Social innovation at the core of Barcelona

12 April 2022

Many look up to Barcelona for innovative social solutions. Merging social policies with the most technological advances has made the city one of the most acclaimed in Europe.  

For Lluis Torrens, Director of Social Innovation at Barcelona City Council, being in the spotlight inevitably comes with responsibility. “We have many challenges ahead and additional responsibility in very changing periods. Many things have happened to us in a truly brief time, which means we must think of one solution per occasion,” Torrens states. He refers to the terrorist attack in 2017, the Covid-19 pandemic for the past two years, and the most recent: the welcoming of Ukrainian newcomers. 

That’s when social innovation can be used to solve social challenges with creativity and strengthen the basis of civil society. Torrens assures that, although they do not have all the solutions, they do have the ability to develop innovative ideas “not only for us but also to help other cities, he adds.  

But Barcelona’s municipality also pays attention to what others do. “That is why we are always very interested in listening and participating in everything Eurocities does, says Torrens.  

The next occasion to do so will be the Social Affairs Forum from 11 to 13 May 2022. Local authorities will discuss in Barcelona how to transform social welfare systems to support a fair and inclusive recovery and will learn ingenious solutions from the city. 

Eurocities is offering a sneak peek at some of these social actions by interviewing Torrens.

What’s the framework of inequalities in the city? 

Barcelona has been a city with the same population since the 1970s, but the social and productive structure has changed radically. It went from an industrial to a service city tremendously impacted by tourism, but its technology sector is also developing quickly. 

The problem is that when there is such an accelerated transformation, there can be winners and losers. We cannot allow a city like Barcelona – which is advanced in many things, progressive and innovative – to generate situations of acute poverty or inequality due to the difference in opportunities that its inhabitants have, and leave behind people with fewer possibilities.

What innovative social projects has Barcelona developed so far? 

We can talk about small successes, starting with the award that Bloomberg gave us for the Vincles programme to connect older people through technology. Also, the care superblocks we call Vila Veina and the introductory economic education course so that low-income families do not get into debt and manage their resources. 

But the most exciting is that we have introduced social innovation into the city council’s DNA, the idea that innovation must be present to progress as a city and as a public service. In today’s world, it is not worth thinking that what we did yesterday will be helpful for tomorrow. We have to rethink the model continually. 

Why is social innovation a priority for Barcelona?

Barcelona city council has always been quite innovative. But innovation, here and abroad, has often been linked to investments in equipment or infrastructure. Many challenges must be faced not by building things but by socially acting in another way. 

The idea of social innovation is how to protect people from threats like gentrification, high housing prices, an ageing population, or high school dropout rates. 

Above all, we are interested in improving human development. We must avoid becoming a polarized society where some are doing well – Barcelona has many possibilities – but the counterpart is people living poorly throughout their lives. 

In February 2021, Barcelona launched the Social Innovation Measures 2021-2023. The objective was to present how to use technology and innovation to solve social challenges. Could you tell me a little more about that? 

We are promoting three main lines of social innovation with almost 40 different projects to build a new model. 

The first line is ‘Rights and Empowerment’ to guide how to exercise your rights as a citizen in front of the city council and other administrations. We try to make accessing social assistance more efficient. For example, we have an online social subsidies simulator. 

We also have projects to fight against the digital divide. During the Covid-19 lockdown, up to 25% of Barcelona’s children could not follow classes online. Half couldn’t because they had no computer or internet connection, and the other half because the schools were unprepared. Therefore, we devised a strategy to eliminate the digital divide by guaranteeing equipment, connectivity and offering training. 

We aim to change the city’s dynamics on housing, which have become very perverse due to pressure from the tourism sector (for example, prices are affected by the short term rental market, Ed.). We want to guarantee that no one has to allocate more than 30% of their income to housing. 

We call the second line the ‘New Social City Model’, with two projects, the Vila Veina and the Alimenta project, that guarantee the right to food.  

Food preparation, part of the Alimenta Project

This line has revealed our limitations. We are not omnipotent, nor can we solve everything. Therefore, we need to establish good frameworks for the co-production of social policies. We expose the problem, see how far the administration goes, and what can be done in collaboration with neighbours, social entities, etc. 

The third line is about the digital transformation. We have to transform ourselves because the pandemic has forced us radically. We have had to move from a model where everything was based on physical interaction, to completely changing how we offer social services to our citizens. 

For example, we can internally use technological development such as artificial intelligence tools or voice recognition to improve efficiency, effectiveness, results, quality of service, and citizen support. And we can do it 24/7.

You have mentioned the elderly and the care they require. Since the population is ageing and this will increasingly become a challenge, is there a project on elderly assistance? And what steps are you taking to tackle the feminisation of care (women take on more caring responsibilities and spend disproportionately more time on unpaid care work, Ed.)? 

We must have a global vision of what care is. Seniors aren’t the only ones in need of it. For example, families with small children do too. These tasks are deeply feminised and don’t receive any recognition. 

Ageing generates not only loneliness but also the need for care. There are at least three exciting projects concerning care in Barcelona’s Innovation Government. 

We have more than 90,000 people over 65 who live alone, and we are introducing robots to assist them. Officials are enthusiastic about the project because they see the possibilities of the technology and, from a public perspective, it adheres to ethical standards. Cutting-edge technology with the public social component guarantees the general interest. This is what people consider a good combination. 

A successful solution must also share the responsibility between the families and the administration. For example, the model of social superblocks that we have been developing since 2018 organises home care for dependent people. 

The goal is to enable these people to live at home with an assistance that is as close as possible to a nursing home. Barcelona will split into small neighbourhoods where teams of family workers assist people in need within a radius of 300-400 meters. 

This concept that implies dividing Barcelona into 300 small areas has been extended to a slightly larger model, the Vila Veinas. We will deal not only with the needs of people who require care, who are more than 100,000 but also with those who assist them. 

There are many women, for example, who have to leave their jobs to dedicate themselves intensely to their mother, their father or their children, and who need support in their daily activities. The project detects and identifies necessities and offers community services to relieve and help caregivers. 

Who else requires care or help from the institutions? 

Single-parent families. They are mainly single mothers or mothers who live alone with their children and are affected by very high poverty rates. We have projects dedicated to single-parent families, such as the Concilia Programme, which has spread to the state level. It is a public kindergarten service where you can leave your children anytime.

We are also building a public housing building where a part is dedicated to single-parent families with specific shared services and community spaces so that they can move forward in this new family model that is becoming more and more common. 

The traditional family – father, mother and children – has less and less importance. Other types of families require different organizational infrastructure.

Barcelona is also one of the cities with above 50,000 inhabitants finalists for the European Capitals of Diversity and Inclusion Awards 2022

The Director of Social Innovation and his team will continue to improve the well-being of Barcelona’s inhabitants and adapt projects to future challenges.


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer