This blog post is about how the city of Barcelona during the recent decade has developed into one of the most vibrant and energetic innovation environments in the knowledge economy, and about the people who made it happen.
What is the city but the people? – William Shakespeare, Coriolanus
Barcelona, mythical city by the sea
Located by the Mediterranean sea in the very north-east of the Spanish coast, Barcelona is certainly the most cosmopolitan, progressive and modern city in Spain. The glorious, almost organic, architecture of Antonio Gaudí with its fascinating and fantastic buildings La Sagrada Família, La Pedrera, Casa Batllo and the Parc Guëll, brings a mythical almost spiritual feeling to the city’s wide streets and avenues.
The region Cataluña and the city Barcelona have always had a very rich art movement and are the source of some of the greatest modern artists, such as Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Antonio Tàpies and other well known cultural personalities like Bigas Luna (director), Pau Casals (musician and composer), Llluis Lllach (singer) and Carlos Ruiz Zafón (writer) among many others. The city has always inspired creative people to excel.
The industrial evolution
Barcelona has a long mercantile tradition and it was one of the earliest cities in continental Europe to become industrialised, beginning with textile-related works from the mid 1780s but really gathering momentum in the mid-19th century, when it became a major centre for the production of textiles and machinery. The economy of Barcelona was built on two pillars: commerce (both regional and international) and industry, particularly textiles.
The core district of the industrial revolution was Poblenou, north-east of the city center. The construction of the first Spanish railway through Sant Marti de Provençals, from 1848, was one of the main causes for the industrial development in the area.
Between 1855 and 1888, the number of factories n Poblenou increased from 57 to 243. In the late 19th century, Poblenou was nicknamed the "Catalan Manchester" due to its important industrialization. The main activities were in the textile sector, metallurgy and mechanical construction.
The industrial decline of Poblenou was brought about by globalisation and the reconstruction of industrial production that began in the late 1960s. This creative destruction, brought about by innovation and globalisation, are well know and described elsewhere on this blog.
The old industrial sites in Poblenou were broken up into smaller segments for craftsmen and carpenters. These sites were largely abandoned as well. A small but sizeable community of artists emerged from within this industrial decay. The community contained various members of the artistic community like painters, designers and theater companies, to name just a few.
I remember when I was in Barcelona for the first time in August 1997, that the district to a large extent looked abandoned. There were some highlights, wonderful small restaurants and bars close to the sea, but in general it was an industrial wasteland.
The modernisation of Barcelona was promoted by two events in 1986: The Spanish inclusion in the European Community, and in particular Barcelona’s designation as host city of the 1992 Summer Olympics.
Since then, the process of urban regeneration has been rapid, and accompanied by a greatly increased international reputation of the city as a tourist destination. During this phase, the ring road around the city was built.
Perhaps the greatest transformation of Barcelona in preparation for the Olympics was along the waterfront, where the harbor and the Mediterranean have been placed at the heart of the city. In the old town, the pedestrian street Las Ramblas leads down to a modern marina in the old harbor, with parks, museums, shopping areas, a multitude of restaurants and an Imax theatre.
Dramatic changes over the last two decades have shifted the cargo and container trade away to the south, opened up the old docksides as promenades and entertainment areas, and landscaped the city’s beaches to the north.
It is as if a theatre curtain has been lifted to reveal that, all along, Barcelona had an urban waterfront of which it could be proud.
Another important improvement was the construction of Avenida Diagonal Mar, leading north east from the city center toward the sea and opening up access to the Poblenou district. In February 1999 the last stretch of Avenida Diagonal Mar was opened.
Along the Avenida Diagonal Mar are residential areas, many hotels and a long stretch of park. The park was designed by the architect Enric Miralles. The design optimizes the natural resources for their sustainable maintenance and applies the latest development in renewable energy and energy saving.
Rainwater is stored in underground cisterns, and made available to the plants and flowers through tubular structures . These pipes run around the park and like the pots are decorated with ceramics.
The development of 22@Barcelona
This new access road triggered a public debate about the future of Poblenou. Central in this discussion was Miquel Barcelo, an Industrial Engineer with a PhD degree in Economics who was the Director General of the Catalan Institute of Technology, Member of the Parliament of Catalonia and later became Executive President of 22@ between 2004 and 2007. The key decision maker was the Barcelona City Mayor Joan Clos.
The debate ended on 21 July 2000 with the Municipal City Council approving the Metropolitan Master Plan for the refurbishment of the industrial areas of Poblenou, better known as the 22@ Plan. It was approved unanimously by all political parties represented in the municipality.
The company 22 ARROBA BCN, S.A. was created on 10 November 2000. The purpose of the company was to develop and execute all types of urban-planning projects in the industrial and productive areas of the city of Barcelona with urban designation of 22@ or related.
This included planning as well as management, projection and execution; the planning, promotion, design, construction and management of infrastructures, urban services, facilities and public spaces; and national and international promotion of the industrial and productive areas involved, as well as driving business creation and activities linked to information and communication technology.
Thus the 22 ARROBA BCN company provides the important context management in the Quad Helix model.
As it was developed, the 22@Barcelona district transforms two hundred hectares of industrial land of Poblenou into an innovative district offering modern spaces for the strategic concentration of intensive knowledge-based activities. This initiative is also a project of urban refurbishment and a new model of city providing a response to the challenges posed by the knowledge-based society.
The 22@ project is the most important project of urban transformation of Barcelona city in modern time and one of the most ambitious urban regeneration projects in Europe, with a high real state potential and a 180 million Euros public investment in infrastructure.
With The 22@Barcelona project the historical social and economic vitality of Poblenou is resumed, by means of the transformation of the obsolete industrial areas into a space of high urban and environmental quality and with new activities linked to knowledge and innovation.
This innovative regeneration project has created new employment, housing and urban work space through five knowledge-intensive clusters: Information and Computer Technology (ICT), Media, Bio-Medical, Energy, and Design.
The five clusters within the district are not only placed strategically near each other, but near the city center as well. The proximity of the clusters to each other fosters interaction among them and the proximity of the clusters to the city center creates opportunities for results to be shared on a larger scale.
The 22@Barcelona district brings together the international and local communities through both formal and informal networks to improve the pace of innovation and to further accelerate the knowledge sharing process locally and internationally.
The district is founded on the recognition that international and local human capital existing in the same city is not sufficient for economic growth. To maximize the potential of knowledge sharing, the 22@Barcelona district created means for the overflow of knowledge to be captured.
Research shows that in order for a city to actually benefit from the highly educated and well trained members of a community, it must “pro-actively engage both local and new international communities”.
Before the creation of the 22@Barcelona district, Barcelona’s international community was thought to be not so well integrated with the city. Though many individuals and firms from around the world were located in Barcelona, few were truly involved in Barcelona’s society and professional networks. The district has sought to overcome the challenges presented from the tradition of international firms and business people, integrating them into the new fabric.
The creators of the 22@Barcelona district also consciously designed the district to not only attract and aggregate international businesses, but to create an appealing and exciting place to live. Plans aimed to create 4,000,000 m2 of office, commercial, and research spaces and bring new life to 35 km of streets.
Within this, 220,000 m2 was dedicated for new public facilities and green spaces as well as residential development including social housing. The project intended to keep 4,614 dwellings in the area and create 4,000 new state-subsidized housing units.
The development model
The model that was used to develop 22@ is based on the integration of three phases: urban, economic and innovative development. These three phases are interrelated and integrated through cross elements of governance and management.
As a project of urban refurbishment, it responds to the necessity of recovering the social and economic dynamism of Poblenou and creates a diverse and balanced environment where the different facilities coexist with state-subsidized buildings, equipments and green spaces that improve life and working quality.
As a project of economic refurbishment, it constitutes a unique opportunity to turn Poblenou into an important scientific, technologic and cultural platform transforming Barcelona into one of the most dynamic and innovative cities throughout the world.
As a project of social refurbishment, it facilitates the interrelation among different professionals who work in the area and the participation of the district’s neighbours in the opportunities information technologies offer.
(quotes from Miquel Barcelo in italic below)
1) Urban development project (the physical layer)
The planning process of a physical urban space with the definition of the urban planning of building, applications, infrastructure and mobility, and the criteria for urban management and marketing and property development.
It’s the rule of the exponential numbers. We are in an era of exponential change. And, to lead the change and take profit of the new environment (openness, global competition, knowledge creation, creativity as a competitive advantage, international talent attraction etc.), the first step is to refine from a strategic point of view the urban planning of the district: which will be the new uses of the urban space to guarantee the attractiveness of the operation: green areas, space for office buildings and company HQs, public soil to attract research and university centers.
A smart strategy is necessary to mix the several kinds of spaces, to attract private investments by means of public-private partnerships, and to offer public soil to lock in research activities. This is a win-win strategy, where everybody takes advantage of the agglomeration economies that are stimulated. And, of course, below this layer, it’s necessary to deploy the connectivity hardware: energy equipments, broadband communications, and the proper public transportation facilities.
2) Economic strategy and knowledge
The implementation of economic activities and knowledge based on the articulation and structuring of economic clusters. The clustering is the strategy that ensures the creation and transfer of knowledge among key economic actors to improve productivity.
Which are the basic conditions, those where
(and, specially), the district, could have initial competitive advantages? It was important to take the experience and academic reflexions of professors like Michael Porter. It’s clear that nobody can build a cluster from scratch. It’s necessary a seed to build on. And several economic sectors started to arise as the initial ones to create the agglomeration effect: media (the Barcelona Pompeu Fabra Universityhad some powerful research groups in this field, willing to be open to the industry –and the first strategic plan for was developed-). Barcelona Media Tech Center
ICT (there were several ICT start-up’s in the area, and a new technological centre was created to dynamize the cluster and structure cooperative projects with firms, with the support of an important financial entity in Catalonia). Medical Devices (
is well known by its powerful hospital network, its biotech potential and the excellence of the research groups in biomedicine). And, the last one, energy, field in which another technological centre was launched from the partnership between a group of leader companies (Gas Natural, Endesa) and the Politecnical University of Catalonia, among others. Barcelona
3) Areas of innovation city project
The physical transformation of urban space and the implementation of economic activities and knowledge are necessary but not sufficient. We need a set of activities that give soft consistency and all that relate to the people and environment of the city.
The decision-making process has to be maintained in the long-term. The ecosystem has to strengthen its internal links. Building clusters, in words of Ifor Ffowcs – Williams, one of the main international experts in clusters, is “strengthening relationships and creating trust”. And to do that, it’s necessary to have the proper services to structure complex projects between companies and research centres. To look for funding.
To provide IP assessment. To attract the best international talent (to teach in the cluster, to give conferences and, if possible, to stablish it there). It’s good to have business angels and venture investors circulating around. It’s necessary to have the complicity of the regional government to priorize the attraction of selective, external investments to the place. And to do that, it’s essential to build a powerful, atractive brand.
4) Governance and Marketing
The definition of Governance PCTT system (form, composition, powers, functions, etc..) that integrates all the players (City Council, universities, technology companies and public entities). This phase also defines the basic elements of the marketing plan and communication of the project (name, trademark, …)
Leadership, long-term commitment, and a smart executive team to maintain active the innovation layer, to develop commercial and communication activities, with several dimensions; real-state marketing –to attract promoters and facility investors-, institutional marketing – to gain complicities and attract public, knowledge-based activities and enterprise marketing – to attract new private operations in the selected fields.
The results after ten years
Economic renewal – The 22@Barcelona project has likewise been well received by the business community: an estimated 4,500 new companies have moved to the district since 2000, an average of 545 per year and 1.2 per day, although the most expansive era was from 2003 to 2006. Of the 4,500 companies, 47.3% are new start-ups and the rest have moved from other locations. 31% are technology or knowledge-base companies.
Social renewal – 1.500 public housing units have been created. Twelve R&D institutes and 12 university faculties have been set up or moved to the area, involving 25.000 university students. As a result, the number of people working in Poblenou has risen significantly. There are currently more than 56,000 new employees working in the district, half of them with university education. The number of knowledge workers is predicted to reach 150,000 over time.
22@Barcelona is a success story of urban regeneration in the spirit of the Quad Helix model. It sets a precedence and standard valid worldwide.
The key success factor was the clever combination of strategies related to physical development, real-state strategy, economic strategy and innovation strategy, implemented with the leadership and the momentum of an outstanding project team, including Miquel Barceló, Sergio Guillot, Oriol Alcoba and Anna Majó.