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Few neighborhoods more dramatically illustrate urban planners' shifting attitudes toward industry than Barcelona's Poblenou district. In the late 19th century, Poblenou was promoted as the industrial center of Spain. Over time, Barcelona's citizenry wanted its polluting factories moved outside the city. Recessions and Asian competition did the rest. By 1990, the district was a cemetery of 1,300 factories that once made everything from textiles to foodstuffs.
Now Poblenou illustrates the reurbanization of industry. The 115-block district is being transformed into 22@Barcelona, a global hub for "knowledge industries" such as digital media, clean energy, design, medical devices, and information technology.
Since construction of office and lab space began in 2004, 1,440 companies employing 40,000 workers have moved in. Google (GOOG), Yahoo! (YHOO), Orange, Telefónica (TEF), Lego, and Alstom all have research and design centers. Tenants of the media cluster include Spanish National Radio and Mediopro, the film studio behind the Woody Allen movie Vicky Cristina Barcelona, for which Spanish actress PenÉlope Cruz won an Oscar. Several universities also are relocating their campuses to the district, bringing 30,000 students. Within two decades, 22@Barcelona is expected to employ 130,000, have 4,000 new housing units, and have cost around $15 billion.
Spain already has an estimated 70 science parks. "But these are not enough to transform an economy," argues 22@Barcelona Chief Executive Josep Miquel PiquÉ. "Knowledge infrastructure is not just fiber and telecom. You also need things like good food, wine, and aesthetics. So cities have become the new neuro-centers of the knowledge economy."
The aim is to create what PiquÉ describes as a "cluster of clusters," where professionals in emerging tech and service sectors can co-mingle and serendipitously dream up hybrid industries. "We want to be a platform for mini-science parks," PiquÉ says.
Developers also want to integrate these clusters thoroughly into the urban environment: Companies are urged to use Poblenou as a "living lab" where they can test-market products before attempting to sell them broadly. They also are being encouraged to recruit local artists for design help and to get involved with primary schools to inspire young talent early.
Spain's economy could use the boost. After years of heady growth, the nation was hit especially hard by the real estate crash and global financial crisis, pushing unemployment above 17% in May.
Companies already have begun using the city as a living laboratory. One street is lit with lamps powered by light-emitting diodes, supplied by a consortium led by Spanish electric utility Endessa and engineering design firm Santa & Cole. Police plan to try out new low-energy motorcycles made by Barcelona's SunRed, which recently unveiled models of a solar-powered motorcycle shaped like a large snail.
Local IT companies, meanwhile, can use the urban setting to launch new services for wireless telecom, health care, and security. "Our goal is to create new Spanish companies that think globally from the outset," says PiquÉ. "This is a good place for companies to learn in Barcelona before they sell to the world."
Barcelona's large community of artists is another asset. The district is setting up programs in digital arts, while companies developing everything from satellite software to workspaces using novel materials are hiring artists to create innovative designs.
To develop a long-term stream of local talent, the government is encouraging companies to set up programs in neighborhood schools. Lego, for example, is demonstrating robots to 8-year-olds. "We learned from Silicon Valley that only 4% of California secondary students choose to be engineers," PiquÉ explains. "It is good to attract the best talent from India and China, but we need to also attract talent from our own cities and regions."
And what about Poblenou's industrial legacy? Dozens of 19th century factory buildings complete with their towering brick chimneys have been preserved to echo the Old Economy past.
Engardio is an international senior writer for BusinessWeek .