Published on July 1st, 2020
Written by Casey Lynch
I arrived in Barcelona in 2016 with the intention of studying the city’s world-famous “smart city” program. Since at least 2011, the municipal government had worked to establish a global reputation for itself as a premier smart city, forming partnerships with Cisco, Telefonica, and other major ICT companies to experiment with new forms of networked urban governance.1 As a human geographer, I am interested in the ways the spaces of everyday life are differentially experienced and remade by urban residents. In Barcelona, I was hoping to better understand how the smart city vision impacted everyday practices in the city and might be contested by the city’s well-developed and extensively networked activist community. A year prior to the start of my fieldwork, part of that activist community—in the form of the political platform, Barcelona En Comú—had famously won control of the municipal government, led by housing activist Ada Colau.2
Figure 1. Poster promoting a series of events organized in opposition to the Mobile World Congress, a major international tech industry meeting held annually in Barcelona. The post shows a cartoon of a worker constrained by a chain of ones and zeros. While Barcelona was promoted as a premier smart city, it has also been a major site of organizing against the abuses of tech companies like Airbnb, Uber, and Deliveroo. (Photo credit: Casey Lynch)
Upon my arrival in Barcelona, I quickly encountered a broad range of organizations, collectives, and initiatives actively promoting the idea of “technological sovereignty” (sobirania tecnológica in Catalan) as a strategy to counter corporate smart city models and claim new forms of collective control over processes of technological change in the city.3 A group of local activists had begun organizing the annual SobTec Congress and a NGO had begun the Mobile Social Congress, both as events to collectively imagine alternative digital futures beyond the smart city model. An activist collective located outside Barcelona published a dossier in 2014 theorizing technological sovereignty and highlighting ongoing community-led tech projects around the globe. And in June 2016, deputy Mayor Gerardo Pisarello called for municipal-led strategies for technological sovereignty at the EuroCities summit in Nantes, France. In the following months, technological sovereignty would become a guiding principle as the municipal government sought to transform the smart city program inherited from the previous administration.4
Figure 2. Promotional poster for the 1st Congrés de Sobirania Tecnològica held in March 2016 organized around the theme of “Rethinking the Model of the City.” The 5th Congress was held in March 2020. (Photo credit: Grup Promotor Sobirania Tecnològica)
Across these uses of the term, it became clear that technological sovereignty was a fluid concept, meaning different things in different cases, and under continual construction and theorization. I began to ask: What might “sovereignty” mean in this context? Sovereignty over what? By whom? How would this sovereignty be exercised? The municipal government’s use of the term tended to reflect broader discourses around “new municipalism”—a movement for cities to claim greater control over policy to promote social welfare. In the now five years since taking office, Colau’s administration in Barcelona has indeed sought to leverage the authority of municipal institutions to promote free and open source software, control over municipal data, and decentralized, citizen-led approaches to digital transformation, such as through the Decidim (“We Decide”) platform.
At the same time, it is perhaps impossible to separate discussions over sovereignty in Barcelona from the broader context of the Catalan independence movement, which came to a head in October 2017 (in the middle of my field work) with an Independence Referendum met by violent repression and censorship by the Spanish state. The movement for independence and the Spanish state’s response raise classic questions around sovereignty, democracy, and the right to self-determination.5 The conflict also highlighted the complex entanglement between state power and networked technologies. Independence activists made extensive use of networked systems (like distributed voter rolls) in organizing and executing the October referendum, while the Spanish state continually sought to shut down websites and censor online information in the weeks leading up to and following the vote. Theorizing technological sovereignty in this context clearly requires deep reflection about the nature of our political institutions and the kind of authority they are able to exercise over emerging technologies.
Figure 3. Supporters of the movement for Catalan independence rally outside the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in the days before the contested referendum on October 1, 2017. (Photo credit: Jordi Casacuberta Palmada)
Yet, many of the community organizations and collectives I encountered in my research were interested in promoting a broader notion of technological sovereignty—one constituted on alternative tech economies and decentralized community control over processes of technological change, rather than established forms of institutional authority. Activist Margarita Padilla explains that technological sovereignty is about asking: “who has the power to make decisions about [technologies], about their development, about their use, about access and about distribution, about supply and consumption, about the prestige they have and their power to fascinate…”6 Along this vein, sociologist and activist Alex Haché conceives of technological sovereignty in relation to notions of food sovereignty as articulated by Via Campesina in opposition to corporate domination of food systems.7 Movements for food sovereignty aim to build radically alternative economies—including relations of production, consumption, and social reproduction—in relation to food.
Similar notions of sovereignty have driven leftist theorizing and organizing in Catalonia over the past several years, with activists conceiving of multiple sovereignties as areas of struggle for reclaiming collective control over the everyday systems of social reproduction, from food, energy, and transportation, to health and culture.8 Benítez Romero et al. define sovereignty as “the capacity to cover our material and spiritual needs fundamental for human development apart from the circuit of capital valorization.” In this sense, sovereignty takes on a distinctly political economic character. Here, I want to ask how we might think about these as networked sovereignties—as multiple and unique, but highly interconnected and interdependent, fields of power and control. What role might digital technologies—developed by and for local communities—play in facilitating broader forms of community control over the systems of everyday life? How might technological sovereignty facilitate food, energy, or transportation sovereignties, for instance?
Elsewhere, I discuss in more detail the variety of projects and community initiatives working toward promoting technological sovereignty in Barcelona—from programming cooperatives, spaces for collective reflection, and public digital production spaces, to community-controlled broadband, cloud, and Internet of Things (IoT) infrastructures.9 Here I want to highlight a couple of specific examples of grassroots tech initiatives demonstrating the entanglement of technological and other sovereignties. Over the course of my research, I came across Katuma, a platform cooperative10 working to promote local food economies. The local programming cooperative, Coopdevs, works to build and maintain the digital platform infrastructure, based on the Open Food Network platform, that enables the coordination of a local, organic food economy. As a cooperative, Katuma is owned and controlled collectively by local producers and consumers. The use of an open source platform maintained by another local cooperative helps assure that Katuma is able to maintain control over their own data and make collective decisions about how the platform operates. Technological sovereignty facilitates food sovereignty.
In another example, the community wireless network, Guifi.net (discussed in Roger Baig Viñas’s Network Sovereignty blog post), has begun experimenting with open source DIY home automation and IoT sensing technologies, focusing initially on home energy monitors in the CanGuifi project. The initiative is meant to design low-cost technologies that allow residents to effectively monitor their energy usage without ceding that data to private energy companies, who often exploit that data through new pricing mechanisms or other programs. The project has the potential to create new partnerships with a local movement around energy sovereignty, at least partially focused around the renewable energy cooperative, Som Energia. Technological sovereignty can create tools of energy sovereignty.
To conclude, studying movements toward technological sovereignty has required an ongoing reflection around the different possible meanings of sovereignty and their various, evolving articulations in the particular context of Barcelona since 2016. I have sought to grapple with questions around digital technologies and power at the intersections new municipalism, contested state sovereignty, and the various movements in pursuit of networked sovereignties. This ongoing reflection has been profoundly thought-provoking. While it has led me to continually re-think my own assumptions about technology, political economy, community organizing, subjectivity, and space, perhaps most importantly this reflection has help me reimagine what kinds of futures are possible and desirable. In a world where the corporate technology sector increasingly aims to monopolize imaginaries of the future, thinking through technological sovereignty proliferates a multiplicity of imaginaries. These imaginaries can help re-frame the future, not as the inevitable outcome of a techno-determinist teleology, but as an opportunity for collective experimentation and construction.
Casey Lynch is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Nevada, Reno. His research examines the politics of imagined urban futures, from smart cities and digital activism to master-planned city-building projects and the emerging impacts of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics on everyday life. His work has been published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers, Urban Geography, Political Geography, and Antipode, among other journals.
- Hug March and Ramon Ribera-Fumaz, “Smart contradictions: The politics of making Barcelona a Self-sufficient city,” European Urban and Regional Studies, Vol. 23, Issue 4 (2016): 816-830.
- Bertie Russell, “Beyond the Local Trap: New Municipalism and the Rise of the Fearless Cities,” Antipode, Vol. 51, Issue 3 (2019): 989-1010.
- Casey R. Lynch, “Contesting Digital Futures: Urban Politics, Alternative Economies, and the Movement for Technological Sovereignty in Barcelona,” Antipode, Vol. 52, Issue 3 (2020): 660-680; Casey R. Lynch, “Unruly digital subjects: Social entanglements, identity, and the politics of technological expertise,” Digital Geography and Society, Vol. 1 (2020).
- Francesca Bria. Barcelona digital government: Open, agile and participatory. Barcelona Digital City Blog (2017). Accessed at: https://ajuntament.barcelona.cat/digital/en/blog/barcelonadigital-government-open-agile-and-participatory
- Raphael Minder, The Struggle for Catalonia: Rebel Politics in Spain (London: C. Hurst & Co., 2017).
- Margarita Padilla, “Soberanía Tecnológica: ¿De qué estamos hablando?” Soberanía Tecnológica, Vol. 2(Barcelona: Descontol, 2017).
- Alex Haché, “Soberanía Tecnológica” Soberanía Tecnológica (Dossier Ritmo: 2014).
- Isabel Benítez Romero, Josep Manel Busqueta Franco, Ivan Gordillo Bernardez, Clara Griera Llonch, Elena Idoate Ibáñez, Pau Llonch Méndez, Carles Muntaner Bonet, Helena Ojeda Vidal, Jordi Oliveras Serrano, Roc Padró Caminal, Alfons Pérez Lopez, Oleguer Presas Renom, Xavi Urbano Yuste and Isabel Vallet Sànchez. Sobiranies: Una proposta contra el capitalisme (Sant Andreu de la Barca: Espai Fabrica, 2017).
- Casey R. Lynch, “Contesting Digital Futures: Urban Politics, Alternative Economies, and the Movement for Technological Sovereignty in Barcelona,” Antipode, Vol. 52, Issue 3 (2020): 660-680
- Scholz, Trebor. “Platform cooperativism vs. the sharing economy.” Big data & civic engagement 47 (2014).