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From MWC2013: In Barcelona > a loss of jobs and a brain drain, but a fabulous technology talent pool

May 18th, 2013 |  Published in Mobile World Congress 2013


Hola Barcelona

18 May 2013 – To attend the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona one confronts “in-your-face” contrasts.  The event is enormous, spread across a venue that is several football pitches long and wide.  GSM and event servicing vendors employee 3,000+ temporary workers to work the event as guides, to staff info kiosks, food service, maintenance, security, etc.  Scores of these temps are university students (we met 30 law students) who used every opportunity to network for jobs.

And for those temps MWC is a Godsend.  For in the heart of Barcelona, it is easy to forget that Spain is a miserable concoction of deep recession and soaring unemployment. The shops, cafés and restaurants are jammed with tourists and Catalans, bars are packed at 2 a.m.  But Barcelona … the port that welcomed Christopher Columbus home from his first voyage to the Americas … is a city of contrasts.  It vibrates with energy, diversity and communal support, while stricken by crushing unemployment and homelessness.  As the recent strikes and protests bear witness.

Ironically, from a technology standpoint, Barcelona stands apart from the rest of Spain and much of Europe.  You need only speak with Catalan companies like Barcelona Media, eyeOS, Globalcomm Europe, Intelligent Software, MediaLab Barcelona, SlashMobility, ubiqua,  plus scores of others to see and understand the incredible technology talent available in this marvelous city.  We also had the opportunity to speak with people from the Barcelona School of Telecommunications Engineering and also the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, plus the folks @BCN Tech Talk.

And let’s not forget such events as the annual Barcelona Cognition, Brain and Technology summer school which promotes a shared systems-level understanding of the functional architecture of the brain and its possible emulation in artificial systems.

The talent base here is enormous. It is what led us to open an office in Barcelona this year.

Youth unemployment has climbed to 56.5% without hitting a ceiling. Spain’s youth unemployment figure is surpassed only by Greece. As well as its troubled banking sector, Spain suffers from a lack of competitiveness inside the eurozone and excessive household and company debts. According to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics office, the rate of unemployment among young adults in the EU has climbed to 23.5 percent. A lost generation is taking shape in Europe.

And European governments seem clueless when they hear the things said by people like a Barcelona student who told us at MWC “we don’t want to leave Catalan but the constant uncertainty makes us tired and depressed”.

But this is not meant as an economic post. For our detailed discussion on the Spanish economy see our pre-MWC analysis piece by clicking here.

Spain has lagged behind the rest of Europe for years when it comes to education. It holds the questionable record of having the highest percentage of school dropouts in the EU: 24.9 percent. Paradoxically, Spain’s conservative government slashed €10 billion in education funding in 2012. It also eliminated tax breaks for companies that hire newcomers to the job market. The curtailment of support for education is especially noteworthy, given that the majority of the country’s 6.2 million unemployed are poorly trained and educated.

Worse, as our Catalan colleagues and friends tell us, science and technology spending has been cut as part of the Spanish government’s broader austerity program.  Universities and research centers complain there is sometimes not even money to pay for gloves, lab coats and basic materials such as liquid nitrogen.


And there lies the conundrum.  The Spanish government itself says that “our economy should be based on innovation. We need innovation. We need technology”.  And then they go and cut the money to support innovation and technology. Honestly, it simply highlights a searing dilemma faced by many of southern Europe’s cash-strapped governments: how to cut spending and lower the budget deficit without undermining their country’s long-term economic prospects. In the case of Spain, the government has offered tax breaks and other incentives to the private sector, in an attempt to encourage more R&D spending by corporations.

And so the Spanish push on.  The Círculo de Empresarios, Spain’s biggest business lobby group, keeps pushing the government to adopt measures to encourage co-operation between universities and the private sector, an area where it says Spain lags far behind other countries. A new drive to encourage a “spirit of entrepreneurship” in schools, on the other hand, has won strong backing.

Said Círculo  in a press release: “We are not looking only for short-term effects – we need to change the mentality.  Traditionally, our model of education is very theoretical and conservative. It encourages people to look for safe jobs and not to launch themselves as entrepreneurs. We think education should encourage creativity and innovation.”

All we can say is do not short the talent and the innovation in Barcelona.  IBM certainly knows.  They unveiled their first Technological Innovation Centre in Catalonia.  It will initially employ 50 highly-qualified professionals, 90% of them graduates from the local Rovira Virgili University. However, the plan is to reach 100 workers in one year’s time and 250 in two years.


For our full Mobile World Congress 2013 coverage click here.

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