Barcelona’s Extraordinary Innovation District

Today conversations about Barcelona are more apt to evoke discussion of the Academy-Award winning movie “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” starring the stunning Penelope Cruz, than talk about the other striking attributes of the second-largest city of Spain.

Travelers who are familiar with this city know about the unique and distinctive architecture of Antoni Gaudi as well as the influence of great artists like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. Visitors to Barcelona remember the astounding still to be finished Gaudi cathedral — Sagrada Familia, the unique Gaudi created mansion Casa Batillo on Passage de Gracia, and the long walk down Las Ramblas which eventually meets the Mediterranean Sea.

Barcelona is more than a tourist haven. Today it is Spain’s chief commercial and industrial hub in addition to being its largest port. The key manufacturing industries include textiles, airplanes, machinery and electrical equipment. The city is well known in Europe for its design and style. It is also an important banking and financial center. Barcelona has several major universities in addition to many other educational and research institutions.

The city government is busy preparing itself for leadership among world metro areas in the 21st century via the rapid development of an innovation district known as 22@Barcelona in a former industrial district by the sea. The project is large and ambitious and focuses on massive infrastructure development including housing, social amenities, smart urban transportation, fiber-optics connectivity, 21st century pneumatic waste collection and state of the art heating and cooling systems. Although a large amount of funding originates from the government, iconic Spanish businesses including La Caixa (a major bank), Telefonica, Abertis, Agbar, and Gas Natural are also major investors in this project.

The innovation district focuses on the development of five strategic industries that include media, IT, hi-tech medicine, clean-tech, and design. Since its inception in 2000, the innovation district has attracted nearly 1,000 companies with 32,000 jobs in these five industry areas. The success of one of the most ambitious urban development projects in Europe is based on the fact that it combines working and living with education, culture, leisure and entertainment.

The European City Monitor in 2006 rated Barcelona as one of the most attractive cities in Europe for quality of life for employees as well as a choice for companies wishing to relocate. Barcelona is an increasingly popular destination for highly educated professionals and creative people. The innovation district wants to capitalize on this trend. There are few projects of this kind and of this magnitude in the world today except for One North in Singapore and Hafen City in Hamburg. Josep Pique, the CEO of 22@Barcelona, proudly suggests that, “it is today the model for similar developments in Buenos Aries and Cape Town.”

In a recent conversation, Jerry Engel, the Executive Director of the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at UC Berkeley, shared his insights on the project: “22@ is an audacious innovation about innovation! Rebuilding an entire live-work community around the concept of sustainable innovation as a way of living. They have rebuilt this old early 19<supth</sup century industrial community from the infrastructure below the street to the Universities, Research Parks, Hotels, Office Buildings and Apartment houses. Quite an accomplishment by a far sighted municipal government.”

The current recession in Spain does not appear to dim the enthusiasm for this exciting project in Barcelona. They seem to be looking beyond the end of the downturn to another economic renaissance driven by continuous innovation and what better place do it than a large, sophisticated, mini city inside one of the most dynamic metropolitan regions of Europe.

I continue to be impressed by the enthusiasm in Spain about building large scale infrastructure projects, whether it is 22@Barcelona or the high-speed AVE train system that is beginning to crisscross a large part of the country. Today sleek and luxurious high-speed trains travelling at speeds of more than 180 mph (unthinkable in the U.S. in the near future) connect downtown Barcelona with downtown Madrid. Travel time is a little longer than 90 minutes. You do not have to go through time-consuming security checks at airports and long and tedious taxi rides into the city.

What is most impressive to me is that the country's goal is to eventually develop the most extensive high speed rail network in Europe.

It is my firm conviction that investment in smart infrastructure and continuous innovation in business as well as in government will be crucial to a country's prosperity in the 21st century. The story of Spain is encouraging. There is an important lesson for us in Spain’s leadership in the building of large scale innovative infrastructures even in difficult economic times.
Tapan Munroe, PhD, is an economist. The contents of the blog reflect his opinions.


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