Nikoline Arns & Sidney Wuo On Empowering Local Communities Through Education, Coworking & Social Innovation


Sidney Wuo and Nikoline Arns are Co-Founders of MRBS 12, a co-working space which is creating and empowering a network of local SMEs from Sants-Montjuic neighbourhood in Barcelona. 

Sidney Wuo is a Brazilian creative and passionate professional with more than 15 years of experience in research, concept, strategy, entrepreneurship and development for the private sector and not for profit organisations. His main skills are related to business model design, business strategy, creative thinking and business development.

Nikoline Arns is a cross-disciplinary designer from the Netherlands. She creates visual identities for inspiring people and startups to tell their story to the world.    


Nikoline and Sidney share their insights & experience in social innovation & entrepreneurship, discussing a range of local projects around education & coworking in Barcelona.


Highlights from the interview (Listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - As Dutch and Brazilian nationals who have been based in BCN for over 10 years, could you please share a bit about your backgrounds and what led you to working on projects to empower the local community? [2:36]

[Nikoline Arns] - My background comes from the Creative Industries. I was born in Holland but have travelled and studied in other countries like the UK (London) and Brazil, but found good quality of life in Barcelona. Seeing as we decided to stick around, we thought about the kind of problems we could actually do here to improve the community. Coming from outside you can see with an objective view what problems are here and how we can participate in that.

[Sidney Wuo] - As a Brazilian, I come from a very unequal country where income and wealth are really poorly distributed, so basically everything I do today comes from the desire to change the situation. When I was volunteering for the Brazilian government, I saw that the problems that we see there, we see everywhere, even here in our neighbourhood in Barcelona. We have people that are excluded, we have high youth unemployment and it's unacceptable. I'm using the knowledge I've gained over the years to try and implement something positive that creates a real impact in the neighbourhood.

Could you please share more about the MRBS 12 co-working space vision and how you collaborate with the local community? [4:32]

MRBS 12 is not only a co-working space. The whole project arose from a need we felt. Barcelona is booming when it comes to the startup environment and small companies, especially in the tech sector. But we see that life remains the same here and that there is a lot of talent walking through our streets... so what we were thinking was not to just create a co-working space, but how can we expand the reach of the impact that we can bring to the neighbourhood.

Part of the city is isolated from the startup world, because they don't speak English or they're not well related to the tech companies or entrepreneurs, meaning that they remain out of this scenario. So we thought that if we created a place in the city, we can empower the local people to get into the entrepreneurship boat. We try to increase the self-confidence that the local people have.

We want to build a bridge between the startup world and the local community.

What are you particularly excited about with the MRBS 12 project? [7:28]

People feel very comfortable to just knock on the door, walk in and ask questions. It's a small detail, but it shows that the space is approachable.

I'm excited because we are in a great neighbourhood with 3 or 4 big schools close by, the Caixa Forum museum, Fira Barcelona, the lab of Ferran Adria, the Mies van de Rohe Pavilion. We have a great network close by.

We have strong potential because we are located close by to the schools and so if we can work to build a bridge between entrepreneurship and the local youth, we may see a completely different situation in regards to unemployment. 

The Morabos 12 coworking space.

The Morabos 12 coworking space.

What do you believe are the fundamental ingredients for a prosperous, equitable and thriving local community? [9:48]

I have travelled a lot and have worked as a consultant for the UN in development. What I got from that experience is that if people don't have opportunity, that is what blocks everything else. So the most important thing is to create opportunities. [Sid explains further.]

We try to create a connection between people because when they connect, the distance they that think they have between them disappears and they can start to build something together.

What tools or processes would you recommend to budding social entrepreneurs and innovators that you couldn’t live without? [11:25]

Language is a tool that you use daily to be able to connect with people. It's not just that, it's the interest to connect with different people and culture and that opens up ways to question your own mindset (which you are influenced by) and to understand the mindsets and realities of others.

We have five active languages in our family that we use everyday. It's a great environment that we try to translate to the businesses and project that we're involved in.

We try to make the people understand that values are inside them.

When people get self confidence they open up to the world and see that to be an entrepreneur isn't the most difficult thing in the world. You just need to do it.

[Sidney explains further.]

We use methodologies, but that isn't the most important thing because in five years the methodologies will be different. So for now the most important thing is the value of the people and how to empower that.

In 2016 you were part of the founding members of El Roser Cooperative School in the Barcelona region. Can you please share more about this project and how it came about? [14:41]

We have different educational models throughout Europe with a diverse European system for education. We're not fully happy with the system that Spain is currently offering. I believe that schools are creating people to become employees, but we don't have jobs anymore. Robots and AI is knocking on our door. We need to have people that find their spot between the conservation of nature and the active life of robots. Where do we place ourselves? Protecting the environment on one side and living with the high technologies we have right now on the other.

Based on that idea, many different projects started, preaching a free, active, dynamic education which looks a lot like the Finnish system. It brings together the best educational practices and applies them here in Spain. It's challenging because we are against the law and many other things. But if you are innovating you need to disrupt those things as well. [Nikoline explains further about different educational models that are developing in Spain.]

Construction of El Roser School in 2016

Construction of El Roser School in 2016

The MRBS 12 Co-working Space

The MRBS 12 Co-working Space

In 2016 you were part of the founding members of El Roser Cooperative School in Barcelona. Can you please share more about this project and how it came about? (Continued.)

We always hear from elderly people that say 'school 30 years ago was a lot better and right now it's crap'. But the question I pose is, if education was good 30 years ago, the world would not be like this today.

We would live in a better world, preserving and conserving nature and many other aspects. So now we need to reshape many elements.

El Roser Cooperative School, Barcelona Region

El Roser Cooperative School, Barcelona Region

You are both currently involved in a number of projects outside of the co-working space and school - how do you balance your time and what are the biggest challenges you both face as entrepreneurs? [19:31]

Time is a big challenge. But it's also something that you need to accept - that there are not more hours in the day than there are!

More than managing your time, it's a question of managing your focus.

If you consistently do the things that you do putting your values in each detail, in the end you get a lot of things done by being focussed. You just need to enjoy the time you have.

Work is not the most important thing in life.

We try to do what we love and in that sense maybe you can support something for a longer amount of time.

What I learnt is when to say no.

The day is 24 hours long and if you get into the dynamics of the market, clients and big corporations, you will be made to work 24 hours a day. It's only up to you to say no to that. Now that I have two kids, I see the value of having a good conversation with them, sometimes than someone who is paying you a lot.

Sometimes you measure a lot of things in money, but there is value that goes beyond the object called money. 

I've also learnt to tell f*****s that they are f*****s. I do not work with them because their values don't fit with mine. If they don't understand that I need to stop to be with my kids or wife then that's their problem.

Looking more broadly at social innovation and social entrepreneurship in Spain, what programs, support or initiatives are around which are helping to drive forward the creation of positive social change? [22:28]

When you look at Spain you need to make a clear difference between Barcelona and the rest. Spain is traditionally a conservative country, but Barcelona is a small cosmopolitan city. We know everybody and you can manage everything using the public transport. The public sector here speaks openly about equitable economies. [Sidney talks about the change in the political system over the last 5 years and how this is changing the type of social innovation projects in the city.]

Before the new government came into place, there were already a lot of social projects in the city which people were doing without having a platform or recognition from any public institution.

This government has started to listen, because they realise that these social projects are creating a big impact. 


[Sidney talks about how there is a need to put a legal framework around social projects and how the government is taking action to do this.]

For the budding social entrepreneurs who are listening, what advice would you give to someone who is thinking of starting their own business? [27:30]

For me what works, especially if you have a family is to set your priorities straight. What do you want to spend your time on? Grow organically. Try to put your values in everyday things. You may feel you're not going fast enough but if you're adding your own values to everything you do, you move forward and can accomplish quite a lot. Take it easy, be focussed and look at what you have achieved.

Start it. Make it. Failure is part of the process. There's no destination. The whole thing is the journey so enjoy the journey. 

It is possible to be an entrepreneur and a father. The values that you have in your family cannot be different from the ones in your job.

To finish off, could you please share 3 great books that have inspired you? [30:24]

[Sidney and Nikoline talk about the books listed below.]


Initiatives, people and resources mentioned in the podcast

Recommended books


You can contact Nikoline or Sidney via LinkedIn, facebookTwitter or Instagram. Please feel free to leave your comments below.

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