Barcelona against the digital divide

12 March 2021

Michael Donaldson is the Digital Innovation Commissioner for the City of Barcelona. On the day the European Commission published its plans for Europe’s 2030 Digital Decade, Eurocities spoke with Donaldson to find out more about his role and Barcelona’s digital strategy.

For those who might not be familiar with your role, what is a ‘Digital Innovation Commissioner’, and what do you do?

It’s a political role. I’m not elected, but I am part of the government team, and I run the digital innovation for the city. I mainly deal with innovation that has to do with digital or technological aspects. This doesn’t mean that I do all the innovation and digital transformation in Barcelona, of course, this is something that each city department delivers on, but it means that I have a coordinator role.

Why is it important for cities to have such a role?

Digital innovation is such a huge area, and it affects all aspects of life. It has an impact in the way we deliver different public services, such as education for example, so it’s very important to have an overarching discourse and a comprehensive policy when it comes to digital innovation. My role gives the city this overview.

Another part of my role is to ensure that our public institutions respect citizens’ rights when developing digital innovation policies. It’s important to have a common strategy on how we deliver public digital services, keeping in mind to protect our people and avoid discrimination, which digital innovation can sometimes bring along.

High quality connectivity for all

In her speech at the press conference on Europe’s Digital Decade: 2030 Digital Targets, Executive Vice-President Vestager has pointed out that one of the European digital principles should be universal access to quality connectivity. What is Barcelona’s take on this?

I agree, one of the lessons we have learned from the pandemic, especially during lockdown, is the importance of having good quality broadband, be it wifi, fibre or 5G. As a public institution, this is something we have to work on, make sure that no one is left behind at the connection level. We need good quality broadband for our home, for our citizens, because it’s not only about connection, it’s about good quality connection.

Last January, Barcelona ran a survey on the digital divide and found that 85% of our territory is covered by fibre, and that’s good quality broadband. It’s a result that makes us very happy and very proud, and we want to keep the good work up, also with the deployment of 5G, so it covers all territories in Barcelona.

As you just mentioned, Barcelona is working on 5G, which is also an objective of the ‘2030 Digital Compass: the European Way for the Digital Decade’, which states that “all populated areas will be covered by 5G” by 2030. What are your plans and challenges?

We all know how technology is so fast that 5-10 years ago we didn’t even imagine all the possibilities we have now, so it is important that we can start experimenting on 5G. There is a lot of potential with this technology, for example it can help with the development of electric and autonomous cars, which in turn has positive effects on sustainability.

It’s a complex issue because it’s not only about what we can do and push forward from the city hall, we need to talk to the big companies and see if deploying 5G all over the city is part of their investment plans. It’s something we’ll have to work together on. The good news is that there is good will, and everyone can see the potential and is keen on moving forward on this issue.

In Barcelona, we are involved in different pilot projects around 5G, but we are in an experimental phase. We are involving different stakeholders such as entrepreneurs, start-ups, big companies, NGOs, and through laboratories we can test their initiatives.

You mentioned that Barcelona ran a survey on the digital divide*, can you tell us more about it?

We had run a similar survey to map Barcelona’s situation back in 2016, but in four years things have changed quite a lot, also because of the impact of Covid and the lockdown. There are some good news: as I mentioned, fibre covers 85% of the territory, and only 1% of the population can’t afford internet because of economic issues. It’s good news because it means that the rest of the population, 99% of the people, can afford their access to internet. It’s also good news because if we want to tackle this problem at city level we know that it won’t be a very big effort in terms of public budget.

“Having good digital skills means empowering yourself”

The survey also found some barriers, one is access to devices. We found that it’s not the same thing to have only one laptop in a house of 4 or 5, than having 4-5 laptops. If the kids need to follow classes and both parents are working, they all need a laptop or a tablet. Having a mobile phone per person, as we all do nowadays, is not enough, it’s about having the correct devices.

And that’s not the only issue, people lack digital skills. The European Commission has set the objective to have at least 80% of all adults to reach basic digital skills, and wants to increase the number of employed ICT specialists keeping an eye on gender balance , why is this so important?

To have digital skills is the most important issue to overcome. Having good digital skills means empowering yourself, it means potentially starting-up a business. It’s not just the elderly that lack digital skills, all sectors of the population are affected, even young people.

Understanding technology also means being aware of the risks, like those linked to data management and privacy. People that are aware of how the internet works can realise, for example, that social media algorithms create safety bubbles selecting content and people that only agree with your understanding of the world. But reality is more complex, diverse, and contradictory, which is good for democracy, so it’s important that people learn how to use technology in an informed way.

One last thing, Barcelona’s Digital Strategy has multiple objectives, but if you had to choose to present only one priority, what would that be?

If you asked me this question a year ago, or next year, priorities might be different, but this is another thing we learned during the pandemic: strategies are needed, but we also need to constantly adapt them. Right now, our focus is the digital divide and fighting it, because it is a new dimension of social exclusion. At the digital level, we have the opportunity to avoid reproducing the economic and social exclusion that we have in our societies, that’s what we are aiming for at the moment.

Digital Innovation Commissioner for the City of Barcelona Michael Donaldson will participate in a City Dialogue on the Digital Decade organised by Eurocities and will present Barcelona’s Digital Strategy more extensively. The City Dialogue will also see interventions from Director for Connectivity at the European Commission, Rita Wezenbeek, Chief Digital Officer of London, Theo Blackwell, Chief Innovation Officer of The Hague, Marijn Fraanje, and Head of Unit Investments in High Capacity Networks at DG CNECT, Franco Accordino.

* The survey will be presented at a Cities Coalition for Digital Rights’ webinar later this month.


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer