Investing in talent to drive recovery

How are cities evolving to meet global challenges? And what does the future talent market look like? We reached out to Mateu Hernandez, Director at Barcelona Global, to understand how Barcelona is putting talent and equitable development in the spotlight as they work towards recovery.

Thank you for joining us, Mateu. Firstly, I was wondering how you thought cities need to adapt and evolve to be more resilient in the future?

First of all, the pandemic is a huge crisis and has a great impact on health and on a humanitarian level, and also it is an important economic crisis with huge impact to come. But we also know that it isn’t affecting the real assets of our global economies: our infrastructure, roads, factories, monuments… they’re all intact. Whenever the situation calms down and we can breathe easily, my feeling is that a “new normality” will come and that it will be slowly approaching to where we where. Now  we have to evolve our place branding strategies based on the lessons of the pandemic.

Firstly, we have learned that research is a big investment for our futures. On this regard, cities should brand themselves as places where researchers and research centres aim to be based in order to benefit from this new investment on research that will be generated. We have to brand our cities according to this new trend. When promoting our cities we will have to keep in mind what do research institutions and research talent want to hear about cities when looking for a place to be based.

The second thing will be the digital issues around working and the labour market – the ways that we do business.

On business travel (a sector with a big impact on certain cities economies) we’ll be facing some big fears around travel in the following months, but as we saw after 9/11, this fear will decline over time. Initially, we won’t have as big business trips and conventions as we used to have, but the situation will change.

At the same time, looking at how we work and the impact this has on our city centres will have to evolve too. Teleworking is here to stay, but partially, not fundamentally. In terms of city branding, cities that can show they’re good places to “work from” will improve their competitivity. Places that maybe don’t have the assets - either technological, connections or quality of life – will have a harder time to attract talent. That also has to impact on how cities are designed. We have to start beginning to think of cities also – not only, but also - as places to work from. Depending on the profile of workers, commuting will change as well. But we will have cases where people have their headquarters in London or Berlin or Paris – and they’ll be working five days a week in an entirely different place and only joining key meetings at those headquarters once or twice every month. This will incentivise competition between cities on who’s better to live and work from and will also have an impact on big business districts.

What role do you think that cities have in taking the lead on global challenges such as climate change, prejudice, and poverty?

I think that on those huge challenges that are more important than ever, everyone is important. From supranational structures, down to nation states, and especially cities. But each of those levels should really focus where they can impact and where their strengths are. That means not trying to change the role of a city and not trying to think that cities can solve inequality by themselves. The battle against inequality is at nation state level on the way they redistribute wealth and opportunities. If cities want to have a role in redistributing wealth, they’ll fail. What they should provide is the prosperity to fund the fight against inequality at a local level. If cities have a model where they invest in prosperity, in talent, in education, in being a good place to live and a good place to work – then a lot of the challenges around inequality will be addressed at the same time. In particular, cities could provide something which is unique which is the provision of affordable quality services. If you can provide affordable quality education, affordable quality health, affordable quality transport, affordable quality housing, it is a great asset to fight inequality on the local level.

Regarding sustainability, cities do have a major role because a huge percentage of global emissions are created in cities. Sustainable public transport, electric mobility, density, sustainable rehabilitation, green buildings and green spaces are assets cities and city planning can provide and cities must plan and provide. It is a great transformation.

What trends are you expecting to see emerging in the global talent market? How will the new focus on quality of life impact your own strategies? 

Barcelona Global is a fully private organisations focussed on making Barcelona a city of talent. We really stress the fact that we should focus especially on the talent economy as an asset of the city. And when we talk about these talented people, we have to stress that they aren’t only wealthy people – the investors and the entrepreneurs. It’s also artists and engineers and the working force who will choose where they want to work from.

This is not an elite focussed strategy; it  has to be broader than that. If we focus on developing a talent-based city in all areas, then we’ll be able to offer more opportunities to our residents. We can give our citizens a better chance to have a better education. And that in turn will give them better assets to improve their lives and help us address some of the challenges of inequality. Focusing on talent is focusing on better opportunities for all.

We know that nowadays, talented people are not only focussed on quality of life or on places well connected with opportunities, but in places where inequality isn’t a good issue. Where social cohesion is important. They don’t want to live in places with barriers; they want to live where they feel safe, where the interaction between actors is important. So working towards this prosperity and equality is essential for our long-term talent attraction strategy.

What role does placemaking and rethinking the usage of our public spaces have in recovery?

One of the lessons that many cities have learned from the pandemic and lockdown is that we should accelerate the reforms regarding public spaces. We knew before the pandemic that mobility would be an issue, and that’s why many cities were already planning to reduce the amounts of cars in city centres. This strategy has been really accelerated due to the pandemic by two issues.

One is the opportunity – when we closed the cities, in many ways it became easier to make these changes. There was an opportunity to give speed to those reforms that in another time would have taken more years. And the second issue is civic culture. Citizens have really shifted their minds; they’ve seen that congestion and pollution aren’t a good asset for their lives. They’ve been living in noisy cities for so long, and now they live in cities where they can even hear birds. They want to keep that, so it’s easier to convince them that reducing speed in city centres is important.

We’ve all seen first-hand that a big shock can change our lives. A small virus has changed everything. Before, we understood what a climate crisis could mean, but now there’s more urgency to it. We’re more aware that a climate crisis should be avoided so we need to be speedier in the decisions we make in this area.

I know that Barcelona is in the process of re-imagining La Rambla, a famous tourism hot spot, to make it more attractive to residents. How can cities prioritise culture as a key driver for recovery?

Even prior to the pandemic, we were really looking at how tourism and citizens could live in the same city. Barcelona is one of the most important touristic cities in Europe. It’s a great opportunity, but at the same time there’s been conflict between neighbours and tourists because in some moments and places, the congestion became too much.

In some ways, tourism has begun to shape the identity of the city, changing the retail, the restaurants, transforming offices into hotels…. Things that have really changed the skyline or daily life of the city. We understood a few years ago that this process should be managed, that the free market should not be able to act easily in this because in the end, it would create a non-sustainable model.

One of the ways for a touristic destination like Barcelona to balance the needs of residents and visitors is investment in culture. We want people to be finding new reasons to visit Barcelona all the time, and our culture can be a huge part of that – our exhibitions, our theatres, our festivals. It’s a big asset to really improve the quality of our tourism and the opportunities available to residents.

The other area we have to stress is on providing economic diversity to the city centre. Where the city centre is highly touristic, we should invest in the services economy because we have to diversify. As well as residents, cultural institutions, and millions of tourists, at the same time and in the same place, we need to have offices. Buildings that were used for other purposes need transforming for this purpose. This economic diversification strategy also ties into attracting talent. Many people want to live or work in city centres like in Barcelona. So we should provide new spaces for people to work in and that needs investment and agility.

How have you worked to bring the key stakeholders in Barcelona together? What role does collaboration between these entities play in your strategy?

Barcelona Global is quite a unique organisation. We are fully private organisation; we don’t receive any public money. We are forbidden, in fact to receive any money to fund our structure so we can be independent from politicians. Plus, we have more than 1000 members. From one side we have 70 of the biggest companies in town, but at the same time we have cultural institutions, research centres, universities, and smaller companies which gives another point of view. And we have about 800 individual professionals – lawyers, consultants, researchers, doctors - that commit individually.

We’re focussed on creating impact. Our mantra is ‘Make It Happen,’  and our members are all committed to our key objective – we want Barcelona to be one of the best cities for talent. Our members see that as an opportunity, and they ask how they can help. So we think of strategies and projects to develop together. We’re a think tank about how to develop the city, but we also lobby to transform certain laws that will facilitate Barcelona to be a city of talent. And we also launch new projects to create impact – such as creating an FDI agency for the city, or promoting Barcelona worldwide as a classical music hub.

We have to engage our members and a lot of that is done by having them play an active role in our projects. Collaboration is at our core. We’re fully an organisation who are always doing everything with others. And not only between our members, but also together with the public sector. Since we’re not a political entity, we don’t criticise, we propose. We suggest new ways to collaborate.

What’s your top tip for ensuring that everyone feels they have a voice at the table?

Local issues, metropolitan issues, are a key topic for the 21st century. To perform better as cities, we need to understand that the metropolitan dimension is key for development, but a lot of the key issues require commitment from our residents and private sector as well. As well as having strategies to meet local challenges at a city council or regional government level, it’s also a matter of responsibility of our citizens and businesses and they too should have their own strategies. If you can get everyone moving together, then you can create much greater impact. So the key to giving everyone a voice at the table is to ensure that you’re working with them as active participants in the solutions to the local issues that matter to them.

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