The world’s urbanists will be heading to Barcelona, Spain this November 15th – 17th for this year’s highly-anticipated edition of Smart City Expo World Congress – a three-day event filled with seminars, keynote speeches and exhibitions on the foremost urban innovations and inspirational ideas. Since 2011, the expo has managed to grow year-by-year, gathering more and more of the urban world’s most influential professionals, practioners and thinkers. With hundreds of speakers lined up, including keynotes from Ellen MacArthur, Parag Khanna, Susan Etlinger and David Bollier, 2016’s event is bigger than ever, and introduces new, crucial themes such as the circular economy and water equity.
“At the Fira de Barcelona [the event venue], we run a multitude of events across many topics,” explains Smart City Expo World Congress Director Ugo Valenti. “One of them was a small event focused on cities but from a waste management context. This coincided with the rise of the trend of ‘smart cities’ and the more we started reading into that, the more we realized the opportunities for both cities and businesses within that theme.” And thus, the Smart City Expo World Congress began with a clear understanding that neither businesses nor governments alone will be responsible for making the cities of the future liveable, but that the interaction between innovators and policy-makers will be crucial.
While the buzz about ‘smart cities’ has been around for a few years now, Valenti and his team understand the problems with hype and the impersonal, almost dystopian, futuristic connotations of the term. “For us, it’s a simple definition – a smart city is a city that applies innovation to improve the quality of life of its citizens. Innovation can be technological, but not strictly so. It can be a new process or a new mode of doing things,” he explains. One such process is the concept of the circular economy – a key theme in this year’s event. Right now, the concept of the circular economy is becoming important in cities around the world. It’s not really a new concept nor is it a difficult one, but the world is realizing that a linear economy will not be sustainable. We take things from the earth, we use them, then we throw them,” says Valenti and its no surprise that he counts Ellen MacArthur’s keynote as among the most anticipated of the three days. “If we keep doing this we’re going to disappear. The circular economy encourages reuse and redesign of products and services and it presents a huge opportunity for business and cities to change their processes.”
“Because of the huge success of the Smart City Expo and the amount of cities present at this year’s event, we believe we have the responsibility to start the discussion on important issues like the circular economy and inspire cities to start applying these processes and ideas in the mainstream,” continues Valenti. Nevertheless, technology remains a present and important part of the Smart City Expo World Congress with exhibitions and speakers dedicated to sharing the latest connectivity and productivity-driven devices and software. “I believe that technology can be a huge democratizer,” says Valenti, pointing to the huge mobile banking sector in Africa and how it has enabled millions to manage their money with minimal formalities. “The next wave of innovations will, like this example, come from the bottom-up; from tech entrepreneurs and innovative businesses, not governments.”
Holding the event in Barcelona certainly sets the tone for an event with the tagline ‘cities for citizens’; the Catalonian city has been constantly topping liveability rankings and lauded for its urban strategies. “The DNA of the city is vibrant, artistic and empowering and we like to showcase that with cultural programming not only within the conference space but in and around the city,” says Valenti, while going onto explain that Barcelona’s walkability and rich culture have been able to attract waves of young talents from across Europe and beyond – just a couple of the hundreds of inspiring facets of this year’s Smart City Expo World Congress.