The sory of Zaragoza as a Smart City dates back to 2003. That year, a group of local geeks and open source advocates met with Zaragoza’s future mayor Juan Alberto Belloch who, after being the last all-mighty minister of Justice and Interior in the last of prime minister Felipe González’s cabinet, was running for office for his second term. After a short immersion in the open source community, Belloch “fell instantly in love” with Linux philosophy and quickly made open source-based innovation one of the axes of his political campaign. His plans included turning the northeastern capital of the Spanish Aragón into the “Redmond of the European free software world,” for which purpose his team projected a 102-hectare innovation district, a city-wide free public wireless network and an ambitious campaign of digital literacy, with the city hall leading and paving the way by becoming one of the most advanced European administration in systems migration towards open source software. In an article appeared in Wired in May 2003 he declared “this open source battle might not be easy, but ‘open’ is the way it must be.”
Leafing through old newspapers to read Belloch’s plans today leaves the reader with a mixed impression of grandiosity, naiveté and sharp long-term vision. Thanks partly to Belloch’s high profile in the Spanish political arena, Zaragoza was named the site of Expo 2008, and an M.I.T. team that included William J. Mitchell (one of the fathers of the “smart city” concept and, at that time, Dean of M.I.T’s School of Architecture and Planning) was hired to produce an urban master plan aimed at converting a million square meters of railroad tracks surrounded by chemical debris into a privileged landing spot for digital industries and a vibrant nest for the recently re-discovered creative classes. The project, called the “Digital Mile”, was ready to be developed and funded amidst skyrocketing prices of urban land, but a combination of weak political support and slow administrative progress delayed its development until the end of Expo 2008. Ironically, the day after the Expo’s closure, Lehman Brothers crashed, private investors were swept by the tsunami that followed and, with them, the plans of developing the “Digital Mile” in much the same way that Barcelona was its 22@ district, would have to wait.
But it turned out that despite the difficulties, not everything had been bad news for the city economy. The city had made several smart moves towards a more solid economic development. It had been able to retain the economic activity around its big Opel plant after hard struggles and a significant dose of pragmatism from its trade unions. In parallel, in an attempt to reduce its economic exposure to Opel’s globalization tensions, the city started to build an economic future around logistics.
The freight terminal of Zaragoza’s airport has one of Europe’s largest landing tracks thanks to its adjacency to a former US military base, being one of the few spots in Europe that NASA’s space shuttle program could use in case of an emergency landing. Amancio Ortega, who amassed his fortune around clothing chain Zara’s success, seized this opportunity and decided to make Zaragoza the logistic base for Inditex, Zara’s mother company. The marriage of Zara and Zaragoza (orthographic resemblence apart) proved succesful and nowadays Inditex uses its facilities in Zaragoza’s Logistic Platform to distribute all of its woman’s garments to more than two thousand shops scattered over almost ninety countries.
On the digital front, some interesting islands emerged once the waters of the crisis had receded. In the period between 2008 and 2013, funded mostly through national programs, the city had managed to raise a decent digital ecosystem. Four municipal incubators were hosting around 100 start-ups, an extensive broadband wireless network that combined WiMax and WiFi access was covering a large part of the city and the City Hall’s open data policy was in the leading pack of Spanish administrations.
Maybe Zaragoza had not built a massive production plant of open source products, but the open source movement in Zaragoza has begun to have an international impact. On the hardware side, the company Libelium surfs the wave of the Internet of Things hype with all sort of sensors and devices built on an open source core. Libelium’s co-founder, Alicia Asin, a young entrepreneur and engineer from the University of Zaragoza, rolls her big eyes in front of the audience at Singapore’s World Cities while she explains how, right after the disaster of Fukushima and the subsequent information blackout by the Japanese government, Libelium’s radioactivity detectors were being shipped to Japan so the population could have their own independent information source about radioactivity levels.
David Cuartielles, another alumnus of the University of Zaragoza, joined Italian nerd Massimo Banzi to invent Arduino, of one of the most revolutionary piece of electronics in the last decades. Cuartielles, now a professor at Malmö’s University in Sweden, returns to his hometown Zaragoza every now and then where he helps to spread the open source benefits to kids. He launched and promoted “Etopia Kids,” the most popular summer camp in the city by attendance (more than 600 kids from 6 to 14 years old spend at least one summer week building robots, coding videogames, building their own 3D printers or making their own animation films). Due to its growing success over the years, “Etopia Kids” runs also in Christmas and even on some weekends. A particular itinerary of “Etopia Kids” summer camp had a curious venue: the Digital Water Pavilion, designed by Carlo Ratti, Director of M.I.T.’s Senseable City Lab, for the Expo 2008 (see video below).
Inspired by the Spanish tradition of water in public spaces, the Digital Water Pavilion is a hybrid construction, a machine and a building at the same time, whose outer walls are made of water ‘pixels’ pumped by a programmable set of three thousand and six hundred electro-valves. A team from the University of Zaragoza developed an open source interface for this futuristic fountain and some of Cuartielles’ colleagues further plugged an Arduino board into it, so the kids could have access to the building’s core features and program their own water patterns, including drawings and writings.
Thanks to open source technology, a dozen kids had hacked a building designed and built in 2008 as a tourist attraction for the Expo and that, several years after, had entered into a new life. Although there is not enough time perspective to assess the long-term impact of these programs in the local economy, perhaps when the next offshoring wave pulls from Zaragoza’s GM plant in the future, the city will be have at hand, not only the trade unions’ force and responsibility, but also a talent ecosystem rich in young engineers trained in a hacker environment from their very early childhood.
The Story of AZLinux
Another thing happened in the year 2008. Its capacity of acquiring new computers severely hampered by the institution’s financial constraints, Zaragoza’s City Council put together a group of six engineers to carry out an ambitious internal program of desktop migration to open source. The initial goal was to save as many computers as possible from planned obsolescence that proprietary operating systems quickly bring to hardware.
Silently, this skilled “guerrilla team” carefully built its own pile of software tools to carry out the project. Each computer selected for migration was carefully analyzed and treated so the users could maintain exactly the same functionalities once their computers were given back to them. When there was no software equivalent in the open source world for a particular program, or there was no open source driver for a specific peripheral (plotters and old printers presented the main difficulties) the computer was simply dropped from the candidate list for migration.
Although the project was slow getting off the ground, by 2015 a third of all the desktop computers in the City Hall were running entirely on a local flavor of Linux called AZLinux, and a hundred per cent of them had an open source office suite, email client, Internet browser and other desktop popular programs, such as VLC for playing audio and video and GIMP for graphics. The savings in licenses and in external support contracts largely paid off for the wages of the team.
More significantly, the massive stack of skills that this “guerrilla group” had accumulated over the years around open source technologies had another interesting side effect when they met José Luis Murillo, a teacher from a small village up in the Pyrenees, near the French border. Murillo was concerned about the state of disrepair of the tablet PCs of his little school after 8 years of use. The Education Department of the region of Aragón had pioneered the introduction of this technology in the classroom in 2004. By 2012, most of this hardware was nearly useless and the regional administration did not seem to have the funds to replace it. Murillo, an open source advocate himself, had experience with a light Linux distribution that was working pretty decently in some of his school’s computers, and was sure that it could be installed in many other schools of the region, if only he had the means to deal and manage large deployments. Building on the capacity of the AZLinux team the project Vitalinux (re-vitalize computers with Linux) was sketched and proposed to the Education Department of the Regional Administration. Today, still in pilot model, Vitalinux has brought back to life more than two thousand computers in 26 primary and high schools all over the region.
The Perfect Broth
Zaragoza is a city with a long tradition of citizen activism, governed by the left over 29 of the 37 years of Spanish democracy. This has left a deep footprint in the form of an intricate network of civic associations and community centers and has sculpted a “let’s just do it” culture when, mixed with a university population of 35,000 students, many of them pursuing technical degrees, forms a perfect broth for an open source model of a smart city.
Unlike other big Spanish cities like Madrid, Zaragoza’s IT department privileges in-house development rather than leaning on external IT firms. Like AZlinux, most of the code is produced in-house or, at least, adapted from external open source projects, as in the case of Wanda, the engine powering the eAdministration services, a platform “imported” from southern Spain administrations.
An open source city is a city whose infrastructures (networks, data, or buildings) can be easily understood, accessed without barriers (economic, technological, or physical), and, ultimately, reconfigured. A city whose success is bound to the success of its communities, which naturally leads to equality and inclusion. One of the city’s most celebrated technological infrastructures is the Citizen Card, an all-in-one digital key to more than twenty city services (transport, wifi, parking, public libraries, swimming pools, theaters, etc).
One of the men behind the idea is Carlos Alocén, who was in the group of local geeks that made former Mayor Belloch fall in love with Linux back in 2003 and who holds the second email address of the region of Aragon.
The Citizen Card of Zaragoza stands out as a good example of what a smart city project should be: it addresses the financial problems of the City Council by generating a big amount of cash flow, allows an accurate control of the services outcontracted by the city and makes life easier for citizens by grouping all cards in one, which also, incidentally, saves considerable pennies. Additionally, the citizen card has an interesting feature: it provides an open public API (Application Programming Interface) that everyone can use to ask simple questions to the infrastructure. Amazingly, even simple queries can power up some promising businesses. This is how Wantit!, a location-based app that allows local shops to assign special discounts to citizen card holders (currently more than half of the city’s adult population), was born a year ago.
Wantit! showed the feasibility of plugging external services to the citizen card, and that such connection was extremely easy, paving the way to what was coming next.
In June 2016, the city organized a different type of hackathon, a civic one, called “100 Ideas Zaragoza”. More than a hackathon, “100 Ideas Zaragoza” tries to set up a new way of collaborative city making: by co-creation amongst citizens, companies, the academia and the administration. The first edition of “100 ideas Zaragoza” counted on the citizen card as an innovation enabler and Alocén was himself in charge of explaining to the attendees how the citizen card worked. By the end of the session, a bunch of unexpected smart city “seed-projects” had been born.
It is interesting how open source code is also helping to build a different politics. In Spain, there is an interesting flow of innovation in politics coming out of cities at this precise moment of time, originated symbolically in their central squares or plazas during the 15M protests, and whose effects are spreading over. Guillermo Lázaro is a local programmer that joined the ranks of the “indignados” movement. At the end of 2014, six months before the municipal elections, the new “Ganemos Zaragoza” party badly needed a collaborative platform to elaborate its election manifesto.
A Healthy Mobility Mix
But there are other areas of smart development out of pure technology. In the last six years the Mobility Department of the City Hall had pursued an ambitious plan to foster green mobility through a new axial tramway that almost evicted the car from the city center. From 2015, the new Mayor Pedro Santisteve doubled the bet on bicycles, planning and building a significant amount of new bike lanes.
But, besides, the extension of the bike route network, attaining a healthy mobility mix depends largely on the ability to have a true intermodal network and, since data shows that there are still little combined trips between bicycles and the tramway, the Mobility Department (jointly with the Smart City Department) launched a public challenge for the local innovation ecosystem. Local entrepreneurs were requested to participate in the co-creation of a new service “Bicisur”, aimed at providing secured parking facilities for bikes at some tramway stops. Since the space is limited, the system would need to know if the other part of the trip had been made on the tramway, which naturally led to an integration with the Citizen Card. The “Bicisur” Challenge has just ended, and, to succeed, it will require several elements. For instance, that all local entrepreneurs participating in the challenge understand how the citizen card works. But also, that the citizen card be accessed by external parties and that it be eventually reconfigured and adjusted to meet the new needs of the service. “Bicisur” is, above all, an experiment of how new physical and digital urban services can be locally co-created.
The beauty of open source, whether we refer to software, hardware, buildings, data, or city making processes, as in the case of the “Bicisur” challenge, is that it reinforces the sentiment of engagement in the participating communities. From an economic viewpoint, the wealth and knowledge that open source projects like “Bicisur,”, “Vitalinux”, or “Etopia Kids” create, far from escaping through the sewers of globalization, stay in town.
In 2016, thirteen years after the first serious thoughts about how to adapt the urban strategies to technology and globalization, Zaragoza might have adjusted its plans towards the idea of mass production factory of open source technology. Instead, it looks like it is pedaling its own way towards an open source smart city, opening a route towards a locally sensitive development of the notion of a smart city that we hope other cities might find inspiring.
This article is published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
Photo: Pedestrian boardwalk towards Etopia by Leonid Andronov (Source iStock)