Key Insights

Barcelona: Planning Pandemic Recovery Around the SDGs

ESI ThoughtLab

With over three million cases of coronavirus confirmed since the beginning of 2020, Spain has been one of the countries most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Strict travel restrictions and containment measures were imposed to slow the spread of the epidemic, damaging the economy of cities like Barcelona, which is heavily dependent on tourism. Supported by a healthy budget and the absence of debt, the city was able to employ robust resources to decrease infections and support residents economically as unemployment rates soared.

The city’s main priority was to help the healthcare system, by transforming existing spaces like sports centers or government buildings into hospitals and shelters. Outside of health-related issues, the city’s projects around sustainability and the UN’s 2030 Agenda initially took a back seat.

“We were thinking about the next 24 hours, not about the next 10 years,” said Miquel Rodriguez Planas, Commissioner for the 2030 Agenda of the Barcelona City Council. “But once we got to a ‘new normality’, we realized that the challenges we had with the pandemic, the need for a good health system, good education, less inequality, a more resilient economy… were already part of the 2030 Agenda. With the pandemic, we just believe more in the agenda.”

Diversifying the economy

One of the first lessons from the pandemic for Barcelona was that it needed to reduce its reliance on tourism. Lockdowns and the collapse in tourism were particularly challenging for the city center, where retailers suddenly lost most of their customers. The city’s objective going forward is to diversify the economy by focusing on other areas like education, thereby making the economy more resilient. With five top public universities and two top business schools, the city wants to develop a knowledge economy that appeals to students and faculty from all over the world.  

In addition, Barcelona will focus on attracting more energy companies, pharmaceutical players, and other businesses to Barcelona Tech City, a non-profit organization that supports entrepreneurs, investors, incubators, government entities, and others working to build Barcelona into a major global tech hub.

“To survive as a city, we need to diversify the economy and have a bold policy to build a talent, a knowledge economy. We have the assets, we just need to connect them with the research centers, the SMEs, and the private sector,” said Rodriguez Planas.

To address the escalating unemployment rates that particularly affected blue-collar workers from the tourism, restaurant, and retail sectors, the city is investing in training programs to upskill or reskill workers. For instance, a public IT Academy currently teaches programming skills to over 300 students per year, a number the city hopes will go up to 3,000 per year.  

“If we want to have an economy based on innovation and added value, and to reduce inequalities, we need to provide new skills and opportunities to residents,” said Rodriguez Planas.

He also sees the role of the city growing even more in these efforts. “How can we move into the talent economy, build this innovation? The public sector has to become a more engaged actor. Even if we have national or regional policies around research and innovation, the city has to be an active actor too.”

Addressing the digital gap and sustainable energy

One of the most relevant inequalities to address during the pandemic was digital access. The city conducted a citizen survey published in January 2021 which determined that 92% of residents had access to the Internet. While this is a relatively high level, it still left about 8% of households disconnected (55% of these comprised people 74 years of age or old). The study also noted a sharp increase in technology use during the pandemic as workers and students went remote.

Armed with this data, the city launched initiatives to boost digital access further, for instance by donating devices to families or deploying “digital agents” to help residents use technology, particularly seniors. “To me, a smart city is a city that knows which challenges its citizens are facing and tries to solve them,” said Rodriguez Planas.

In line with the SDGs, the city is also planning its recovery efforts while focusing on the environment. It has allocated €50 million for solar panel projects, working with private partners, to install panels on the roofs of residential, industrial, and other buildings. The city will fund just 30% of the projects, with private companies investing the rest. The city hopes to generate revenue and achieve a return on its investments, helping to heal its budget.