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Pau Guardans: ‘The solution is a stronger Barcelona’

When he took over Barcelona Global presidency two years ago, Pau Guardans, like everybody else, had no idea that he would end his period in office in the midst of a major crisis caused by a global pandemic. Over the two years, Barcelona Global, and its thousand members, including companies, institutions and professionals, have continued to make proposals designed to promote the Catalan capital and position it in an increasingly competitive world. About to pass the baton onto Aurora Catà—the assembly is expected to give the green light to her appointment on July 15—, Guardans reflects on what has been done and provides some ideas on ways to respond to this unanticipated crisis.

Will Barcelona continue to play a leading role in the post-Covid world?

That’s up to us. Crises present great opportunities, and as the crisis has been global, we are all back on the starting blocks. Barcelona has the chance to win admiration around the world once again, but not only as a tourist destination, but rather because people want to come and work and live here because it is a respectful, inclusive, and tolerant city which offers outstanding quality of life.

What are its strengths?

Barcelona's strengths are still intact. We must make the most of what we are; there’s no point in inventing an imaginary city that doesn’t exist in reality. The solution is to build on Barcelona’s strengths. We need more of what has made us what we are. I don't agree with people who say we have to be different; what we need is better management of culture, science, tourism, and urban planning. Good management and leadership are needed: it's not merely a question of more resources or money.

Nevertheless, certain areas will need to be reset…

This crisis will result in winners and losers. And to be winners we need to act quickly and have a clear idea of what needs to be done. Barcelona was already facing a number of problems in February, probably because we had not been on the ball. We have wasted time on absurd debates, such as whether or not the Hospital Clinic should be extended or what should be done with the Diagonal avenue... We need to get down to work right now. This is not the time to make strategic city plans, but to manage, to act on specific issues.

Which ones?

Firstly, the city has to function well: it needs to be clean, well-lit, and well-run. Secondly, and this is now more important than ever, it needs to eliminate bureaucracy, which restricts growth and makes it difficult to attract investment. Thirdly, it needs to build on the strengths I mentioned earlier. And the fourth major challenge is to create a fully connected Greater Barcelona, with new governmental structures. The lack of a Greater Barcelona structure is slowing down urban planning and makes it harder to resolve mobility problems, generate affordable housing, and project the city to the rest of the world... But we must be clear: this means transferring powers; it’s not a question of just creating a new bureaucratic layer and making decision-making more complex.

The Barcelona City Council seems to be seeking to create a broad political consensus on how to come out of the crisis

Broad political agreements are certainly positive, but only if they serve to make real progress, not if they end watering good ideas down, in which case they slow things down. The agreement must be ambitious and help us make a major leap forward. There will be a high price to pay if the consensus doesn’t enable us to move on.

Has this crisis shown that Barcelona is excessively dependent on tourism?

No, that is not the problem. Tourism has a similar weight in Barcelona's economy to that of other global cities. It's not a question of whether we depend on it too much or too little; it is always good to have a balanced mix between sectors. But our problems will not be solved by reducing tourism, but by managing it well and increasing other things of value to us. Any kind of decrease will only impoverish us.

This crisis has shown how vital digitalization is. Is Barcelona in a position to compete with other cities in this field?

This is a clear opportunity for us. But it would be even better if instead of seeing technology as a separate sector, we viewed it as something that affects all companies and everything we do. In this respect, we need to ensure that there are people trained in digital skills across all the sectors. Appropriate taxation would also help. Technology should not be about a strange cluster in one area of the city but a reality that should permeate the city as a whole.

The mobility sector is another industry that is particularly relevant right now. There are numerous new start-ups and vehicles providing new ways of getting around town, but Nissan is leaving...

Mobility is a major issue for Barcelona, not only because of historical links with the automotive industry, but also because of the way the city is designed. We have recently launched a challenge involving some fifty partners, whose aim is to create a sustainable model for the Greater Barcelona metropolitan area. We can’t carry out experiments: we need a clear design that integrates technology, operators, city design, trade, tourism, and local residents, etc. This all implies a vision that is not necessarily yet shared by all citizens. We will try to ensure that the design is based on very specific proposals. And we will consider how it can also be translated into generating economic activity, attracting talent, and creating jobs.

This issue often tends to produce heated debates...

We should avoid dogmatic approaches and seek a consensus based on technical issues, with empirical justifications"

A vision for all sectors

"Barcelona Global will continue to make proposals that seek to improve the city," asserts Pau Guardans, who considers it "a luxury" to have been at the head of the organization for the last two years. "We have worked as hard as we can on developing Barcelona's good name and we have gone out into the world to explain what Barcelona represents" he said. Also, as a think tank, he continues, "we have reflected on the major challenges and set out very specific ideas that we have made available to society.” And, as a lobby, we have generated "ideas that aim to be influential and seek to transform reality," he adds. In the opinion of this hotelier, the growth of the association is valuable not only because of the increase in numbers but because "it embraces all sectors—companies, individuals, research centers, scientific facilities, and creative industries—just like Barcelona itself.

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