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The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Barcelona Activa: One City’s Approach To Fostering Economic Independence

18th May 2015

A practical, people-centred and grassroots approach to economic growth in a city, and region, should focus on opening up pathways for the local population. There are two elements to this. Initially it should support people to identify the needs and opportunities of their communities and areas. Then it should equip people with the skills and tools to be capable of creating a financially sustainable way to meet the identified needs and opportunities. This creates jobs, accelerates economic growth and shifts the focus away from job taking and on to job making. It also puts individuals at the heart of decision making and creates a fairer spread of economic growth, and economic power, than we often see. The leading example I have seen of this approach in practice is Barcelona Activa.

Over the last thirty years the City of Barcelona has undergone a transformation from a classical industrial city in decline to one that has a dynamic economy with a world class reputation.  Barcelona Activa, founded in 1986, has been the City Council’s strategy, and tool, for investing in and creating economic independence at a local level and tackling unemployment for the region. Through a focus on entrepreneurship, business development and human capital; and supported by a range of spaces and services across the city, Barcelona Activa has had such wide ranging success that they are regularly held up by the OECED as a global leader in creating and embedding local economic independence.

Some of the big number’s highlighting the success of Barcelona Activa’s approach include working with over 40,000 potential entrepreneurs; over 11,000 business projects and creating over 7,000 new companies. The variety of businesses is impressive and they are linked by a key aspect – they are innovative and sustainable. The success rate of start-ups from Barcelona Activa is also remarkable with 84% of the companies continuing to trade for three years or more. The resilience of this approach is shown by the number of start-ups launched in Barcelona Activa more than doubling (from 713 to 1,700) since the beginning of the crisis in 2007. The impact of this is also well reflected in the positive responses to the successes both in the city and abroad. Barcelona Activa has demonstrated that through enabling citizens to become economically independent and create jobs you enable a city to thrive.

The approach of Barcelona Active is not unique (although it’s success and levels of council support may be) in their approach and organisations such as Business Development Friesland (Netherlands), the Academy of Entrepreneurship (Greece) and Bridging To The Future (UK) are also focusing on grassroots growth as a way of revitalising local, regional and national economies. Their common factor being a belief in developing people first, ideas second and businesses third. This avoids a focus on the exact nature of the support offered (e.g. incubation, micro-investment, coaching or accelerating etc) and instead focuses on the impact which can be made when people are given the opportunity and ability to do so.

As a way of tackling structural inequalities, creating economic independence and reducing unemployment the success of Barcelona Activa merits serious reflection in the UK. Barcelona Activa has developed an impressive methodology alongside a commitment to an ethos of practical business coaching and integrated programmes. This emphasis on people and their talents is unremitting and should set a standard for others to follow. The impact (social and economic) of Barcelona Activa suggests there is much more to be done in the UK to support the organisations trying to nurture a grassroots led economic recovery.

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