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“We will do society a disservice if we keep the physical as a universal right”
Technology and innovation at the service of diversity in Barcelona, with Lluís Torrens
Lluís Torrens is Director of Social Innovation in the Social Rights Area of the Barcelona City Council. Previously, he was former manager of the Public-Private Sector Research Center at the IESE-Business School Services, and General Secretariat Director of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Home Affairs, Institutional Relations and Participation of the Catalan Government. He is an associate professor at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Universitat Autònoma of Barcelona and UVic. Some of his expertise areas are e-health, e-commerce, public management and CSR.
Barcelona City Council aspires to make social innovation one of the hallmarks of the city, and is aimed at mitigating inequalities and protecting the social rights of citizens. How is the City Council developing this purpose? Is Barcelona leading the social transformation?
We are a small universe of what happens in the world in terms of the inequality growth. We are becoming cosmopolitan cities, but this in turn creates winners and losers. The goal is not to harm, above all, the popular classes and people who have fewer resources. We try to be the city that aspires to invest more, but above all to invest better in social policies, and that is how we are acknowledged in some rankings. Now, this is a bottomless pit. Social needs in 21st century societies are immense and growing, and we cannot face this from the local authority. Resources are finite and needs are infinite; therefore, we have to be thinking continuously and permanently about how to make the most of the resources we have. Innovation involves thinking about how we maximize this potential.
What are the greatest challenges of Barcelona as a global city in terms of inclusion and universality of services?
We have a very important challenge: aging. We are a society where there are increasingly going to be older people with specific needs. The great challenge is that we will not have the capacity or the desire to institutionalize them, but we want them to continue living at home with the highest possible quality of life.
Another challenge is the green transition. Cities, in general, are more efficient than rural environments in terms of energy per inhabitant. While it is true that they generate more wealth, paradoxically they end up consuming a lot of energy.
Finally, there is a whole series of interrelated factors, which also interrelate with each other, which makes everything tend to perpetuate or even amplify inequalities. One of the great challenges is trying to reduce this gap, but with great difficulty, because we are also a very dynamic city where many migratory movements take place. We have a great challenge of how we assimilate and take advantage of this diversity, and this is something that assimilates us a lot to big cities in the world, such as New York, London or Paris.
Digital transformation is one of the foundations of the municipal strategy for social innovation, and Covid has proved that there is no future without a global digitization of services. How is this transition being implemented in the city?
We have witnessed the emergence of a digital divide that we thought did not exist or was not so powerful. According to a Bit Habitat survey, 25% of the city's children were unable to follow classes online during confinement. Of these, half were not prepared, either because they did not have devices, connectivity or the knowledge to be able to do so. The other half were the schools themselves. This has been a reality check that we still have to make efforts to digitize. Really digitize, because 95% of the population has a smartphone with an Internet connection, but there is still a significant percentage of citizens who do not use it for shopping, paperwork, training courses... This, in a city like Barcelona, where quality jobs are being created in the digital sector or that require digital skills, is essential if we do not want to generate two categories of people: those who are digitally disconnected, unable to have the minimum skills for the current job market, and those who are.
How do you think the digitization of social services should be developed to ensure that they are accessible to all citizens, including the most vulnerable groups?
We must maintain some type of face-to-face and human, physical care, obviously for people who are unable to switch to the digital world. Still, I think we are doing society a disservice if we keep upholding this as a universal right. Let's use technology in such a way that we convert the user's experience, in their electronic or digital relationship with the administration, into something pleasant, easy, usable, 24/7, multi-languages, something that you could never do with a physical service.
What is missing, then?
As a public administration, we do not coordinate enough to generate a technology that could later be used with an Open Source system. Considering this for each of us as an independent battle and each one fighting against their enemies, their ghosts, is very costly and complicated. Now, it is key to establishing a true collaborative network of alliances between the administrations and companies that collaborate and that will later use this technology to sell it in the private market or abroad.