How ideas can save you from unemployment

Opportunities and possibilities for young people in Barcelona

Young people in the streets protesting against unemployment and bad working conditions.

Young people in the streets protesting against unemployment and bad working conditions.

Unemployment, poor conditions and little money – that’s what we hear in Europe from the Spanish labour market. But it’s getting better. While some still protest on the streets, others start their own businesses, in spite of obstacles.

Maria in the streets

Maria is angry at the politicians and employers. She is not satisfied with the poor working conditions.

“No serem esclaves!” – “We don’t want to be slaves” is written on a huge poster. 60,000 people are pushing through the old town of Barcelona. The astonished tourists do not understand the slogans on the posters, but because of the chanting of the crowd, they can see that the people are very angry.

From Plaça d’Urquinaona the way goes across the city to the cathedral. In the middle of the crowd there are Maria and her friends from the political movement Acció Jove (Young Action). They are disappointed, helpless and angry. Maria is 24 years old and has just finished her studies in political science. She wants to campaign and make a difference. She screams chants, determined, while holding up her shield resolutely. “It can not go on like this! Many of my friends have studied, but we work in terrible conditions,” the protester says angrily. “Most of the jobs are temporary or scheduled for 10 hours per week. From this no one can live! You might get 900 euros. Or you will be exploited in an internship for 0 cents.”

The unemployment rate is going to be better

The reason for the bad atmosphere in Barcelona is not necessarily the high unemployment rate. With a 20.1 per cent unemployment rate compared to the other regions in Europe (for example, Germany with 5%) the unemployment rate in Catalonia is relatively high, but compared to other regions in Spain – like Andalucia with almost 34 per cent – it’s not that high.

So this year the young demonstrators are mainly concerned with the poor working conditions: “The policy supports short-time and part-time work. Now more people are working and out of the statistic, but we don’t feel really better. We are underpaid and exploited!” Maria says angrily – and she is not alone with her opinion:



However, the economy is slowly recovering from the crisis. Unemployment in Barcelona has gone down 8 per cent since 2014. So, while Maria and the others are demonstrating against the poor conditions in the labour market, others just take their luck into their own hands.

the MoCycle: light, fast and easy to handle. Foto by MoCycle

The MoCycle: light, fast and easy to handle. Photo by MoCycle.

We do not want to be unemployed or come to terms with the poor conditions of many employees, said three boys from Barcelona who unceremoniously founded their own start-up and started to sell their own product: The MoCycle. They did this without any employees, without a big office and without a big perfect plan. So, since 2014, there is one more company in this booming city brimming with creative ideas. MoCycle is the name of the idea and the start-up of Pär, Toni and Michiel. They developed a self balancing unicycle (SBU) – the MoCycle. “Toni and I had been talking for a while about setting up a business,” says Pär: “One day he came to me with the proposal to build an optimized SBU, which would be geared towards the demands of our European young generation and revolutionize the way people move.”

It’s light (9kg), fast (18 km/h) and you can take it with you wherever you go. Actually, it only consists of one small wheel, which is driven by an electric motor and two small platforms on which you stand. Here, the guys show you how to surf on it:

But why start-up in Barcelona?

For many start-ups it usually no longer matters from where they sell their services or products on the Internet. Pär explains: “We all live in Barcelona, so the choice was natural. And it’s an amazing city to live in: Beach, sun – and many cool young people.” But he also adds: “There is a huge benefit for being here. This is a product that needs to be seen and tested. With the many European visitors passing by the city, we have the ability to showcase and demo the product to our international customers without moving beyond the city.“

Of course, the three guys were confronted with problems at the beginning, and they still are: The competition is tough and they need contacts all over the world to sell their MoCycle. But they are also pleasantly surprised at how easy it can be sometimes: “Selling is surprisingly easy. Our product has such a wow-factor, that it sells itself. Simply by being present on the streets in Barcelona, people constantly come up and ask about the product.”


What makes a city a creative city?

Montserrat Pareja-Estaway – she knows everything about start-ups. She says: “Barcelona is a nice place to start your own business.”

Also, start-up expert and Chairholder at the University of Barcelona, Montserrat Pareja-Estaway, is convinced: with a good idea, ambition and a bit of luck anyone can make it in Barcelona: “Barcelona is the right place for new things. They welcome young people with good ideas here. The city can inspire people, when they want to.” So, according to the expert, you have to be positive. But if you believe in yourself, she says: Go ahead!

Pareja-Estaway conducted a large European study in 2007: There she found out three main requirements that make a city into a creative city and attractive for young start-ups: 1. every city needs key sectors. “In Barcelona we have the architecture and the culture, particularly design and fashion.” 2. Human resources and creative people. And 3. Soft factors, so the quality of life and the atmosphere. For this Estaway must not say much: “sun, beach and good weather – what more could you want,” she says with a grin.

How city policy tries to support start-ups

The support of the government and the municipality is important. “The public politics and the municipality from Barcelona realized that they should support the creative industry and the start ups,” Pareja-Estaway. Since 2007 the city put a lot of money in helping young start-ups. Entire neighbourhoods are rearranged. For example, the former industrial district Poblenou is now the creative and innovative centre of the city: 22 @.

22@ - a nice area for creative people. Foto by barcelona digital

22@ – a nice area for creative people. Photo by barcelona digital.

The plan was approved in 2000 by the city council when the new 22@ land designation was introduced, replacing the 22a designation, used in industrial soil contexts. 22@ connects everything a young company needs in only one area: universities and training centres and places for research and technology transfers. The city encourages interaction and communication between all areas.

22@ is not only a place to work, but also a living space: When you stroll through the streets you do not only see modern office buildings, but cafes and parks as well.

From 2000 to 2011, 4,500 companies have settled here. “The coexistence of innovative and dynamic companies with local district ones configure a rich productive fabric,” says the website of 22@. “This environment favours the processes of innovation and allows the improvement of the quality of life of the citizens that live and work in the 22@Barcelona district.” And these people are often young, creative and exceptional – you will see a lot of “crazy” guys by walking through this area.


The estimated number of workers in 22@ is 90,000 (not counting freelance workers). There are 62.5 per cent more than in 2000 for a total increase of 56,200 workers. On the official homepage of 22@ it says: “Additionally, the global business turnover, not only of companies that carry out @ activities, totals some 8,900 million euros per year.”

Barcelona is a model for other cities

“22@ is a great place for creative young people. There is a good network, so ideas can be exchanged and something new can be created,” says Pareja-Estaway.

innovation everywhere - this is how the buildings in 22@ look like. Foto by Matt Clark

Innovation everywhere – this is what the buildings in 22@ look like. Photo by Matt Clark.

The 22@Barcelona model is already being applied in other areas of the city and is a benchmark of urban, economic and social transformation in cities like Rio de Janeiro, Boston, Istanbul and Cape Town. In the end, the project will create 4 million square meters of constructed floor space, 3.2 million of which will be used for productive activities and 800,000 for housing and services. So far, regeneration has begun on approximately 68 per cent of the industrial areas in Poblenou.

The policy still has a lot to learn

The city spends a lot of money on innovation and creativity, unfortunately, in the wrong places, says Pareja-Estaway: “They try a lot, but the problem is: They don’t understand the needs of the creative people. They are guided by how it worked some years ago, but modern businesses have other hardships.”

And Pär from MoCycle adds: “The Spanish bureaucracy and costs for running a company [do their] very best to kill off any start-ups as quickly as possible. They haven’t support us yet!”

“The key is to continue pushing”

Pär and Michiel in their "office": "We don't have a fixed office, but manage the team virtually. Toni, Michiel and I get together physically at least once per week."

Pär and Michiel in their “office”: “We don’t have a fixed office, but manage the team virtually. Toni, Michiel and I get together physically at least once per week.”

Despite the criticism and the political mistakes, the MoCycle start-up is going very well. They may soon be able to give jobs to young people from Barcelona. “As a start-up we felt that we need to help push the local economy. That was also a reason to setup the company here in Barcelona,” says Pär with a smile.

The three guys are motivated to go further. They want to expand across the whole world: “Success does not happen overnight. We’re happy with the results so far and a lot of hard work has gone into getting to this position,” says Par. “The key is to continue pushing.”

A start-up is better than unemployment

Maybe it is better to have the courage to start something on one’s own. It can be tough, but perhaps more will come from start-up efforts rather than protests on the street. Will anything change from the protest of Maria? No one knows. The only certainty is that Maria has to work until that day under these conditions and must come to terms somehow with the system. And Pär and the other guys can decide for themselves how long they work and how much they earn.

To found a start-up can be a big risk. If you’re motivated, it’s a good opportunity, even for young students, says Pareja-Estaway. Of course it’s risky, but he who believes in himself can succeed. But what does it mean to be happy in Barcelona? “Definitely not getting rich, but to realize himself and do his thing.”