Francesca Bria, a European citizen

In the context of the Eastwest Forum, we asked Francesca Bria how it came about that a talent groomed in the European institutions who later established herself in Europe's (almost former) financial capital, was noted by Barcelona and not by her compatriots… until today…

Francesca Bria, chief technology and digital innovation officer for the Barcelona City Council with Eastwest editor Giuseppe Scognamiglio on stage at the Eastwest Forum which took place in Rome on 5 October.
Francesca Bria, chief technology and digital innovation officer for the Barcelona City Council with Eastwest editor Giuseppe Scognamiglio on stage at the Eastwest Forum which took place in Rome on 5 October.

An intriguing and passionate personality, a young woman who's age belies her experience and whose resolve and insight is matched by her pragmatic and down to earth approach, Francesca Bria is one of the great stories that are worth telling to young European Millenials. We asked her why this might be the case.

The Indian lecturer and researcher Reuben Abraham believes that the transformations that cities are undergoing are taking place at such as speed that there's little hope their governance can adapt in real time. But there is one city, Barcelona, which seems to be an exception, and has defied conventions in a most striking way: an Italian woman has been assigned a political position in a major Spanish city, presiding over Barcelona's technological innovation. How has this been possible?

«Yes, what's an Italian, in fact a Roman woman, from the Monti neighbourhood, doing in Spain, and Catalonia of all places. I'm the only foreigner – and a woman – in the Catalan government, and I'm responsible for the innovation of the city of Barcelona. I was called in by the mayor, Ada Colau, so that together we could conceive a model for the city and decide on its digital agenda. How did it come about? I'd been working in London for 8 years at Nesta, the British government's Innovation Foundation, and one day Ada Colau called me up and said: "We've seen the work you are doing, do you fancy applying your ideas to Barcelona?" She gave me a very specific brief which I found very intriguing, even though being a foreigner in a government hasn't been easy, and I spoke no Catalan, though I do understand it at this point.. Ada Colau also said: "I want my citizens to benefit from data and technologies of the future ". She wanted to turn the Barcelona project, the ultimate smart city, on its head: IBM, CISCO,  sensors, connectivity. We what can we do with this infrastructure? The city had adopted a neo-liberal model which, thanks to technology, had begun to privatize urban infrastructure and fundamental services: rethinking the smart city so that it might serve its citizens is a challenge that I decided to accept and I've put myself at the service of the city of Barcelona for almost three years now… For me, it was also important that a woman should be put in charge of a sector such as technology, which has a bit of a macho image, and where men are generally called upon to define the model of the future. I don't know if you're aware of Ada Colau's background, she began her political career fighting for people's right to homes, the right to the city. She's an extremely popular mayor, with a strong awareness of the real social problems affecting the city: for us, the digital revolution must be democratic and feminist».

You're not just a commissioner, you're also Chief Technology Officer, a manager with a skill set that, has you've said, so far has been a typically male domain. One of the projects you are developing in Barcelona goes by the name of: Decidim. "Let's decide", is representative of the participatory democracy you were mentioning and that is very much part of the Mayor's DNA. Participatory democracy means having smart citizens on board. Some are suggesting that votes should be selected, and weighted. It's the old idea promoted by those who believe that only people with a diploma, who can read and write, should be entitled to vote. Very politically incorrect. You have taken the opposite route: you are trying to raise the cultural and civic level of all citizens so they all become smart, so they can take part in the city's democratic and civil life in a way that is more useful for the collective good….

«Yes, we believe that citizen participation policies are of great importance. This is the core of the great Barcelona experiment: we're trying to come up with answers to the deteriorating legitimisation of democratic institutions, a crises of representation that could mean that many citizens are alienated from political institutions,  and especially the young, who we clearly place at the centre of our city of the future project. Citizens feel cut off from public politics. Our response is to establish a real participatory democracy policy, which doesn't mean a Facebook democracy. We have a department in the Barcelona council which handles civil rights and citizen participation: on the one hand, direct democracy, consultation and the city legislation, a participatory budget, and deliberative democracy; on the other, representative democracy, focusing on particular areas and inclusion as well as gender, age, social and economic issues. The Decidim Barcelona platform – our digital democracy – is a free software, created by a community of over 40 developers, who meet in a space called "citizen's democracy lab", to set out the rules of participation and the processes involved; we guarantee total transparency and accountability of the algorithms and automatic decisions, with accessible and therefore verifiable data. I've worked on these issues for over 10 years even for the European Commission, I want to stress that our platform is a shared digital asset, it's owned by the citizens who discuss its governance through participation. I think this is an important step forward, especially if we consider the vast power wielded by digital platforms in the hands of very few companies, which use the citizen's data for commercial and electoral profiling».

Won't it take too long to raise the level of the citizens to that of the smart cities? Because if these grand projects take too long, we end up in Keynes predicament: "We are all dead in the long run".

«I don' t think so. I'd be more concerned about smart government: by the capacity of our institutions and those who run them to open up, and whether they are capable of integrating the collective intelligence of the citizens in the production of rules and laws and thus in the political decision making process. Barcelona's government is a transformative experiment and we often feel bypassed by the intelligent suggestions made by citizens and the communities; perhaps this is a very Catalan trait which stems from its mutualist tradition, from the activism of its communities, even in the management of public services, of the energy transition, the management of water, green spaces, public spaces, schools. I believe that in many ways the central administrations is lagging way behind…»

Don't you feel that this intelligence we are building could risk widening the divide that separates these cities from the rest of the country? Perhaps in Catalonia the citizens feel so smart they believe they can do without the rest of the country?

«There is that risk, I agree. Luckily there are also initiatives like the one managed by Rem Koolhaas, who is working on the Smart city in a countryside project: how to integrate the territories around cities and the countryside, in order to come up with a more sustainable model. We're also working in collaboration with small centres, like the smaller cities, which are often ahead of the game. The great strength of the cities is the creation of networks: for example, Barcelona is very active when it comes to the urban diplomacy and creating networks: our cities' network includes New York, Berlin, Chinese and Indian cities and it's called 'fearless cities', which is in some ways answers  the "cities without fear" of the Nation States, which falter when faced with major challenges: wealth polarisation, climate change, migrations, inefficient democracies. Cities, on the other hand, which have close links with their citizens and form networks, especially to solve problems, can be – as I see it – a great sustainability workshop provided they are managed appropriately, together with the citizens».

You are a living example of how a European, or a global citizen even, in spite of your local origin, can reinvests their skill set, developed within European institutions and subsequently in London. I want you to help us debunk this idea that the European bureaucracy is systematically inefficient. Both you and I are Euro-enthusiasts, we publically admit it. Tell us something that can help us understand why Brussels is not the root of all evil.

«Thank you for this unpopular question: in Italy, at the moment, if you speak out in favour of Eurocrats you're considered an enemy of the people. I believe that the issue of Europe's inefficiency is a little contrived, meaning that we are all aware that public administrations tend to be inefficient and the bureaucracy in Brussels is no exception. In my sector, if we look to the future and the overwhelming power of Big Tech, the issue of governance and rules and what will happened to data? Who owns data? What will happen with artificial intelligence systems? Are we entering a new era of digital colonisation? I feel there's not enough Europe! We need more. There are very important issues concerning industrial policies, geopolitics, economic and fiscal policies, and it obvious that Europe should deal with these issues as Europe, otherwise we will be the first to be digitally colonised. India for example, has set up its own strategies, which we can't hope to engage with as 27 separate entities…»

You're preaching to converts here. You work in Europe, in London, and manage in Brussels: do you think you'll return to Italy? Can we hope to reverse the brain drain or should we simply make the cultural quantum leap and consider ourselves European citizens?

«I'm very glad to make a contribution to my country: I'm Roman. I'm in touch with Mayor Raggi and her administrators. We collaborate with Milan, Rome and Turin and I very willingly make what I'm doing outside the country available, my knowledge, skills and ideas. Let me begin with advice for young people: I left as soon as I could. I studied abroad, I took the opportunities I was offered. I think that one of the positive things about Europe are its research and study programmes, which enable us to work and study better and learn new languages. How can all this acquired knowledge be pumped back into Italy? Unfortunately the country seems to have got stuck, young people can't find jobs, they have no future, there's plenty of job insecurity and this doesn't happen in other countries. There's more investment on young people, and generational turnover is essential».

To round off on smart cities: is there an ideal size? The cities of the future are of various sizes. Does your experience mean that smart cities are best developed in cities on a par with Barcelona in terms of size or can we imagine different scales?

«When we speak of smart cities – and particularly Barcelona – we have to leave behind a technocratic or technological vision, because the smart city in actual fact refers to the city's model. In my co-constructed programme, built up in collaboration with the citizens within the Barcelona ecosystem, we speak of energy transition, sustainable mobility, right to the home, creation of new green spaces. Barcelona has a marvellous project in which we have applied all the tools that participation and digitalisation can provide: we're closing entire city districts to road traffic, we're trying to fight climate change, to achieve  a 40% reduction in emissions and improve air quality, by redesigning the city's mobility .These are the great challenges that the city faces. Then you start to think about technology, data, designing a city along with urban planners, architects, students, citizens, and how one should govern in order to provide effective responses to the social, economic and environmental challenges we are facing. Therefore smart doesn't mean knowing where to put the sensors, what kind of connectivity needs to be set up, etc.. Who manages infrastructure and how it is built is the key issues. Data is a meta-utility; the key infrastructures are like water, electricity, he transportation, one has to know who oversees who and what, who manages what, public or private?  In my mind, the data should be part of a city's public infrastructure. And then one has to protect people's privacy, ensure that citizens are aware of who has access to their data and what they do with it; these for me are the main issues for the future».

I thank you very much for your very passionate explanations. This section is about people who've made their mark on history but we don't just interview well-known and established figures but also those who we believe are doing so right now. And we are certain you will do us proud.

@GiuScognamiglio

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