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"Participatory democracy is the only way to build more open, just, equitable cities"

1st June 2017


Francesca Bria is a leading figure in the DSI community and currently Chief Digital and Innovation Officer at the City of Barcelona. She spoke recently at our event "What next for digital social innovation?", and you can watch her speech on our recorded stream (02:47:00). Barcelona is also a case study in our report "What next for digital social innovation?".

Matt Stokes spoke to Francesca about how Barcelona has become a hotbed for DSI, how the City Government is approaching DSI, and how citizens are being put at the heart of digital strategies. 

Matt Stokes: Barcelona is one of the most fertile grounds in Europe for digital social innovation (DSI), but also for radical policy innovation more broadly. How has this come about?

Francesca Bria: Barcelona is undergoing a bottom-up citizen democratic revolution, promoting  networks of rebel cities that are innovating public policy and challenging the status quo. Barcelona’s Mayor, Ada Colau, is considered one of the most radical mayors in the world; she is a former housing and anti-eviction activist and won the municipal elections after a large anti austerity mobilisation, representing the main opposition against a political and economic elite who had led Spain into a deep financial and social crisis which had left hundreds of thousands of families without a home.

Soon after taking office, the new government coalition, named Barcelona en comù, started a series of social reforms. The process had been crowdfunded and organised through a collaborative platform enabling policy input from thousands of people. Flagship policy actions include stopping evictions and increasing social housing stock, recuperating over 550 houses that were left empty by big banks; fighting against energy poverty that affects over 3 million households in Spain unable to pay their electricity bills; the creation of meaningful and good quality jobs; and changing the rules of public procurement introducing labour, environmental, gender, open-source, and ethical standards so that social enterprises and cooperatives can more easily access public funding.

Given the social and grassroots nature of the current government, there is a very good climate and strong political will to test and scale new public policies that are open, experimental and able to involve thousands of citizens and social movements themselves that are very active in Barcelona.

MS: What are some of the most exciting and successful examples of DSI in Barcelona?

FB: Barcelona has a very strong grassroots network of DSI projects and organisations, as mapped in the DSI platform, as does Catalonia more widely.

For example, there is Goteo, an open-source crowdfunding platform based on the commons; Guifinet, Europe’s largest bottom-up internet network; Xnet, an activist project working on digital rights, internet freedoms and freedom of information; Smart Citizen and Making Sense, which both empower citizens to monitor the quality of the environment; pioneering spaces for digital empowerment such as FabLab Barcelona; Citilab, one of the first labs for citizen innovation and part of the European Living Labs network; the Ateneus de fabricaciò, which inspired the growth of many new makerspaces and coworking spaces for digital education; the online platform for digital democracy Barcelona Decidim; and DECODE that that will test out next-generation collective platforms where citizens own and control their data.


Image: The Ateneus de Fabricació (Courtesy of Ateneu de Fabricació Ciutat Meridiona)

MS: Alongside grassroots and bottom-up DSI, the City Council has taken a strategic approach to DSI and made it a priority area, including through the “Barcelona Digital City Strategy”. Could you tell us a bit more about this?

FB: In June 2016, Ada Colau appointed me as new technology and digital innovation Commissioner of the City of Barcelona. It is a new role, created when the new government became aware of the importance of digital policy for rethinking many aspects of city life and transforming City Hall. We have created a Digital Innovation Office, which I direct, which is responsible for defining digital and data policy, for leading the digital transformation of City Hall, and for starting new strategic innovation projects that align with the policy priorities of all key departments through the creation of a  Mayor’s Committee on Digital Innovation.

In the first three months of work we developed the Barcelona Digital Plan. It was developed with the participation of citizens, tech communities, makers, tech companies and the academic ecosystem and published in October. Barcelona wants to lead a transition to technological sovereignty that allows the government and the citizens to decide their own priorities in the direction and use of technological innovations that have clear social benefits and public return. This implies taking back the critical knowledge regarding data and technology infrastructures that too often remain in the hands of few big multinational service providers, while involving local SMEs and innovators to develop digital services and solutions that citizens need.

In addition, we have developed a digital transformation roadmap with clear guidelines and a technology code of conduct that includes: the migration to open-source software, open architectures and open standards; the adoption of agile methodologies to develop user-centric digital services; the release of a technology procurement handbook with clauses that mandate open standards and open data; and a new data directive that has data ethics, privacy and citizens data sovereignty at its core.

We need to develop technologies for the common good which help cities to generate new productive and sustainable economic models and facilitate knowledge sharing between cities and movements. Our strategy consists in engaging the city ecosystem through a series of co-creation workshops where they can provide solid inputs to the city’s strategy. We have now held or or planning a series of co-creation workshops on agile transformation, open-source software migration, the data-driven city and data sovereignty, maker districts and innovative procurement. We have therefore evolved from a top-down process to a bottom-up one, promoting collective intelligence and involving all the city’s players.


Image: The launch of DSI4BCN (Courtesy of BCN Activa)

The “Barcelona Digital City Roadmap: Towards Technological Sovereignty” proposes nine lines of action grouped in three areas. For each line of action we have several strategic projects that will be carried out.


  • Tech for Better Government
  • Urban Tech
  • City Data Commons


  • “Make in BCN”
  • Digital Economy
  • Urban i-Lab


  • Talent Factory
  • Digital Democracy & Rights
  • Digital Inclusion

As part of the Digital Plan there are three actions that are mostly relevant to DSI:

Firstly, Barcelona is investing in this new DSI field by creating an ad-hoc programme which will be managed by Barcelona Activa. This initiative, DSI4BCN, is being developed in close collaboration with the European Commission, which has invested over 60 million euros in this area in the last five years. To promote this model of circular and social economy, the City Council is launching a new round of funding for these initiatives that use free, open, decentralised and privacy-aware digital technology to help solve citizens challenges. Our objective is to explore the possibility of linking the DSI calls with innovative procurement instruments, in order to scale good projects.

Secondly, we launched “Barcelona Maker district” as a key project to revitalise manufacturing and deliver economic impact. The first maker district  will be developed in Poblenou. Poblenou is the old industrial district of the city, known as the Catalan Manchester, transformed through top-down public leadership in the 1990s with the [email protected] regeneration project into an innovation district that became the home of biggest technology and creative industry clusters in the city. Now many private and community-led initiatives have emerged in this neighborhood, thanks to  a strong synergy between universities, research institutions, makerspaces, fab labs, social businesses, community-owned workshops, social centers, and active social movements that promote new values of collaborative and circular economy ​​for Barcelona.


Image: Ada Colau visits FabLab Barcelona (Courtesy FabLab Barcelona / IAAC). 

The Maker district project aims to democratise the new wave of industrialisation based on robotics, industrial automation, digital manufacturing and the internet of things (industry 4.0) to promote local production and a new economic development policy for cities. To do this, we have launched a new brand, ‘Make in Barcelona'. Poblenou Maker District represents a new productive paradigm for cities, linking digital manufacturing to KM0 strategies to promote local sourcing, enhance the value of local artisanal production with an emphasis on collaborative and circular economies, providing a basis for civic engagement and participation. This initiative is part of the wider Fab City global initiative. [Editors’s note: See our blog on the Fab City initiative to find out more.]

Another significant aspect for DSI is that Barcelona is betting on a new approach to data that we call “city data commons”. We want Barcelona to have the most dynamic, effective and privacy-preserving data ecosystem in the world. Data is a key part of the city's urban infrastructure. We will use data to take better, faster, and more democratic decisions, incubate innovation, improve public services, and empower people. But at the core, by issuing a new Data Directive, we will make sure we adopt an ethical and responsible innovation strategy, preserving citizens’ digital rights and information self-determination. This will help achieving that public resources and assets are owned, managed and distributed for the collective good.

AI, big data and machine learning is determining the future of our economy, from driverless cars, to precision agriculture, to deep learning in the healthcare sector, to energy transition.

However, this kind of massive transformation cannot be left to a handful of big US tech companies such  as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple alone. We need to strike a New Deal on Data to make the most out of data, while guaranteeing data sovereignty & privacy.

Data commons will also enable cities to grow alternatives to the predatory on-demand platforms such as Uber and Airbnb. Introducing fair regulation and algorithmic transparency to tame the on-demand economy, as many cities are doing, is necessary but not enough. Barcelona has started a working a variety of initiatives led by Barcelona Activa to empower sharing economy alternatives such as platform cooperatives and to experiment next-generation collective platforms based on data commons, where citizens own and control their data (as we are doing with DECODE). We need distributed infrastructures to share data, encryption for the people, and new ownership regimes such as data commons to preserve citizens digital rights.


Image: A DECODE workshop (Courtesy of DECODE)

MS: What makes Barcelona’s approach to digital different from more traditional city-based approaches to digital?

FB: We need to exploit the power of technology and digital innovation to benefit all citizens and improve the diversification of the economy, making it more plural, sustainable, and collaborative. Introducing network technologies in the urban environment is not just about providing the city with technology, sensors and connectivity, but also adopting a wider and more ambitious goal for taking on long-term social urban challenges, such as inequality in salaries, climate change, affordable housing, energy transition, as well as involving citizens through participatory processes to create a more democratic society. We have therefore evolved from a top-down and technocratic process to a bottom-up one, integrating collective intelligence of citizens into policy-making. We are trying to generate a new vision where city governments start to think and experiment with what technology would look like if it served the people.

MS: What have been the biggest challenges to developing and implementing the City Council’s strategic approach to DSI, and how have you addressed/overcome them?

FB: Digital social innovation has great potential for future activities in cities. The main challenges to implementing these new approaches are about transforming the culture and the way of working of the public institutions.

Transforming procurement, introducing innovative, ethical, gender and sustainable clauses in the way we buy products and services in City Halls is a big game changer. Public institutions are very hard to access if you are a community project or a small social business. Rules are often complicated and decision processes regarding funding allocation opaque. Cities should also promote more participatory and innovative ways of funding, both in terms of creating new funds for projects in specific fields such as DSI, and promoting new funding models that provide better and more democratic opportunities to access and share resources  such as crowd-funding, and match-funding.

Then we need to create a culture of transparency that puts an end to corruption, as we have done in Barcelona developing together with Xnet the Bustia Etica project, an encrypted whistleblowing infrastructure that allows citizens to denounce cases of corruption. With projects like this one, we are also creating awareness regarding citizens’ rights in the digital era, their right to privacy, to access public information and knowledge.

We also need to promote an agile and experimental culture in the organisation, introducing new methodologies (such as agile development and co-design approaches) to deliver services that put citizens needs at the centre and where social impact is clearly measurable. Finally, we should promote in the public institution a culture of collaboration and partnership with citizens and communities. The public sector can do a lot to sustain and empower community networks and movements and to give people more tools and legal instruments to collectively self-organise and gain power to change things in society.

MS: Public engagement is key to the success of DSI and to delivering impact. How are you engaging and involving citizens in Barcelona's digital strategy?

FB: Building direct mechanisms for citizen participation in several important aspects of the city life is critical to revive the democratic power of citizens across the public institutions. We believe digital technologies for participation, transparency and proximity to the citizens can support a democratisation of public institutions. In Barcelona, we are using a hybrid approach of offline and online citizen participation and empowerment. We have a department in the City Hall devoted to promoting citizen democratic participation following shared regulations and methodology.


Image: Decidim Barcelona (Courtesy Democomunes)

Decidim is our digital democracy platform that was set up to improve people’s participation through public deliberation and collective decision-making processes. It allows citizens to propose, deliberate, and decide on city policies and budget allocation. Over 40,000 citizens participated to the development of the Government Agenda, by proposing over 12,000 ideas and debating relevant policy issues, and 75 per cent of citizens’ ideas were integrated in the final Government Roadmap. Now we are running seven participatory actions in parallel ranging from urban planning to culture to participatory budgeting.

The participation of citizens in the shaping of public policies for us is central to the new democratic politics we are developing. We have to build public policies with the people! This may seem difficult in a moment where we see globally a crisis of trust in political institutions, institutional closure, the rise of right wing populism… but I think a genuinely participatory democracy is the only way to build more open, just, and equitable cities.

Image: SelbyMay, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported.  



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