Zaragoza: The Power of Citizen Innovation

Pedestrian boardwalk towards Zaragoza's Etopia Center for Arts and Technology

Pedestrian boardwalk towards Etopia by Leonid Andronov (Source iStock)

By Jon Glasco

(Originally published at Bee Smart City.)

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, 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 neighborhood civic centers, kindergartens, centers for the elderly, public libraries and sport centers.

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. >> Read full article

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Innovation Districts: From Barcelona to Dublin, This Is What I Know

Elections for Mayor are a-coming. With the aim of shaping my contribution to the approaching campaign, I have been reflecting lately on innovation districts. Ours, the Digital Mile (Milla Digital) is unfinished. One tends to think that all innovation districts are, by definition, unfinished. But, seriously, the Digital Mile must be one of the more unfinished innovation districts in the world, and I’ve known a few. Planned ahead of its time, built too late, never fully understood.

District layout at Poblenou and Barcelona's 22@

District layout at Poblenou and Barcelona’s 22@

I know that innovation districts are big real estate operations in the first place. Land owners, developers and construction companies are the first and primary beneficiaries. To shift the urban economics from construction to innovation we need bricks, glass and concrete. And a delicate urban planning, too. See the delicacy in Barcelona’s 22@ urban fabric, the first innovation district I knew back in 2002 and a place I have visited many times since.

In it, the legacy of Cerdà’s urban layout serves as a landing track for Castells’ discoveries about digital economy. Jane Jacobs would have approved: perfect block sizes, mixed uses, walkability. And a focused management structure, that soon shifted its efforts from urban development to economic development. The result: more than 100.000 new jobs (many of them high-skilled) and an overall impact of 15% in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the city. Continue reading

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