I’m borrowing the title of Satya Nadella’s book “Hit Refresh, : The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone” about Microsoft’s transformation from a traditional software vendor to a global leader in cloud computing, AI, and as solutions provider.
Over the past two decades, the city of Barcelona has created an enormous dependency on tourism and international events. From just over 3 million visitors 20 years ago, the number of international visitors grew to over 12 million in 2019, which only accounts for tourists staying overnight. Over this period, Barcelona built dozens of hotels, expanded its conference facilities, reached over 15,000 Airbnb listings, and became, after London and Paris, the third most visited city in Europe.
This year, the “massive tourism economy” the city has come to depend on has crashed like a sandcastle. The current challenges that the city is experiencing this year are not a result of the pandemic, are the effects of betting most of its chips on international travelers. It took only a few months of the current crisis to frame the entire model with a big question mark.
Instead of saving its ailing tourist business, Barcelona needs to redefine its economic model.
It is not about saving jobs; it is about changing them
Recently, SEAT, the Spanish brand of Volkswagen, announced opening a new research and innovation center in Barcelona.
This, and other initiatives focusing on innovation and technology, should be the city’s present and future. And, most importantly, new startups and innovation should start from the ground up, locally. City leaders should promote local innovation, not just lure multinational companies to move to the city.
Last year, Barcelona lost to Amsterdam the bid to host the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which had to move from the United Kingdom because of Brexit. While the city council, and both the Catalan and Spanish governments expressed their disappointment, many others in Barcelona think that it was a good thing.
In his book, Satya Nadella mentions his experience when visiting cities in different countries. He says that city leaders “Too often they focus on trying to attract Silicon Valley companies in hopes they will open offices locally. They want Silicon Valley satellites.” Instead, he says, “they should be working on plans to make the best technologies available to local entrepreneurs so they can organically grow more jobs at home.”
Fortunately, Barcelona already has world-class universities and business schools, excellent telecommunications infrastructure, and people willing to risk starting new businesses. The latter is part of the Catalan DNA of entrepreneurship.
Furthermore, as the Mobile World Capital and the host of the world’s largest technology show, the Mobile World Congress, Barcelona has the framework for collaboration and international reach.
Mobile World Congress 2021 might still be at risk of canceling due to the current health crisis. Still, it will come back to full steam in the future, together with other world-class conferences such as the Smart City Expo World Congress and the IoT Solutions World Congress.
Meanwhile, Barcelona needs to act quickly, embrace change, reduce pollution, improve public transport services, move towards sustainable tourism, and improve its citizens’ well-being.
Tel Aviv, a city facing similar challenges, has a clear view from the lessons of this crisis:
If we go back to 100% the way we were before, then we miss the whole lesson that we need to learn from this. The COVID-19 came to us to give us a lesson. And we have to listen to it. And I’m saying that now, being quiet, we can listen.Dr. Hila Oren, CEO of the Tel Aviv Foundation
This year’s events might be the best wake-up call the city needed to reconsider everything and “hit refresh.”