Interview with ELISABET ROCA (LESEC UPC)

Associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Barcelona School of Civil Engineering (UPC). She forms part of the University Research Institute for Sustainability Science and Technology (UPC) and is coordinator of the Laboratory of Social Studies of Civil Engineering (LESEC).

“We try to generate methodologies and frameworks of analysis that are more inclusive for vulnerable users in terms of digital mobility”

“Renaturalization processes are sometimes criticised for promoting what is known as green gentrification.”

“Dune restorations in coastal systems are replacing promenades and works based on breakwaters”

You graduated in environmental sciences, and after obtaining a doctoral degree you studied territorial management and the social and environmental impact of engineering projects. Why did you choose this subject?

In the degree, I had lecturers in economics, sociology and political science who sparked my interest in the social component of territorial interventions. That’s why I did the doctoral degree with this view of ecological economics and environmental sociology, and studied aspects  such as equity, social impact and the conflicts that emerge when interventions are carried out. I am interested in the understanding and environmental awareness of all agents who participate in or are affected by projects or by territorial and environmental policies. Curiously, this path brought me to the UPC, perhaps because I incorporate into engineering projects this more social view of the user and of local actors.

The projects you work on combine methodologies of the social sciences, natural sciences and technologies. Can multidisciplinarity become a problem in research studies?

This combination and collaboration is a challenge. But in areas such as sustainability, where there are no optimum solutions, it has been shown that this vital collaboration helps to achieve solutions that involve more compromise, where most of the actors end up benefitting, the distribution of impacts is fairer and the environmental cost is lower. It is difficult, but within the UPC in the Research Institute for Sustainability Science we have found a group of researchers who have a similar vision that enables us to collaborate in transdisciplinary processes in which society also plays an active role in the studies. In the area of urban development,  this type of collaboration occurs more naturally.

One of the areas of work of the Laboratory of Social Studies of Civil Engineering (LESEC) is the study of coastal governance and management. What do they research?

Coastal management has been our group’s most constant area of research. We analyse conflicts associated with issues such as erosion, the rising sea level, and the actions proposed by government bodies to manage these risks. There are social and political problems that add to the technical problems, and it is important to understand the perceptions and reactions of society to the interventions that are carried out on the coast. This is key to support our maritime engineering colleagues when they propose technological solutions. We also analyse the governance associated with this type of processes, the map of who is who and how all the actors are related.

Does LESEC maintain regular contact with the government bodies and those responsible for managing the coast of Catalonia?

In our work, we are in contact with the main actors in the planning and management system so we can carry out our studies. And some administrations turn to us to undertake these analyses. One example is the Metropolitan Area of Barcelona. In fact, one of the areas we have studied is that supralocal actors, such as provincial councils, district councils or the metropolitan authority, could play a more important role in coastal management, even if they do not have authority in this area, as powerful unifying forces and transmitters of knowledge.

One of the terms that appears in your work is nature-based solutions. What does this refer to?

This is a relatively new concept promoted by international organizations that reinforces some actions that were already being undertaken, such as the renaturalization or conservation of ecosystems and the services they offer to address global environmental challenges such as storms or floods. Examples are dune restorations in coastal systems, which are replacing promenades and works based on breakwaters. Now, the tendency is to restore the profile of beach and dune, if there is space to do so, because it contributes to protecting us from the pounding of the sea and helps to recover biodiversity. It also improves the landscape and makes the area more attractive for leisure activities. Another example of nature-based solutions are river restorations, which enable the function to be recovered naturally when there is flooding, without artificial channelling. This has been done, for example, in the park of the River Besòs. This kind of solutions are also applied in some urban parks or streets of the city, using sustainable draining solutions that enable water to infiltrate without so much surface runoff.

Is the idea to imitate nature?

Yes, but not just this. The process required to reach this type of solution is important because society is involved in considering the problem collaboratively, finding an answer, learning and raising awareness. That is why we carry out surveys of opinions, interviews and participative workshops that enable us to determine how society perceives all of these processes.

Do you also consider the perspective of those who obtain economic benefits from the coast who could be affected by the interventions?

Of course. We work with all actors in the system specifically to understand the elements of conflict and points of agreement. It is important for each one to understand the vision of the others and to set up participative processes that involve everyone. In fact, renaturalization processes are sometimes criticised for promoting what is known as green gentrification. This is what is happening in the three chimneys area of San Adriá, where an urban master plan is being discussed. There are fears that an intervention of this type could lead to an alternation in the status quo and that the inhabitants of this municipality, which has traditionally been working class, would be affected by urban speculation associated with environmental improvement. That is why we must make a commitment to more inclusive, fairer approaches.

This is linked to another research project that you lead, DIGNITY, which addresses the study of mobility ecosystems to improve accessibility and social inclusion. How can we avoid certain groups being left out of the digital transformation of mobility?

This is an emerging problem that the pandemic has made more visible. We analyse the risks and the opportunities for society, with a focus on those who will experience the greatest digital gap. We try to generate methodologies and frameworks of analysis that are more inclusive for vulnerable users in terms of digital mobility due to issues of income, age, reduced mobility or because they live in a rural environment.

What solutions have emerged as you advance in this project?

Under the focus of Dignity, we work on various levels: users, technology suppliers and political actors. The aim is to draw up a set of recommendations for each one. We want those who design digital tools for mobility to use methodologies that involve users, for example in the development of apps with tools for co-creation and inclusive design. With the stakeholders, we generate future scenarios to consider how the digitalization of mobility affects their territory, and what measures they should incorporate to be more inclusive. What we are seeing is that age and educational level are two of the aspects that have the biggest impact on the risk of digital exclusion in mobility.

You presented the DIGNITY project in the last edition of Smart City Expo. Do you think that those who lead the development of technologies for smart cities consider proposals like DIGNITY?

I would like to think so. Many of the companies that have tried these methodologies have seen that they obtain a kind of knowledge that allows them to improve their products and services. They see it as an added value to collaborate to improve accessibility and social inclusion applied to the digitalization of mobility. And the cost of involving users in the process is less, it is more a cultural issue.

And at political level?

I think that policy makers cannot remain on the margins. If they want to implement ideas such as T Mobilitat they need to work in this area. For example, sharing is not used greatly. Out of the people that we have consulted, only 10% had tried it. And 40% of the population would not consider using a mobility service if they needed to download an application. All of this needs to be considered to design public mobility policies.