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The "I" in Barcelona.

The "I" in Barcelona.

Exploring connectivity in Catalonia.

Exploring connectivity in Catalonia.

By: Jay Brida
Photos: Shutterstock

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Barcelona’s designation by the EU as a European Capital of Innovation is the moment when you understand why.

It could be when a simple-seeming cultural hall, near the grand old Cathedral in the Barri Gòtic, reveals itself to have Roman columns fully ensconced—representing how the city builds on history rather than destroying it. Or on a stroll up the ultra-fashionable Passeig de Gràcia as you pass the Casa Batlló and gaze in bewilderment at artfully delicate windows set in a wavy stone façade and wonder “How does this exist?” Maybe it’s when you access the public Wi-Fi® on the beach? Or taste the culinary innovation that continues since Barcelona began the molecular gastronomy revolution? The official reason for the “iCapital” award is that it is the result of a four-year-long initiative spearheaded by the city council to make Barcelona a “People’s City” through innovation.

Given its nightlife, great public transportation system, physical beauty and artistic bent, it is difficult to imagine it wasn’t considered an innovation capital before. But city officials invested even more in open data initiatives, sustainable city growth through smart lighting and urban mobility, social innovations—creating an alignment between commerce, government, and technology.

The initiative centered on the 22@ project based in El Poblenou, a former industrial city that stretches past the L’Eixample neighborhood and along the Mediterranean. El Poblenou, now officially part of Barcelona, serves as its innovative incubator and a new residential district. The neighborhood has been widely praised as a model of urban redevelopment and visionary planning. If you’re curious but can’t find this rejuvenated area, just look for the Torre Agbar, a large, pickle-shaped tower of shimmering colored glass designed to look like a spouting geyser.

Another neighborhood, L’Hospitalet de Llobregat—on the other side of Montjuïc from the center of the city—is home to the Fira de Barcelona, an enormous expo space. For more than ten years, Barcelona has hosted the GSMA Mobile World Congress, the world’s largest mobile communications event, which drew more than 94,000 participants in 2015. The tech vibe is getting so pervasive that every other waiter asked me how the conference was, even though I was in town only to take in the culture.

But if this is the vibrant heart of Barcelona’s innovation, so much of its history—and ever-evolving soul—still feels ahead of its time.

Consider “modernisme.” The name, if not the style, gives it away. In context, it’s the unique architectural style originally from Barcelona, it was free, and it was bold. Avant-garde and wild. The illusion of cut stone dripping, sculpted concrete and undulating glass speaks to its visionaries’ ambition to literally shape a new future. Not for nothing is the Audi Q3 built in an Audi factory in nearby Martorell.

The central reality of modernisme is that it looks like nothing else that has ever existed. Antoni Gaudí and his acolytes created an avant-garde style in the middle of a global Art Nouveau movement that had a few curves in common but only in the faintest echoes. The style is represented in the famed Casa Milà, Casa Batlló, the Parc Güell and the Sagrada Familia cathedral, a stunning crown of Gaudí’s genius. The enormous church is unfinished, still worked on by dedicated craftsmen, artisans and stonecutters (and trampled through by millions of tourists). The completion date is loosely scheduled for 2026—144 years after the start date.

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But the idea of modernisme isn’t simply found in select buildings, moldings and frescoes; it’s found in the fabric of Barcelona. You see it in the city’s heritage, its Catalan identity (often expressed through its futbol team, the Audi sponsored global superclub FC Barcelona) and its passionate—often chaotic—contrarian love of pushing limits. After all, it’s no accident that Picasso got his start here and that Dalí’s home (now museum) is in nearby Figueres, an easy day trip away. Nor is it an accident that the Catalans passively and actively defied the authoritarian rule of Madrid for decades at a time (even as they bitterly fought amongst themselves). Innovation, progress, the future: It’s a state of mind, often with a tongue-in-cheek sensibility mixed with a warmth to human interaction.

Barcelona is one of those cities where a visit can change life trajectories. During an interview with Christoph Tessmar, Director of Turisme de Barcelona, the convention and visitor’s bureau of the city, he told me about his moment. A German resident in town for business, he stayed an extra couple of days, then decided to give it a year. Before the year was up, he found a job at a pharmaceutical company—and that was 25 years ago.

“I wake up every day and marvel at it,” Tessmar told me. “I still notice new things every day and have found that this big city is really a small one.”

I wasn’t sure about “small,” but I certainly felt the connection. I felt it sitting in the Plaça de George Orwell, in the Barri Gòtic, at one of thousands of outdoor cafés that spread throughout the city. I connected with the world through the free public Wi-Fi® system that is seemingly everywhere (look for the blue sign with the white ‘W’ in the middle). I was able to connect with the revolutionary past from the namesake of the plaza; Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is a brilliant first-person account of the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona. I connected with the artistic vision of the city through the modern sculpture in the square that enhanced the slightly faded 18th century apartment buildings that surround it. And I connected with the people, listening to the children playing on the swings in the square. Before I left, I spoke with three German women who, like Tessmar, were wondering if they would ever go back to Berlin after spending a weekend in Barcelona. In that moment, I could very much connect to that idea.

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