Digital commons in the city. The case of Barcelona

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Barcelona is considered a reference in commons and cooperative economy initiatives and tries to stand up against the digital platform corporations. In this article we will zoom into some cases and political actions by and in the city in the last 5 years.

June 2015, citizen platform Barcelona en Comú was elected and formed the new local government of the city. It inherited a city that was successful in attracting tourists, positioned itself as a leading «smart city» and was one of the economic engines of Spain. At the same time the tourist business was throwing out its citizens as rents were rising – not in the least due to «sharing» economy platforms like AirBnB – and with global tech corporations extracting most value of the «smart city» and determining the agenda.

Underneath already existed a rich ecosystem of local communities, networks and companies building bottom-up collective infrastructures, ranging from community wireless networks, makerspaces, material repair and reuse communities, local consumption groups of ecological food, etc. An ecosystem that was characterised by commons governance models and largely based in the social and solidarity economy (making up ca. 8% of all jobs in the city).

While the then new city government prioritised a cooperative social and solidarity economy, in the realm of tech platforms and “sharing economy” this was much harder to accomplish. In 2016 the main aldermen involved in technological innovation, culture and social and solidarity economy invited representatives from the commons-collaborative economy to work together. An expert working group was formed called BarCola, which has been involved in some of the programmes and events mentioned below. Free Knowledge Institute was one of the parties signing its constitution with the City of Barcelona and together with other civil society organisations ( Foundation, UOC/Dimmons, Ouishare).

In this article we’ll review some of the key conflicting concepts and map key cases and actors, some policies that have been deployed by the city and relevant events, and zoom in into some of the communities and cases. Please note that we don’t pretend to be all encompassing, but provide a report that is certainly marked by personal engagement and knowledge of specific actors and networks.

This is why it is important to be clear about our position in this regard. After Barcelona en Comú had taken office in the city government, we (Free Knowledge Institute) were asked to identify commons oriented actors and communities and explore how these could be supported to transition towards a Commons-oriented “Smart City”. In 2016 we published the Smart City Barcelona Commons report, “Local policies for the Smart City and Knowledge Society: Towards a more sustainable, social and democratic model”.

Since then more than 5 years have past and it may be a good moment to reflect on some of the things that have happened since then. Together with metroZones, a nonprofit collective of urban researchers and artists from Berlin, in 2021 we have engaged in a series of working sessions to reflect about the digital commons and the technosocial alternatives to the neoliberal smart city vision. This discussion was focused on Barcelona, though working sessions with people from London, Warsaw and Berlin were held in parallel.

Note on the title: maybe “digital commons” isn’t the most adequate term here; instead it could have been: Technopolitics in Barcelona, how municipal programmes and civil society are working to commonify the ‘smart city’. An update of the last 5-6 years”. Too long and also imperfect?

On platform capitalism and technopolitics

Before we delve in the case of Barcelona, let us clarify some key concepts. Technopolitics refers to the ability of connected communities to create and change social movements (Toret et al, 2013). It’s primarily due to the introduction of new tools for communication and organisation that affect politics in every level. As Ismael Peña Lopez (2016) concludes, increased freedom, empowerment and governance are the greatest potential outcomes of ICT in democracy.

As technology is not neutral, the design and ownership of ICT is key to how these can empower and help self-organise its users. While twenty years ago many technology visionaries were optimistic about the prospects of digital emancipation, it has become clear to most nowadays that the Internet has been captured by big corporations. Through centralised platforms they offer polished user experiences while capturing our personal and behavioural data and increasingly control what we read and buy, how we think and vote. Geert Lovink1 considers that these platforms don’t enable self-organisation. Once groups decide to self-organise, they move away from them.

Platforms, as Nick Srnicek puts it in his book on “Platform capitalism” (Srnicek: 2017), are «businesses that provide the hardware and software foundation for others to operate on». Digital platforms produce and are reliant on ‘network effects’: the more numerous the users who use a platform are, the more valuable that platform becomes for everyone else. If you want to join a platform for socialising, you join the platform where most of your friends and family already are.

The digital economy is becoming hegemonic: cities are to become smart, business must be disruptive, workers are to become flexible, and governments must be lean and intelligent. It is assumed that one who works hard can take advantage of the changes and win out. But is it really so?

Shoshana Zuboff, in her masterwork «The Age of Surveillance Capitalism» (Zuboff: 2019), exposes this recent form of capitalist wealth extraction, where vast wealth and power are accumulated in new behavioural futures markets, where predictions about our behaviour are bought and sold, and the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new «means of behavioural modification». She sees that the threat has shifted from a totalitarian Big Brother state to an ubiquitous digital architecture: a «Big Other» operating in the interest of surveillance capital. It is an unprecedented form of power marked by extreme concentrations of knowledge and free from democratic oversight.

The «smart city» vision sees the city as a platform to automate, increase efficiency and control through increasingly complex technological networks capturing ubiquitous sensor data under corporate control instead of citizen control. The conflict of interest is getting clear: a corporate smart city vs a city of smart citizens.

From corporate control to commons supporting infrastructure

In the 2016 report on the Barcelona case, we mapped out some global actors along two axes, from centralised to decentralised control on the vertical axis and from common(s) benefits to private benefits on the horizontal axis. In the following graph, we give a rough approximation to map corporate and social actors and provide a framework to orient public policies.

In the top right quadrant, we place the platform capitalist corporations, which we can group in three subgroups. First, the platforms around Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). They sell products and services heavily relying on IPR. Second, the platform capitalists being social networks. They don’t sell so much services to their users as they sell their users’ eyeballs (attention) to the advertisers. Third, the “sharing” or false “collaborative economy’ platforms like AirBnB and Uber. They don’t own the assets their users rent out through their platforms. They take substantial commissions for the intermediation through their platforms and often work against the general interests of the platforms’ users.

In the bottom left, we find the commons oriented projects. Here we have presented the more well-known, global projects, with a strong digital component. Bottom right are the more decentralised private profit oriented platforms. Examples include crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, which by its nature supports mostly any project, tending to private profit, and not so much to kickstart a regenerative value flow. As opposed, bottom left are commons oriented crowdfunding platforms such as Goteo. The crypto currency domain, while most of them starting off from a decentralised or even distributed architecture and governance model, is a vast and complex domain with very differently designed currency projects. Bitcoin, its pioneer and leader, can be argued to be greatly libertarian (at least originally), to encourage private accumulation, and in the hands of a few large mining pools.

With this mapping, a political proposal for the urban commons could then be formulated to promote and support commons-oriented projects and at the same time to reduce dependencies from the platform capitalists.

Barcelona: From grassroots protests to cooperative-commons alternatives

In Barcelona, like in many cities, people have seen the irruption of delivery platforms like Deliveroo, Glovo, Amazon and so on. These capital-backed platforms have provided precarious jobs to enable cheap delivery services. Spanish riders have formed protest groups under the name of “riders por derechos” (in English, “riders for rights”).

In the domain of housing, the Anti-Eviction Platform (PAH for its initials in Spanish) is well known for convening citizens to stop evictions of precarious families. Other grassroots initiatives have emerged over the past years, like the “sindicat de llogateres2(in English “union of renters”) which is an association of citizens that claims the right of housing and a dignified, stable and safe rent. There are several associations of homesharers that have started in the last years to defend the rights of people sharing rooms on platforms as a way of making ends meet.

In the field of online cloud services and socials networks, several collectives work for raising awareness on privacy, self-organisation and against concentration in the hands of a few global tech players. Pangea and CommonsCloud are just two of many alternatives. At city congresses like SobTec (Sovereighn Technology Congress) and the Mobile Social Congress these and many other initiatives are present, in opposition of the mainstream platforms that dominate the city which are protagonists at the Mobile World Congress – the biggest mobile phone trade fair in the world, celebrated in Barcelona every year in the last decade

In these and other fields, an active grassroots community of citizens fosters the existence of commons and cooperative actors that provide alternative services. A key question of the 2016 report was what the City could do to help promote and consolidate that ecosystem. Five years later, we can have a look at what has actually happened.

Grassroots initiatives

As we already observed in the 2016 report, Barcelona is home of many commons-oriented initiatives in many different domains. In this article we will walk through some of the communities and relate them to specific municipal action programmes. We will mention some cases in domains like telecommunication networks, circular economy, makers and open design, food, cloud platforms, and mobility.

First, let us start with some mappings of relevant projects. The Pam a Pam mapping project is a collaborative mapping of actors of the Social and Solidarity Economy. A group of voluntary mappers interview actors and score each initiative against a series of questions, if they pass the threshold, they get visible on the map. Currently there are more than 1,000 cases mapped in Catalonia, most of which in Barcelona. While this maybe impressive, this mapping also leaves out many initiatives that either have not been identified yet or didn’t pass the Pam a Pam score. Some years ago the P2P Value directory mapped more than 1,000 cases for Barcelona alone – this mapping includes and complements the Pam a Pam data, but maybe out of date.

Two telecom community networks are worth mentioning. The first, the community, has been building a commons-based open network infrastructure since 2004, first with wireless data connections and later adding collective fibre optic infrastructure in the ground. There are currently more than 37,000 active nodes, i.e. houses, libraries, municipal buildings, company offices and the like connected to and forming the community network. The Foundation oversee the commons, and in particular its innovative cost compensation scheme to allow the commercial service providers in the ecosystem to balance costs of maintaining their part of the network with the commercial fees they receive from their customers.

The municipality of Barcelona has hundreds of kilometers of municipal fibre optics and it would be a great opportunity to move this under a commons management regime instead of the private maintenence contract it operates under very restrictive terms. Unfortunately so far little steps have been made in this direction.

A second community network is The Things Network Catalonia, that constitutes an open sensor data network. Temperature, air quality, location, soil humidity, water or battery levels are sensored and transmitted over the Long Range (LoRa) wireless protocol to a community server where the members can decrypt and retrieve their data. This network has grown from zero to hundreds of members in Barcelona, covering a relevant part of the city with network coverage. The City has provided support through its Social Innovation co-funding programme “Impulsem El Que Fas” (in Englihs, “we impulse what you do”), through which the community was able to set up a dozen antennas and run a few dozen open workshops in different neighbourhoods and run social co-creation workshops to explore its potential with local entities. A spin-off is the XOIC, an effort to cooperativise the network with schools, municipalities and active members.

In the context of the circular economy, a project to highlight is the GRRR platform, that stands for the Management of Reuse and Redistribution of Resources. A second project is the eReuse platform, which originates from the technical university UPC and facilitates an ecosystem of actors that repair and reuse electronic devices such as computers. With a smart free software toolset the repairers help to put devices back into circulation, which are then lent out to member organisation in the community who pay a small monthly fee to support the reuse cycle. eReuse has received a project grant from the EU and has collaboration agreements with the municipality among others.

In the area of makers, open design and digital fabrication there are many projects. Of particular relevance are the FabLab Barcelona and the municipal network of FabLabs. FabLab Barcelona started in 2007 in the 22@ district to allow students of its advanced architecture programme to get handson experience with open design and digital manufacturing. It has since been an active space hosting digital social innovation projects. A few years later the municipality initiated its municipal fablab network, geared at citizens of the neighbourhood to get creative with digital manufacturing and prototyping. Using these facilities comes with a social contract: the obligation to give back. Makers can give back by maintaining the machinery, providing training or making needed parts. These facilities have empowered people to repair, (re)design products that are more sustainable and meaningful and resolve needs of people in the neighbourhoods, from glasses locally made from recycled materials to face masks for medical personnel to protect them from COVID19.

In the food sector, two projects to highlight are Katuma/Open Food Network and the FoodCoopBCN supermarket. Katuma is the Spanish chapter in the global Open Food Network, a platform that brings together ecological farmers and consumer groups. Both providers and groups are invited to join as co-owning members of the multistakeholder cooperative and make a small monthly contribution to the platform. Another model is that of FoodCoop Barcelona, which is launching a cooperative supermarket in the centre of Barcelona with 500 co-owning members. The model is a local adaptation of the first FoodCoop in New York and has received support from both the City of Barcelona and the regional government, the Generalitat of Catalonia.

In terms of digital platforms, online collaborative clouds are an important area to reclaim sovereignity. It’s an uphill battle against the titans of global capitalism. Barcelona is home to several initiatives that help people degooglify and disconnect from Zoom and the likes. We mention here two projects that were co-founded by the Free Knowledge Institute: CommonsCloud and The Online Meeting Cooperative – CommonsCloud is a cooperative cloud where members can store, edit and share their documents, manage their calendars, contacts and the like. The project is now part of the multistakeholder cooperative femProcomuns, where users can join as user members and contribute a monthly fee. In order to provide an ethical online meeting service, these organisations have joined forces with cooperatives in Sweden, Germany, the UK, Canada and US to form Providing a quality service that runs on renewable energy, the best free software, respecting people’s privacy is a challenge. Meetcoop does so by sharing the burden over many shoulders. The first 100 contributing members (including a few thousand participants) show that this is providing a positive experience in the time of social distancing and an opportunity for more intense collaboration between groups and networks.

In the mobility sector there are many interesting initiatives of which we will mention here Som Mobilitat and Mensakas. Som Mobilitat started in 2016 as a cooperative platform to share electrical vehicles with a mission towards sustainable mobility. Its members co-own currently over 50 vehicles. The online platform and app is co-developed at the international level with a dozen other carsharing cooperatives in Europe that together form The Mobility Factory. Mensakas is a bike delivery cooperative that guarantees a fair pay to its bikers while specialising in (ecological) food delivery. It originates from the riders for rights movement7. It participates in the French born CoopCycle federation that co-develops the app and platform software.

In financing there are various civil society and cooperative initiatives. Goteo Foundation provides a platform for crowdfunding open commons initiatives. As you can read below they have partnered with the municipality in several occasions for them providing matchfunding through the Goteo platform. Coop57 is a Catalan cooperative for ethical financial services where members pool their savings to fund key social and solidarity economy initiatives. Both the Catalan regional government and the city run cooperative investment programmes, but never enough to make the real transition. Funding remains a difficult challenge. Especially in an economic system designed for capitalist markets and venture capital – not for democratisation of the economy.

Online marketplace. While setting up an alternative for Amazon’s marketplace has been in the air for years – and the cooperative and replicable marketplace Fairmundo has inspired many – it was only recently that a truely cooperative platform of sorts has started in Barcelona and Catalonia for that matter. La Zona has been started under the leadership of the cooperative Opcions, with their mission to support people and organisations in moving their consumption to the social and solidarity economy. It is a cooperative online marketplace where one finds products produced in the proximity (km0), respectful with the environment and people. These principles are applied throughout the value chain. Checkout the producers to get an impression of what is already available.

City programmes

These and many other projects have received support from the City in some way or another. Although all city departments have links with or are involved in the broad domain of technopolitics and “City as Commons”, here we mention three of them that are especially involved and mention a few of their programmes in the city.

Barcelona Digital: Mid-2016 Barcelona City got its CTO, Francesca Bria, Commissioner for Digital Innovation, Barcelona Digital City. End 2019 she was succeeded by Michael Donaldson. Under Francesca’s leadership a high level strategy was set up to have the city use Ethical Digital Standards3, including Open Data, requiring platforms active in the city to share platform activity data with the city administration, the city’s development of software as Free Software, following agile development methodologies and innovative procurement policies. In terms of networks, a coalition for digital rights called the Cities for Digital Rights4 was set up. Barcelona Digital also initiated a public funding programme to support selected projects in the area of Digital Social Innovation with seed funding between 10.000 and 50.000 euro (20% cofunded by the projects themselves).

Institute for Culture of Barcelona

Has been headed by Joan Subirats in the last three years, until he become the Spanish minister for universities. Some highlights of programmes run by the Barcelona Institute for Culture include:

prizes of Barcelona to raise visibility and provide financial support to selected projects and citizens

Creation factories based in revamped old factory building through the city, open to citizens to create, work, expose their work, organise events

Decidim, the online platform for citizen participation that is used for direct democracy processes in the city and has been replicated by hundreds of cities, regional governments and larger social collectives.

Open City Biennale of Thought to reflect and give visibility to the alternative narratives

Social and Solidarity Economy

First headed by Jordi Via (2015-2017), later by Alvaro Porro. This department has the goal to support and promote an alternative economic model including social and solidarity economy (SSE) and commons-collaborative economy models. Some of the work they have been doing includes:

– Public funding to foster SSE & responsible consumption

– Barcelona Ateneus de Fabricació, a municipal fablab network

– support (Catalan Network for Social economy) and federations of coops, Pam a Pam, FESC

– social balance & smart public procurement; the social balance is a triple accounting tool where participating organisations publicly account for things like gender balance, open knowledge sharing policies, democratic procedures they have in place (Catalan explanation here). Smart public procurement includes processes to positively discriminate actors who filled out the Social Balance.

– Barcelona Activa, Alternative Economy department develops training on how to set up cooperatives, platform cooperativism, commons collaborative economy support programmes such as La Comunificadora. The most visible programme is focused on the social and solidarity economy training and accompanying of citizens with 8000 participants since 2015, ca 800 projects accompanied and 1500 citizens trained. Between 150 and 200 projects receive financing each year, investing  around 4 million per year.

Some concrete support actions: La Comunificadora is a commons-collaborative support programme that has supported some 100 projects so far in its first 4 editions. It serves project (teams) in its initial phase of definition and evolution of a commons oriented sustainability model. Selected projects have evolved during the 3-4 months pogramme with training, co-creation, mentoring, peer support. Several of the projects mentioned above have participated in the programme, such as Som Mobilitat, Mensakas, Katuma.

The cooperatively self-managed 19th century factory buildings Can Batlló will house what might become the biggest social economy incubator in Europe. It is a collectively designed incubation community for social and solidarity economy projects that can find a place to work, connect with the wider ecosystem and prototype their social ventures. Though it is open already (spaces of current phase), the extension into one of the old factory buildings is forthcoming and will greatly enhance the incubation space and capacity. The reform and process has been partly funded by the regional and by the city government.

A Matchfunding programme was run at the Goteo crowdfunding platform together with BarcelonaActiva, that doubled the contributions by backers to selected project campaigns. This way the projects had to run effective marketing campaigns and captured new members and funding, for a relatively low municipal investment. Several of the mentioned projects participated: Som Mobilitat, Katuma, CommonsCloud.

In 2021 a new “hub” of support programmes has started to provide training modules, networking, support and match-crowdfunding for collectives working on the digital plataformisation of feminist, social economy and commons-collaborative projects. The MatchImpulsa series of programmes is run by the Open University Catalunya and its Dimmons research group with support from Barcelona Activa.

Various funding programmes have provided co-funding for selected projects to support the creation or strengthen of existing cooperatives, strengthen their presence and relation with the neighbourhoods and give an impulse to (digital) social innovation or to cultural projects. Many projects have received small amounts between 5 and 15 thousand Euro, while some have received funding of up to 50 thousand Euro. While dependencies from municipal funding should be avoided, these schemes have helped especially smaller actors in setting up projects in desired domains. From the above mentioned projects these have received financial support: the XOIC – the open community network for the Internet of Things, Som Mobilitat, Katuma, FoodCoopBCN, CommonsCloud, Mensakas.

Intelligent public procurement: eReuse has established collaboration to reuse and provide refurbished computer devices to BarcelonaActiva.

The municipality owns considerable property and has to put to use part of its real estate to support the commons ecosystem. Projects like FoodCoopBCN have been hosted in the collaborative economy building of Can Jaumandreu. La Lleialtat Santsenca is a municipal building managed by a citizens association that organises social activities and events for the neighbourhood . The team behind crowdfunding platform Goteo is hosted in the Creative Factory building at Fabra i Coats – one of the municipality’s 12 “creative factory” buildings.

In terms of visibility, the municipality has a wide range of tools at it disposal to show the things it wants to see. Still the dominant capitalist platforms are highly visible in the City’s spaces, especially in trade fairs like the Mobile World Congress or Smart City Expo. Positive initiatives include the albeit much smaller Social Mobile Congress, the Social and Solidarity trade fair each autumn that attracts normally over 15 thousand visitors, the solidarity Christmas market at the central square. We should also note the Sharing Cities Summit in 2018 in Barcelona, producing a Declaration of Sharing Cities signed by some 50 cities worldwide aiming for the protection of urban commons, technological sovereignty and circular economy. A particularly interesting series of conferences has been (so far) the Open City Biennal of Thought to discuss the challenges of the future of the city, democracy and technology.


Municipalities can do many things to foster the commons and transition to a more local-first participatory economy with less dependency from the global platform capitalist behemoths. Indeed, it’s not an easy task. Internally, municipal staff needs training to get to know the alternatives and work on pathways towards the commons, to move away from public-private partnership towards (public-civil/commons partnerships, models where participatory governance plays a key role. Rely on collective intelligence, co-creation and bottom-up initiatives is often less polished or more imperfect. It’s often harder for municipal workers than managing a few large preferred providers. Externally, it demands actively promoting those relationships with and fostering the commons oriented ecosystem, providing support, not only financially, but also in terms of visibility. It requires as well a different discourse and narrative of what we see in our city and how we imagine its future. A vision away from smart objects towards smart people, citizens who are empowered and can take initiative and hold politicians and corporations accountable.

Barcelona City has been and is a prominent actor in this field, with ambitious projects that try to steer into this direction. We can argue whether the ambitions and the power to steer away from the corporate dependencies of the past have been enough. Changing the Mobile Congress into a commons oriented initiative may not be realistic due to the sheer power of the GSMA (global mobile telecom operators alliance who owns it) and the city’s economic reliance on this type of events. But the small scale support for alternative forums like the Mobile Social Congress is clearly not enough to lift the ecosystem. We should also mention the fragile power equilibrium of the political party, BCN en Comu, which in 2015 got to govern with 25% of the votes and in 2019 with a lower percentage, therefore forced to make coalition agreements with parties used to continue with mainstream neoliberalist economics.

Public purchasing is another field where BCN has been pioneer as marketmaking customer. Apart from the cost effectiveness criteria in competitive public purchasing, social criteria have been added to the selection criteria. Bidders can earn more points if they participate in the triple bottom line “social balance” platform from the social and solidarity economy, or when they use free software and open source. The problem lies in the still fragile situation of most actors in these fields. For instance, (much) more investments are needed until they can offer the same quality service as Telefonica or Vodafone for managing a full serviced fibre optics network, hosting and training ten thousand municipal staff in ethical software solutions or repairing and putting in circulation again 3,000 reusable computers per month. Just to name a few challenges.

All in all there is an active ecosystem of mutually re-enforcing and dependent commons and cooperative actors that are building products and services aiming to be more inclusive, that are produced following shared knowledge and participatory processes, with governance models that foster participation by workers and/or users. In many cases the economy and salaries are still fragile, but participants work hard to consolidate their projects, despite the fact that most institutions and support systems are catered for a capitalist mode of production. All in all, there is an alternative vision emerging, one that tells that yes, we can do it together, without excluding others from using, reusing and participating. One that puts the people truly in the centre and builds on shared missions, on people and planet before profit. Key will be to build further institutional support and strengthen interlocal and international collaboration, replication and reuse and co-development of needed infrastructures, services and mutual support.

1Lovink, Geert. 2019. «Sad by design, on platform nihilism»


The featured photo of the city of Barcelona is CCBY Rodrigo Paredes.