There’s nothing like continuity. Today, the GSMA announced that the Mobile World Congress — the world’s largest gathering of all things mobile — had extended its contract with Barcelona until 2023. It’s a measure of the city’s success in organizing a smoothly-run event attracting increasingly bigger crowds over the past 10 years that the GSMA should sign a new agreement.
But the story behind the seemingly innocuous announcement by the GSMA is more bumpy.
Two months ago, just at the point when the GSMA was finalizing the next four-year agreement, Barcelona held municipal elections. Xavier Trias, the outgoing mayor, had been a huge promoter of the congress and the big players it attracted. He had worked tirelessly to draw new tech investment to the city’s @22 innovation district.
New mayor-elect Ada Colau, a leading light of the Indignados protest movement who had pledged to fight inequality, declared the Mobile World Congress elitist and said she wanted a thorough review before giving any green light to another four-year contract.
Like cartoon characters that screech to a halt, their hair on end, the business and tech communities in Barcelona were aghast at Colau’s pronouncement. Losing the Mobile World Congress was not just a question of money, although that was not insignificant. Last year the congress contributed €436 million to the local economy, while adding more than €3 billion over the 10 years the city has hosted the event.
It was also Barcelona’s title as Mobile World Capital. With that came funding from the GSMA, investment and research dollars from big tech players such as HP, which is setting up its world centre for 3D development in Sant Cugat del Vallès, and a slew of initiatives in the areas of education, health, and smart living that benefit citizens and entrepreneurs alike.
On seeing Barcelona’s welcome mat retract slightly, the GSMA delayed awarding the 2019 to 2023 contract. In this vacuum five other cities, including Paris and Amsterdam, redoubled their efforts to host the event.
Outgoing mayor Trias stepped into the breach. Before handing the keys of government to mayor-elect Colau, he gathered all the parties of the new council who agreed to sign a letter of unequivocal commitment to host the congress.
Today, with the GSMA announcement, any doubts have been laid to rest.