The executive director of Mobile World Capital Barcelona assures that Spain “is breaking records with more than 1,300 million in rounds of capital increase”
Barcelona has been immersed in a process of transformation for years to become one of the main world centers of attraction for the technology sector. Behind this project is, among others, the Mobile World Capital Barcelona, which works to develop its entrepreneurial ecosystem and thus open the door to new economic opportunities.
To better understand the position of the Catalan capital, the impact of the pandemic and its most immediate challenges, we spoke with Carlos Grau, executive director of the foundation.
What is the great strength of Barcelona to be a global technology hub?
We are the country with the best fiber optic network infrastructure in Europe and the third in the world, that together with 5G will allow us to improve connectivity in areas of the territory that we did not have covered, such as the rural environment. We have a lot of talent and excellence in research centers in different fields. We have managed to consolidate a powerful and varied digital ecosystem: There are more than 1,500 start-ups in Barcelona, we attract talent from large international corporations and with the Mobile World Congress we are the world capital of mobile technologies. All this helps the positioning of the city. Barcelona has the opportunity to be a benchmark to promote a more ethical and inclusive technology, with economic but also social impact.
How to ensure that digital transformation reaches everyone and does not accentuate discrimination against the poorest?
There is a very important gap with the population that is not digitally integrated. Answering it is necessary because without this digitization you are left out of basic public services such as education, telecare or even mobility, as we have seen with the epidemiological card to be able to go to concerts or to other countries. Technology is agnostic. It is part of our life and we must anticipate to take advantage of the positive changes it will bring without leaving anyone behind.
Still, we see how the job insecurity model from emerging platforms like Glovo.
That’s one way of looking at it, but it also gives a lot of people opportunities for inclusion and employment. Many people who come from other countries do ‘rider’ as their first job. The opportunity is to detect these people and give them ways to improve their training and have more qualified jobs. Platforms can generate very good possibilities, but the risk of a generation of precarious workers must be avoided. Everything has gone very fast, nobody imagined that in 2021 13% of the country’s jobs would depend on platforms.
“Nobody imagined that 13% of jobs in 2021 would depend on platforms”
I understand that this also happens to reverse the lack of parity in the technology sector, where only between 20 and 30% are women.
We have the challenge of promoting initiatives with social impact, which attract women to a sector that perhaps until now has been seen as for ‘geeks’, of the most technical people. With Digital Future Society we are laying the foundations for companies and administrations to be more aware of this and join forces.
Last year, Catalonia attracted 480 million in foreign investment, 31% more than the previous year, and ICT is the main sector. Has the pandemic been an opportunity to grow?
Clearly. The blow of the pandemic has been asymmetrical, it has harmed sectors such as tourism, hospitality and physical commerce while others such as telecommunications, entertainment, health or, especially, the digital sector have exploded. In the toughest year of the pandemic, in 2020, the sector generated up to 15,000 new jobs in the Barcelona metropolitan area. We have never had figures like this, and it is expected that in the next ten years the digital sector will generate more than 650,000 jobs in Spain.
In addition, the entrepreneurial ecosystem has grown. Spain is breaking records with more than 1,300 million euros in capital increase rounds of national start-ups and almost 60% of them take place in Barcelona. We are a benchmark, the only state in the European Union with two major poles (Barcelona and Madrid) in the elite in terms of number of emerging companies and investment rounds.
What does it take to accelerate innovation?
Talent is the main asset of the sector, so we need more training and resolve express visas to expedite the arrival of talent from other countries. We need adequate tax treatment in payments in kind such as ‘stock options’, very common in start-ups. You have to pay when you execute those options or sell, not when you receive it. The framework should be flexible and risk-friendly for innovation.
“The digital sector has exploded during the pandemic creating 15,000 jobs in Spain”
You work to promote Barcelona as a ‘smart city’ and interconnected, but this is achieved with citizen data. Isn’t your privacy exposed like this?
A balance must be found between data protection – guaranteed by European regulation – and its usability. It is good to think about connected vehicles and health devices to perform surgeries ‘online’, but to make the ‘smart city’ massive, the great challenge is to make the administration electronic and to solve the creation of a digital identity for citizens.
Is transparency the key with which the EU must differentiate its technological development from that of the United States and China?
Barcelona and Europe have the opportunity to create reference models in data governance. The US has been a pioneer in the development of social networks and the cloud, but it has favored a commercial use of citizens’ data. China has used them intensively. The model of the future is in Europe, as it is based on informing citizens so that they learn how to use their data in a more critical way.
Last year the experts of the Digital Future Society warned of the need for greater data protection in the EU. But there is already a law and many large platforms do not comply with it because they already pay small fines. Should more drastic measures be taken?
The solution is to include sustainable and social development on the agenda. The technology sector has been very innovative and has developed projects at great speed. That can give the feeling that we have preferred to ask for forgiveness than permission. Industry and management must anticipate the social impact of this business model. Increasingly, markets and society will penalize companies that do not have an inclusive code of ethics. It is not just a matter of sanctions. It must be solved from the base, putting the person at the center.