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BARCELONA — In five years’ time, the structure of Europe’s cities won’t be decided in local town halls but inside a quiet 19th-century chapel in a leafy neighborhood of Barcelona.
Housed in the deconsecrated Torre Girona chapel, the MareNostrum supercomputer — one of the world’s most powerful data processors — is already busily analyzing how to improve city planning in Barcelona.
“We’re using the supercomputer to make sure the urban planning process isn’t just based on clever ideas and good intentions, but on data that allows us to anticipate its impacts and avoid the negative ones,” said Barcelona Deputy Mayor Laia Bonet, who is in charge of the city’s digital transition, climate goals and international partnerships.
As part of a pilot project launched with the Italian city of Bologna earlier this year, Barcelona has created a data-based replica of itself — a digital twin — where it can trial run potential city planning projects.
“Instead of implementing flawed policies and then have to go back and correct them, we’re saving time by making sure those decisions are right before we execute them,” said Bonet.
Although the scheme is still in its test phase, Bonet said she expects the city’s high-tech approach to urban development will soon be the norm in cities across the EU.
“Within a five-year horizon I expect to see this as a basic urban planning tool,” she said.
Looking for blindspots
Barcelona’s popular superilles, or “superblocks,” are a prime example of an urban scheme that could have benefited from data modelling in the planning stages, according to Bonet.
Since 2014 the city has been creating mini-neighborhoods where through-traffic and on-street parking is all but banned, with the goal of establishing a “network of green hubs and squares where pedestrians have priority.” The superblocks were also touted as a way to help tackle air pollution, which is directly responsible for over 1,000 deaths in Barcelona each year.
But when municipal authorities commissioned the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC) — the public research entity behind MareNostrum — to analyze how successful the superblock program had been, they were surprised to discover that its impact on emissions was negligible.
“Air quality within the superblocks themselves is better but pollution has grown in the adjacent streets to which the displaced car traffic has shifted,” Bonet said. “It doesn’t mean the superblocks are bad — they’ve had a positive impact in other ways — but it does show that they aren’t a fix-all solution when it comes to air pollution, so we need to combine them with other policies if we want to lower emissions.”
The city hopes its digital twin will help avoid such scenarios by pointing out blindspots before it’s too late.
“I am a true believer in correcting mistakes if you’ve made them, but in the world of local politics that’s often complicated and remedying the problem takes time,” Bonet said.
Barcelona is currently using the scheme to look at how it can move closer to the popular concept of the 15-minute city, which proposes people have access to all the services they need within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from their home.
“Using public data, we’re developing an interactive map that tracks facilities and services and lets us see which parts of the city are underserved,” said BSC researcher Patricio Reyes. “We can see how long it takes to access a library in one part of the city or if there is an insufficient number of primary care centers in another.”
Reyes said the scheme can also be used to track gentrification trends — based on the number of homestays offered in a particular neighborhood, for example — or to identify which areas lack good access to transportation.
An area with a higher number of elderly or disabled people requires particular infrastructure; the supercomputer can factor in those metrics to “really examine accessibility within the city,” said Reyes.
No time for mistakes
First used by NASA in 2010 to improve a model simulation of a spacecraft, the digital twin concept has also been employed by the health care sector to develop treatment for cardiac patients and by the energy industry to optimize power plant operations.
The approach isn’t universally popular: Critics argue that it lends an unwarranted air of infallibility to data and technology and should be deployed with caution.
But urban planners counter that the tool allows for more transparency and greater involvement from residents themselves.
Barcelona’s scheme uses OpenStreetMap, open-access technology — something Reyes said is in line with the EU-backed principle of citizen science, which encourages broad participation in research.
It also allows residents to get involved by using the same publicly available data to challenge planning decisions or suggest their own, said Bonet.
“People will be able to use this to see what infrastructure exists around the city and use this tool to question, for example, why some neighborhoods perhaps have better services than theirs,” she said, adding that she hopes it puts an end to “choices based on the whims of a politicians instead of efficiency.”
Bonet argued that the scheme is also the most efficient tool at cities’ disposal as they seek to make the radical changes required to meet urgent challenges like climate change.
“We are in an emergency situation in which we no longer have time to make mistakes,” she said. “To meet the 2030 [climate] goals, to be climate neutral by 2050 … we have to get things right the first time around.”
To do that, cities also need greater access to EU funding, she added.
“Cities are trying to take on these challenges and innovate as quickly as possible,” said Bonet. “But municipal coffers have limits and we need help, not just with funds, but with a seat at the table where they decide how to distribute those funds.”
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