Smart Cities

The “sharing economy” as a lever for City transformation

sharingEconomyCity transformation is a major objective of every city planner. Whatever we refer to more livable cities, efficiency, economic growth, the regeneration of poor or industrial quarters, all these objectives need to engage cities in a process of transformation that addresses not only the urban landscape but also economic, behavioral and cultural structures. 

Traditionally, urban planners have addressed these transformations through direct interventions in the territory with large public works. This has been the most common mechanism used for reshaping cities and districts. 

However, it is no secret that this mechanism, though being highly effective has limitations and needs to be aided by policies that permit and incentive the regeneration of quarters. These policies commonly involve moving part of the population and business to different areas of the city, involving therefore a significant social cost.

Together with the reform of the territory, companies and public organizations are offered tax breaks or other incentives in an effort to motivate them to move to the new areas. However, not only an accurate targeting is almost impossible and sometimes backfires, but the whole process is costly and slow. We confront a typical chicken and egg problem, where companies don’t want to move until there is enough mass to justify it while public resources have to be diverted into the new area hoping for its success.

A major problem in this process is because of the size of the investments associated with the transformation. Certainly, building a hotel in a deprived area, moving a university or a museum are  major investments.

Also, even if a hotel brings tourists to the quarter, it offers many of the services that their clients need, particularly in terms of food and amenities, limiting externalities and hence its transformative capacity of the surroundings.

Are there other, maybe better, ways?

Possibly faster and with lower requirements of investment?

Can the so-called sharing economy bring new tools to the table?

If so, what should Cities do in order to benefit from its contribution?

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¿Cómo sobrevivir con éxito a la “gig economy”?


La gig economy es esta transformación del trabajo que nos está cayendo encima en la que nos convertimos en freelances que trabajan por proyectos en vez de estar en empresas. Como tantas otras, tiene un mucho de inesperado y ha pillado a muchas de nuestras organizaciones con el pie cambiado.

Ahora la tecnología permite de una manera sencilla encargar y supervisar tareas sin necesidad de integrar a todos los actores en la organización. La razón por la que las organizaciones existen, argumentaba R. Coase allá por los años 30, es los costes de transacción. Si es más caro organizar un trabajo en el mercado – a través de freelances- que el valor añadido que aporta, entonces es mejor integrarlo dentro de la organización donde los “costes de transacción” son casi cero y por eso existen las organizaciones.

Pasa que ahora, mediante internet, los costes de transacción son extraordinariamente bajos, todo a un mail de distancia. Las consecuencias las vivimos cada día, las fronteras de las organizaciones se disuelven, cada día tenemos y tendremos más “autónomos”, pequeñas empresas, … y muchas de las labores de coordinación que antes realizaban personas se han trasladado a plataformas electrónicas. Es la gig economy.

Es una economía de oferta, de abundancia de la oferta, donde todo va muy deprisa y el trabajo se caracteriza más por una sucesión de proyectos más bien cortos que por “hacerse un hueco” en una organización.

Con ella muchos conceptos están cambiando de significado: tener trabajo, triunfar, sobrevivir, tener éxito, … ni se visualizan igual ni tan siquiera tienen el mismo significado.

A diferencia de otros cambios, la gig economy, afecta o va a afectar no ya a la periferia o a los gadgets sino a nosotros mismos como profesionales, a nuestro trabajo y a nuestra capacidad de generar y capturar valor con lo que hacemos.

Si piensas que no te va afectar, déjame desanimarte: ¡te va a afectar! … de una manera u otra.

¿Qué piensas hacer? ¿Cómo vas a afrontar esos cambios?

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Uber, Airbnb, … good or evil for cities?


During the last years we had a lot of controversy around the sharing economy, particularly its most successful companies: Über and Airbnb were and are in the spot.

The list of examples is quite long, some of them even violent and dramatic such as über cars being burned, airbnb promoting highly successful citizen campaigns in NYC to prevent being banned or even top executives of über imprisoned in Paris.

Many of these conflicts originate with the existing incumbents: taxi companies, hotel chains, … trying to maintain their privileges against technological and/or business model innovation. This is not new, exactly the same thing happened when cars were taking the place of carriages or taxis (a quite recent invention in historical terms) began to establish in cities.

However, these are not the only source of conflicts, others arise from a lack of clarity on the objectives of a city, the type of society that they envision and the way to make it real. Many times, trying not to loose votes, politicians are ambivalent and say one thing, the opposite and the contrary at the same time and of course, this generates conflicts.

If we try to bring clarity to the discussion around the city that we envision, pretty soon we will find ourselves talking about regulations. This is so because they determine to a great extend the type of society that we live in. Do you think regulations are neutral ? or always in favor of the City overall ? Of course they are not ! they shape in many ways our society.

One good example of all this is to analyze the factors that contribute to the success of cities in terms of attracting visitors. Elements such as the brand of the city, its image displaying a vibrant life full of exciting proposals greatly contribute to make the city more attractive and become a magnet for visitors. All this is not created mostly by the government but by local actors.

How is the food there? Are restaurants offering new proposals? How is night life? Do they have interesting live music? How is accommodation there? Overpriced and completely boring hotels or exciting and full of variation coming from a variety of proposals? Is transport a chaos with angry taxi drivers that treat you badly or do you have a multitude of options where to choose? Can you do something else than visiting museums? Do you have theaters, day and night proposals for everybody? …

All these are questions that shape the attractiveness of a city for visitors are aspects where policies play a huge role. For example, live music was pretty common in the Barcelona of the 70’s, however after that period a new regulation was enacted protecting the interests of neighbors and nowadays only in very few places you can find live music, and when you find it, it is mostly illegal. Is this a good thing for the city? I guess we all can agree that it is not ! Enacting norms that effectively ban live music is the only way to protect the interests of a few citizens?

We can find many more examples of norms that backfire when they try to protect the interests of a few against the common interest of the majority.

Will it happen too if we restrict / ban airbnb or über ?

Why is this so important ?

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What to do with the gig – sharing economy?



Freelancers in the US account now for around 15M people but the forecast for 2020 rises up to 40% of the workforce or around 60M people.

Two main factors are driving this transformation. On one side Internet and connectivity blurs the difference between employees and  external contractors. Your location and company status doesn’t matter as much as long as you do your job. On the other side, the digital transformation lowers the cost of the tools necessary to perform a job, a laptop or a desktop with an Internet connection is many times enough to start your own venture, whatever this is.

Transforming the hierarchical logic of employees into freelancers has obvious benefits for companies that can organize work in a more flexible way matching the competences needed with the requirements of the task in a more precise way, employing the people that they need only when they need them, etc. 

These incentives are powerful and they will certainly transform what we understand for labor market rendering obsolete many of our old conceptions and structures.

What about employees and the overall society?

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Open Data is not working – how to fix it?


Last April we organised together with the CTTI –  Generalitat of Catalonia (our regional gov) a workshop on Open Data. We have been working intensively on the subject for quite some years resulting in some papers, projects and a special article in the Communications of the ACM that will appear soon. We wanted to share our work with the Open Data community in Catalonia.

Since the early days when Marta Continente stablished the first Open Data portals in Catalonia we have witnessed an explosion an explosion of initiatives around Open Data. Lot’s of cities have their own Open Data portal with the ambition of ensuring transparency and stimulating the provision of services by third parties. Our reality though is not so different than the one in many other places, the scale and maybe the level of commitment is different, however results are mostly in the same line.

As in many other places, outcomes are a poor match for the vision, at most. Maybe it is time to acknowledge that Open Data is not working the way we expected and needs to be fixed.

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The rise of Citypreneurs



Entrepreneurship is back to cities, the evidence is clear, the action is no longer in tech clusters, but in the middle of cities such as New York, San Francisco, Boston, Austin, London or Berlin.

The ones that are not fully convinced of this transformation may take a look at the data. Martin Prosperity Institute whose director is Richard Florida released last year a study called “Startup City” that shows this trend of venture capital shifting from clusters in the outskirts of cities to metro areas.

Even further, together with seemingly traditional startups that Florida describes in his study we can find new forms and spaces of work such as co-working spaces, new ways of learning like Developer Bootcamps and MOOCs and new forms of incubation such as accelerators. All these three elements configure not only a changing landscape for the startup process and the policies that support it but also challenge our understanding of the concept of work.

Industry clusters were introduced in the 90’s by Michael Porter in his book The Competitive Advantage of Nations. Since then, the idea of cluster has dominated policy. Do these new developments mean that the concept of clusters and its resulting policies are now outdated? and if so, what are the implications?

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El Futuro del eGovernment



Hará cosa de un año asistí a la presentación de la nueva estrategia de eGov de una de las ciudades líderes en Smart Cities. Allí, lo primero que se abordó fue la necesidad de un replanteamiento de la estrategia en base a lo mucho que había cambiado el mundo Digital, desde la presencia web como eje central, al multi-canal, multi-pantalla. De cómo, especialmente las nuevas generaciones, dividen su atención entre varias pantallas y como desde la estructura de comunicación de la ciudad era necesario acomodarse a esta nueva realidad.

Finalmente, la propuesta se expresaba en forma de metáfora. ¿No sería fantástico tener todos los servicios de la ciudad disponibles en el móvil? ¡ La ciudad en tu móvil !

Las metáforas son elementos de comunicación muy poderosos. Nuestras habilidades como especie se singularizan en lo visual, de ello que las metáforas visuales sean no sólo las más recordadas sino también las que tienen una mayor capacidad de cautivar nuestra imaginación.

Sin embargo, para que todo esto suceda, éstas deben ser nuevas, no haber sido incorporadas a nuestra vida, no formar parte de lo cotidiano. Y en esa ocasión, buena parte de la audiencia estaba contestando mails con el móvil, haciendo tweets o mirando su Facebook …

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The future of eGov .-



Last year I attended a presentation of what it was supposed to be the new eGov strategy of a major Smart City. They presented to us the motivation, how much technology has changed from a web presence to multi-channel, multi-screen. How people now look at more than one screen at the same time – do you have friends working in marketing? Then you know it ! – how cities have to keep up with these developments …

Underlying the presentation was a message expressed in the form of a metaphor: Wouldn’t it be nice if all city services were available in your mobile? The whole city services in your smartphone! The city-hall in your pocket !

Metaphors are always compelling! Our abilities as a specie are dramatically skewed towards visual representations which makes visual metaphors extremely easy to grasp and capable of mobilizing our imagination.  However, for this to happen they must be new, they should not be already incorporate into our lives. And, let me tell you, everybody was checking Facebook and twitter during this presentation …

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A call to arms ! Cities should invest in Civic Tech Accelerators & Marketplaces !



Traditionally there is only one reason for the public sector to invest in projects, we call it market failure and basically means two things: (i) it is not happening, the market doesn’t provide it naturally and/or (ii) the benefits of doing it outweigh its costs, normally here we evaluate also social benefits and externalities. So far economics 101.

Cities dream on reproducing the wealth of apps that we enjoy in the private space in the social and civic sector. Wouldn’t be great if our city engages in a discussion the way we do in facebook or public services were as easy and efficient as Amazon is?

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Smart Cities 2.0: Cities of & for the people !!!


We are witnessing a transition point, a moment of change in the understanding of what a Smart City is.

Until very recently the predominant vision of a Smart Cities was defined around the use of centralized technology to aggregate information and manage cities more efficiently. The epitome of this perspective materialized with the command and control center. A centralized hearth and brains for cities that allow them to presumably manage almost everything more efficiently.

However, there was a big problem with this conception, a city is not a machine but a social structure made by and for citizens. Traffic, congestion and energy consumption matters, no doubt, but what matters most is how dynamic, fair, active, alive, entrepreneur and happy a cities and their citizens are. All of this has little to do with this vision of a centralized command and control center.

There is now a comeback to the basics: citizens and cities as the place for social interaction. The Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN), a peer to peer network of local government professionals from over 120 cities across the US and Canada comprising cities such as Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, Vancouver, etc., recently published a study Getting Smart About Smart Cities promoting the idea of Smart Cities 2.0 as putting “people first” and stressing the idea of technology as a tool to use in the service of citizens.

The idea is not really new. If you take a look at the Smart Cities projects in Europe you will find many going in this direction. Probably they were not as visible as the ones being backed by the industry but they are there.

However the devil, like in many occasions, hides behind the implementation. Implementing a centralized tech oriented view of Smart Cities is fairly easy, you can borrow decades of experience on developing technological systems and apply them, it is complicated, but not really complex.

However, using IT for redefining social interaction is in many ways, terra incognita.

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