Barcelona breathes deep on Mobile World Congress optimism

The Catalan city is reinvented when the MWC mobile conference cavalcade arrives

Katarina Rampackova is a freelance dancer and choreographer. Born in Slovakia, she works and lives in Barcelona, teaching dance and working on a variety of artistic projects, including coaching disabled kids and co-founding a dance school in her home town of Kosice. She’s walking the Citi-sponsored bar area at Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress, oversized black jacket, walkie-talkie and a security badge that disguises her day job, but it’s indicative of the effect this global event has on the city. With more than 100,000 visitors from all over the world, the demand on resources is huge.   

“Most of my friends are working here,” she says and she’s not joking. She thinks, like so many of the temporary workforce that MWC is good for Barcelona. There are, according to GSMA 13,200 temporary employees at the event but the full effects of MWC are felt across the city. Hotels, bars, cafes, taxis and so on, reap the benefits of this annual telephony fest.

“It’s the main event in the year,” says Alberto Rodriguez who works at Taller de Tapas, just off the Plaza de Pi, serving up a fine patatas bravas and glasses of tinto. “We are full every evening. It's very good for business.”

It’s the same story everywhere. The Chic&Basic Born hotel on Calle Princesa is full and breakfast on the soft chairs and sofa is like a mini United Nations meeting: men and women in suits, some with lanyards around their necks already, talking a multitude of languages. The staff behind the bar say it’s a great for business, especially at a time when tourism tends to be at its lowest point in the year.

Barcelona mayor Ada Colau would agree. This year she must be relieved there was no repeat of last year’s two-day Metro transit strike. She tweeted a welcome and on Tuesday supported the Women in Mobile event at the La Bonne cultural centre.

“We are determined to work with you to put women at the centre of the digital revolution,” Colau said to a packed room.

Across the city, the largely male-dominated MWC 17 (there are no official gender breakdown figures) at Fira Barcelona, a vast space with eight exhibitions halls, was subject to a Greenpeace invasion, or at least a Samsung presentation was. It was also subject to a whistle-blowing protest outside the front entrance, by a UGT-organised march against working conditions and unfair pay at an airport concession. Clearly, MWC has reached the sort of international media heights that it can become a stage for causes.

For a brief moment, it was easy to think that Andrew Funk, holding his oversized cardboard cutout Nokia and LG phones and homeless banner with hand-scrawled messages was another protestor. Standing outside the main barriers amid a heavy police presence, Funk was actually promoting his United Homeless Bank idea, and homeless entrepreneur campaign. He is trying to work with some mobile companies to generate opportunities to help homeless people in Barcelona get off the streets. Given that the event is estimated to generate around €465m for the local economy, you’d think there may be some cash in the pot to help with that.

Thanks in part to MWC and a series of start-up and incubation programmes, Barcelona and Catalonia have grown into a jewel in the Spanish crown, at least in terms of technology and telecoms. The autonomous community that has often seemed foe than friend to Madrid, now boasts around 12,800 tech firms with a combined turnover of €14bn, helping the city to fifth in the global start-up rankings (according to Compass and ACCIO) behind London, Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam. With spring in the air, optimism is understandable, but with a fluctuating economy and the ripple effects of Brexit still uncertain, you feel the city should make hay while the sun shines. For the moment at least, it’s a good time to be a Catalan.


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