Building digital cities from the ground up based around data sovereignty and participatory democracy: the case of Barcelona

Publication date:
Francesca Bria, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, Barcelona City Council

Faced with the crisis of a system that has become unsustainable, with growing global challenges that range from widening inequalities, climate change, migration, geopolitical and financial instability to job stagnation and wage depression: what is the role of cities today? When looking at some of these trends and inequalities, we may talk about a crisis of the Western liberal world order that is essentially a crisis of the neoliberal imagination, and in particular of political representation. Political elites seem increasingly unable to represent a disenfranchised population, giving rise to right-wing nationalists gaining power across the world. Right-wing political extremism is one possible response to the systemic breakdown brought about by the failing politics and economics of the last decade, but not the only one.

Can cities reverse these trends and become a political laboratory for experimenting with democratic and sustainable alternatives? Can cities become places designed for those who live in them, for those who resist and try to provide collective and local answers to global challenges through solidarity and self-organisation? In this chapter I will argue that cities’ proximity to citizens and their scale, which is well-suited to experimenting with radical policies based on people’s real social needs and environmental concerns, has led them to form effective networks and coalitions for proposing alternative political programmes and solutions.