Citizen Card is a digital platform upon which we design and introduce many forms of urban services, including services with discounts for vulnerable and unemployed people," says Sarasa.

The goal of the Citizen Card project is to create a citizen-centric platform which humans can understand, trust and use. It is a platform that offers the potential for Zaragoza to replace the traditional city government model, where data resides and often languishes in vertical, departmental silos. As Sarasa explains: "Two basic trends we bring to the urban world are open source and agile development technologies – both of which place the user at the centre of design and development. We need to apply lean startup thinking and be quicker and faster. We must get innovative or someone else will build a smart city for us – probably not at a grass-roots level, which is what we need."

Sarasa perceives untapped opportunities in co-creation and knowledge-sharing initiatives with the private sector. The solutions to many urban challenges, such as unemployment, mobility, e-government, the rejuvenation of public spaces and ensuring resilience after a crisis, may ultimately depend on innovation in knowledge-sharing: "We need to engage the private sector in a meaningful way, enabling us to scale up from pilot projects to implementation. This requires that we find incentives to engage, share and cooperate. As urban innovators, we believe this begins with ideas for establishing a new conversation to extract knowledge which can be used by public and private sectors. Our challenge in knowledge-sharing activities is to shape new urban services by sharing knowledge and exploring solutions."

This focus on creating a solution-driven conversation with the private sector signals that—even in a city which thrives on citizen-inspired innovation—the grass-roots approach is not realistic for all smart city projects. It is most effective for designing and implementing small pilot projects. However, local governments need a balanced approach to smart city innovation – an approach that relies on a strategic mix of citizen-inspired innovation, grass-roots problem-solving, top-down visionary thinking and knowledge sharing with the private sector.

Perhaps Zaragoza's story represents another form of urban resilience. In this case, it is the resilience of urban planners and innovators who rallied from the financial crisis and an abandoned flagship project, created an Open Government Strategy, and implemented a sustainable portfolio of smart city projects and services.

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Jon Glasco

Jon Glasco is a freelance consultant and writer focused on innovation in smart cities and smart urban mobility. He has experience in executive and consulting roles in the telecommunications, mobile operator, public transport, government and professional service sectors. Jon holds an MBA and Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering.