Sustainable Knowledge

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
18 July, 2017
Editorial: 116
Fecha de publicación original: 21 abril, 1998

He who commits one error, commits a hundred

The city of the Industrial Revolution we know –and suffer– only too well. The city of the Digital Revolution is still a mystery. The metropolis of the Information and Knowledge Society raises an extraordinary range of questions and challenges which we are hardly even beginning to address. All the more so if what we imagine is a sustainable city, capable of creating a dynamic of growth and development to suit the needs of present and future generations. This was the challenge a group of experts from different disciplines (amongst them even journalists, like myself), faced last weekend: imagining what the city of Barcelona would be like in the year 2020.

The meeting was held as part of “The Sustainable City”exhibition which is currently on at the Centro de Cultura Contemporanea de Barcelona (CCCB). This exercise could be compared to a hypothetical meeting held at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution to discuss what kind of city would emerge as a result of the revolution begun by the factories and transport of that time, particularly the railways. Today we are able to gauge the enormous effort a meeting of this nature would have implied, above all because we know just how much the course of our recent history has been altered by subtle, discrete events that nobody would have been able to predict the full dimension of at the time, but which in the end became decisive in the outcome of events. The question posed at the meeting in the CCCB was, therefore, to imagine a future Barcelona and, with the benefit of hindsight, take into account the fact that these “distorting” events are perhaps already operating today and that in 20 years’ time they might be seen as the principal factors in the shaping of the city.

This mental gymnastics about the future, very soon led to two possible basic urban models: a city which tended towards disaggregation with an ever increasing occupation of land, an extensive and intensive use of the motorcar and the subsequent need for the development of further infrastructures (in other words, more land use by humans) in order to sustain life. And, on the other hand, a city which favoured more compactness, density, and, as a result, greater human, economic and social diversity which would, in turn, lead to a more efficient use of land and energy. Up to this point, nothing particularly earth shattering and loads of personal and sectorial wishful thinking. The difficulties began to arise when we got to the point where we had to “clothe” these models, particularly the latter. And, even more so, when we had to imagine when and how we were going to get and cut the cloth to fit the patterns we had proposed. In other words, what decisions need to be taken now so that what we had tried to put forward as the sustainable city of the future would take real shape. It was here that the Information Society made its appearance in the disguise of “information technology”.

Right from the beginning, there was a general consensus of opinion that these technologies were bound to play a a fundamental role in the evolution of the city, whether this tended towards the disintegration or compact model. But it was frankly very difficult to imagine the physical shape that these technologies would take on in the city, what kind of companies and labour market they would give rise to, what services they would supply, how they would occupy land (new or already in use) and up to what point information and knowledge would physically shape and affect urban planning (organise the land) in a sustainable way. The discussion around a society based on creativity, imagination and knowledge, came to a halt just when we got to the crucial question: what is it that we are doing (or not doing) now, that will become the decisive factor in the Barcelona (or any other city for that matter) of the year 2020? The way I see it, it is from the perspective of the here and now, this very moment in time, that we have to think about the future, just as it’s important to think about the future from the perspective of the here and now of twenty years ago in order to find out where we “went wrong” then, and thereby examine the specific events that later became decisive.

Information and knowledge technology, it seems to me, is, today, one of those events. Not because it is becoming more and more present in our every day life through the computer and, very shortly, via the TV. But, rather because it is already affecting urban planning (organising territory), urban activities, the type of industry that will sustain these technologies and, of course, the services that will eventually convert the city into a part of that intangible concept that is “The Information Society”. The speed at which these changes are taking place and, above all, the volume of resources (both human and material) involved, is what we are leaving out of our analysis and is bound to burst in on the scene in no time at all with chisel and hammer in hand to sculpt the city. As long as we think of information technology in an abstract way, like something which is going to happen or is happening (“the number of Internet users has increased”, “tentative start to electronic commerce”) we are not taking into account the specific way that this happens and the bearing it has on the organisation of the city.

The Information Society, in my opinion, creates a city based on the flow of information and knowledge; the flow of capital and financial resources, labour flows, commercial flows, etc. These flows are channelled within a framework that combines competence with co-operation, very different features from those at the outset and development of the Industrial Revolution. How to plan this, how will it make sense from the urban planning point of view and how can these flows be stimulated within the perspective of a sustainable city? To even begin to answer these questions, we have to know something about what the knowledge industry will be like, how it will be organised and what its needs are.

Judging by the information we already have at our disposal, we could venture a guess that, because the main capital of these companies is information and knowledge, the vast majority of them will be small units with a highly developed capacity for generating synergies amongst them and establishing co-operative networks that will occupy new spaces in the market from the point of view of the services they offer. If this is the case, this would lead to a kind of dual model of urban compactness and disaggregation, but with the intensive occupation of central buildings by information company conglomerates. In this sense, there are many of us who suspect that spaces like Kubik, where is based will mushroom all over the place. This is illustrated by the fact that these types of experiences are already beginning to generate a doctrinaire “corpus” in theses and research on the impact of these multi-disciplinary spaces. Now, it is necessary that we look at the way they will affect the social fabric of the city, as well as what kind of public administration and financial systems are needed to prepare the urban environment for the profound social changes that the information and knowledge industry will bring about.


The following is the document I presented at the Workshop on a Sustainable City, “A Vision of Barcelona” (Taller de la Ciudad Sostenible, “Una visión de la Barcelona del 2020”), a look into the future based on the last 20 years (1978-98).

A vision of the Barcelona of 2020

Outstanding features:

.- In the Barcelona of today, buildings and homes with gardens and bioclimatic technology predominate. Most homes are spatially adapted to the changing nature of the nucleus of inhabitants (called nucear families at the end of the last century).

.-The city is multicutural, multiracial and multireligious. The use of resources is fairly efficient particularly energy. There are signicant urban areas of voluntary low consumption. The city’s urban relationships are noted for their tolerance. These features of Barcelona developed as a result of decisions taken after 1999, namely:

.- BCN became a cutting edge centre for the information and knowledge industry, a leader in telecommunications backbone networks in Catalonia and other cities that became its “digital hinterland”. To this end, urban networks and achitectonic concepts for housing were adapted to facilitate the growth of spaces for manufacturing bits without computers.

.- The movement of bits took precedence over even real transport networks/atoms on wheels thanks to cable networks. “Soft transport” was promoted (transport systems permanently available to citizens provided they were used collectively), while simultaneously discouraging the unsustainable culture of “freedom of individual movement”, a system now considered antediluvian and the success of which at the turn of the century was now considered barely comprehensible.

.- Business and organisations based on cooperation for the development of the information and knowledge industry were promoted. This industry was drawn into the city and surrounding areas in a synthesis of density and decentralisation thanks to multibranched information highways. Motorised transport took second place to work organised via these networks.

.- The driving force behind these policies was the decision in 1999 to make education the vector of change. State schools in BCN (and Catalonia) became the spearhead of knowledge management in a process of globalisation which is still growing. The city’s (and Catalonia’s) universities merged in part, thus avoiding the serious crisis threatening them. Students came from all over the world, some to finish their studies here. The new “ad-hoc” university-style research centres now found themselves among the most prestigious in Europe.

.- One result of these changes was the increased degree of citizen participation in direct democratic processes. Distribution of information and knowledge management came right into homes via walled screens personalised by individual users. This led to collective environmental management as all decision-making affecting urban eco-system policies (from territorial planning to specific policies) could not be done without interaction between administration and citizens. The city’s high-profile position on the world stage did not come without a great deal of serious tension. The main reason being the cultural legacy of territorial planning from the previous century with its extreme rigidity in infrastructures, which made it a difficult task to adapt to the necessary social changes. This led to levels of digital illiteracy and physical marginalisation due to an imbalance in the knowledge organisation process where changes did not come on time.

Conclusion: If this Barcelona does not exist in 2020 this would mean that we will have done things really badly and failed in our attempts to create a sustainable city. We will then have to take a hard look at what we have done and ask ourselves why they did not work as we expected.

Workshop on a Sustainable City, “A Vision of Barcelona” (Taller de la Ciudad Sostenible, “Una visión de la Barcelona del 2020”), CCCB, Barcelona, 17/4/1998

Translation: Bridget King.