What’s the future for the Catalan innovation system? (Part 1)

The government of Catalonia has approved recently its smart specialization strategy. 

This is a mandatory exercise the European Commission is forcing all the regions in Europe as a precondition to receive the Structural Funds for the next period 2014-2020. 

The European innovation system is losing ground year after year in relation with the American and Asian ones. The failure of Nokia, the IT crown jewel, in the past years has been a bitter advice indicating the need of dramatically changing the system.  

Catalonia is categorized as a “follower region”, still away from the “leading innovators” of Europe. Nevertheless, in 2014 Barcelona has got the iCapital price as “the most innovative city in Europe”. 

The RIS3CAT, the regional innovation strategy is a new attempt to raise the level of the Catalan innovation system to become a leading innovation region in the European Union.

1. Two converging models

The final result of months of efforts, meetings and papers is expressed in this vision 2020 and these four pillars. 

“Catalonia is an industrial based country, with an open, competitive, and sustainable economy that combines talent, creativity, a diversified entrepreneurial fabric and its own research system based in excellence, in the framework of a dynamic, entrepreneurial and inclusive society. In this society coexist multinational and local companies, consolidated sectors with global leadership and emerging technology sectors”.1

This vision, more than a look into the future, is mainly a description of what Catalonia is already. But the interesting point is the four pillars in which this strategy is based.

They are the following:

  1. Leader economic sectors
  2. Emerging activities
  3. Facilitating transversal technologies
  4. Innovation ecosystem


Two visions are driving this scheme. In one site, we can see the influence of the traditional models of the group of economists of the Department of the Enterprise, educated in the classical theory of industrials clusters established by Michael Porter in the 80s. During decades, the mantra of this economist was that the strength of countries is based in the competitiveness of their industrial clusters. This conservative vision is supported by the economic weight of the industrial sectors measured mainly in quantitative terms. In that sense,   since 80s, the main industrial areas in Catalonia remain fundamentally unchanged (Agrofood, Energy, Industrial Systems, Design-based Industries, Health, Cultural and Experience Industries....). These clusters were established in the 90s under the leadership of influent professors from the old management schools of Barcelona like IESE and remain unchanged as an industrial heritage. 

The advantage of such model is that has supported the survival of the industrial culture in the region, during the times where most of the Western countries talked about desindustrializing themselves in favor of the third countries, but in the other side, it has been too slow to introduce radical innovations in their structures. 

Nevertheless since 2000, under the aegis of Prof. Mas Colell, the government started a new effort launching a group of research centers of excellence in emerging areas like ICT, Photonics, Genomics or biomedicine. Coincidentally, the European Union established the ERC looking for leadership in basic science. Since then Catalonia has won a high level of European Research Council grants, and has consolidated its position as the leading research hub in Southern Europe.

The advantage of such model is that for the first time in the history of Catalonia the country have now a good collection of high quality scientific researchers moving beyond the traditional role of being only the “factoria de España”. Nevertheless in the other side, this model is still far away of generating a new generation of industry leaders that can compete in the global markets.

These two policies are now forced to converge under the Regional Smart Specialization strategy in Catalonia and elsewhere. i2CAT supports this deep convergence between the new technologies, or “transversal enabling technologies”, with the old industrial sectors, generating a new innovation system and a new economic system. This is a global trend.

 As the PCAST report to the President of the US indicates Science and Technology is “a single enterprise” :

  1. “We are an inventive, an entrepreneurial society...”. ”The Science and Technology are foundational to the American Way of Life”. 
  2. “This duality to which basic research and practical applications are inextricably linked in a single science and engineering enterprise, is an essential feature of our success...”
  3. “Research is a National Investment”.2


The clearest expression of such single enterprise is, maybe, the ICT area. Being the first enabling and transversal technology, the ICT is now entering in a new phase, in which ICT converges with the rest of the industrial sectors in a deep manner. 

2. The new model

Internet has been during the last decade the field of convergence between computers, telecommunications, and even media. Internet now is equivalent to ICT and vice versa. Now this disruptive technology and hypersector is converging with the traditional ones, creating unimaginable opportunities and fears. See as an example the Google's driverless car. A search engine company, a pure Internet enterprise, is now presenting a disruptive challenge to the global car manufacturer industry, including the German one. Could we see a new Nokia reloaded edition? 

How this trend will affect Catalonia? i2CAT see this convergence in four emerging sectors: 

  1. Internet/IT and cities
  2. Internet/IT and industries
  3. Internet/IT and health
  4. Internet/IT and creative industries. 


These emerging sectors and its interrelations could be the final result of the convergence of the traditional industrial clusters and the key enabling technologies. The RIS3CAT approach seems to agree with this possible outcome, but a lot of uncertainties still remain.  For example, some radical changes are needed in the still separated worlds of CERCA and TECNIO to facilitate such convergence. It is also urgent a new consideration of the ICT as a key bridge technology and industry linking both worlds of research and innovation. Finally, the opening of the whole innovation system to the final user, or the so-called Fourth Helix model, is still under way....

(To be continued)

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