Barcelona’s Development Dilemma: Las Vegas or Incheon?

Those readers familiar with all things Catalan will doubtless be aware of BCN World, a controversial megaproject that is currently being planned for Barcelona, the city that is synonymous with Spain’s most economically productive autonomous community. The present plans for BCN World essentially consist of a vast complex centred on three key revenue-generating elements: hotels, business amenities and casinos. The latter strand has been the subject of particularly heavy criticism from the Popular Unity Candidacy party, a burgeoning left-wing grouping that has considerable power in Catalonia’s regional parliament.

The logic behind BCN World appears to be impeccable, prima facie: attract large-scale foreign direct investment (‘FDI’), build lots of hospitality infrastructure and make the fair assumption that this will be utilised by an international crowd already wildly in evidence – with the aim of alleviating the economic pain in an unemployment blackspot. And there is little doubt that – at least on some level – lots of jobs, both temporary and permanent, will be created along the way. In fact, by the measurement of pure job creation, this ‘Las Vegas’ model may outstrip other forms of economic infrastructure investment, as brilliantly highlighted by Jonas Ridderstråle and Kjell Nordström in their 2004 classic Karaoke Capitalism: Management for Mankind.

To adduce Ridderstråle and Kjell Nordström, however, there is just one small problem: the Las Vegas paradigm has acute limitations. Firstly, it produces a seriously unequal society; hordes of low-wage tertiary sector workers servicing an increasingly distant elite is scarcely a recipe for societal equilibrium. But there is a second problem which to us at Mediolana is even more troubling: the development model is at best static as far as the value chain is concerned. Putting it bluntly (and with the greatest of respect), busboys and waitresses are not going to take your economy to the next level. Plonking office blocks next to a theme park – BCN World’s proposed location is adjacent to Port Aventura – risks in this sense being a complete capitulation to the forces of mediocrity.

There are alternative visions out there, and Catalonia would be well-advised to at least consider the example of Incheon, a port city in South Korea which is building a world-class education hub in its Free Economic Zone (‘FEZ’): at one-sixth of the estimated cost of BCN World, Incheon Global Campus is aiming to play host to ten of the world’s most prestigious universities by 2025. It should attract thousands of fee-paying students who will elevate the metropolis’ knowledge base and create the future. Barcelona should aim for nothing less.

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Filed under Economic Development, Education

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