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Carles Ferreiro, founder of dotopen, on stage at an Apps4Bcn event
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Ask your average Joe what comes to mind when you think of Barcelona and you’ll no doubt hear the words sun, architecture and creativity banded about. But for the better part of the last decade Barcelona has also been inseparably linked to another word and world—that of apps and mobile technology.
The last decade has seen the city take on the once unlikely title of ‘app capital’, a true hotbed for imaginative mobile-led solutions. We caught up with Barcelona native and founder of open innovation firm dotopen Carles Ferreiro, as well as Sharing Academy’s CEO and Founder Jordi Llonch Esteve, to discuss this recent trend from an insider’s perspective.
“Before 2006, it was a very traditional, average European city,” started Ferreiro. “It had a bit of a tech footprint thanks to international companies that were here—large companies that had interesting corporate innovation departments—but there was no startup scene, no supporting network, no venture capital, no specialised lawyers, no communications professionals. The whole ecosystem was being built in real time.” The ecosystem was strangely boosted by the 2008 market crash. With youth unemployment alone jumping up 16 percent nationally within a year, the more entrepreneurial spirits realised that they’d have to build their own platforms for work. Startups began appearing at such a rate it put the rest of Europe to shame. Furthermore, Spain’s low wages and Barcelona’s renowned beauty made it a no brainer for international entrepreneurs. “Startups can’t pay big salaries to their employees, not at the beginning, so they strive to offer other benefits,” Llonch Esteve explained. “Barcelona is a beautiful city that has great climatic conditions, it is close to the sea and the food is awesome. Also, the salaries in Spain are very low compared to other countries, so the wonderful conditions of the city plus the low wages, make a great environment.”
Economic and location reasons aside, there’s another key component to the city’s success—its tenacious spirit. “The traditional strengths of Barcelona are creativity, lifestyle and a certain sense for the unusual. That comes in handy for the tech industry,” said Ferreiro. “The architecture is a good example. The buildings here are obviously solid, they’re still standing after a few hundred years, but they tend to be unique, their creativity is clearly expressed.” A historic desire for independence has also bred a toughened outsider’s soul, perfect for a grassroots approach to business. “The idea of collaborating is quite embedded in the city. It’s wrapped up in iconic imagery, like the castellers (human castles) tradition, we empower each other. The more people we have the bigger the castle we can create.” This collaborative approach is also fundamental to Sharing Academy’s entire premise—a platform that connects university students that have passed a subject with others who are currently studying it. “The greatest achievement is when senior university students realise that they are experts to junior students,” said Llonch.
But with any success come the pitfalls and the risk of self-cannibalisation within an industry. One just has to look at the changing face of cities such as Portland and London through rapid gentrification to see the dangers. “The moment it becomes too expensive to live here, startups will abandon the city and look for another place to develop their innovative products,” noted Llonch. “It is in our hands, the hands of the entrepreneurs, to empower the citizens and capture new talent from all over the world, by being responsible and avoiding bubbles.” For now, the landscape seems safe though, with the Global Mobile Suppliers Association’s (GSA) decision last July to extend Barcelona’s host status for the Mobile World Congress until 2023. Last year’s event drew over 94,000 attendees and boosted the local economy by over 430 million euros—much of this going to job creation.
Additionally, platforms such as dotopen’s ‘Smart City Hack’ branch are eager to involve citizens in a world traditionally dominated by big business. Dotopen has been working with the city’s residents to find tech solutions that fit Barcelona’s changing environment. “The concept of the ‘smart city’ relates to infrastructure, networks and big companies. Things like that can seem remote and abstract to citizens,” said Ferreiro. “Working with apps, ‘personal tech’ seemed the obvious way for us to try and shift the idea of ‘smart cities’ to include the citizen.” Last year’s Smart City Hack event was new territory for all but resulted in 64 apps being created, 6,423 citizens engaging internationally and the participation of 11 global cities. Amongst many of the exciting concepts to use the project as a springboard was Barcelona-based delivery app, Glovo, and Enerbyte’s ‘Virtual Energy Advisor’, a social app that helps to monitor your energy use and encourage community-led action.
None of this would be possible, however, without the open-minded approach of the city. “We tend to think of technology as the big names that we read in magazines or blogs,” observed Ferreiro, “but sometimes these big transformations start really small and can start locally. In Barcelona we have experienced a really good reception to the idea of citizen participation and co-creating a city through the development of services built as apps. People seem to find it all very intriguing.”
So what makes a really successful app? “The technology side, though critical, is not the major component for success,” offered Ferreiro. “The major factor is how well the app fulfils the users’ needs. Try and conceptualise something that will change his or her behaviour as little as possible while solving a problem.” Ease and simplicity, it seems, is the key.
BORN IN BARCELONA
The following apps have all been created right here in the city.
Spain’s answer to US company, Postmates, Glovo offers to deliver practically anything to your doorstep—from any shop or restaurant and within the hour. The express delivery app has been successful in winning AppCircus Barcelona in 2015, and being nominated for the Mobile Premier Awards 2016.
A second-hand marketplace where users can connect with other nearby users to sell or purchase goods. It has raised millions in funding, and is recognised as one of the most well-funded startups in the country.
Based in Barcelona and London, CookBooth communicates with thousands of foodies across the globe. Reaching 220,000 downloads within its first six months, this popular cooking app acts as a photographic, digital cookbook providing inspiration and easy-to-use recipes.
Winner of the UNESCO WSA mobile healthcare awards in 2012, the Social Diabetes app is a self-management tool for diabetes sufferers. It tracks exercise, adjustments to insulin dosages, behaviour patterns and more, whilst connecting you to a community of other people diagnosed with diabetes.
The app is designed to unite struggling students with graduates and organise tutoring sessions, in person or online, in preparation for their exams. Awarded ‘Best App’ at the Mobile Premier Awards just one year after its launch, Sharing Academy receives over 6,000 visits daily.
Meaning ‘Barcelona Run’, this app was developed by Barcelona’s city council and provides 23 running routes around the city. The routes are divided by district, challenge level and theme, each filled with information about the terrain, distance, pollen count, weather, green areas etc.