A political leader who does not understand the context in which he or she operates will be unable to do anything useful for him or her. But that is not the case of the Basque Government's Minister for Economic Development and Infrastructure (Spain), Arantxa Tapia, who clearly has the endemic ills of her territory and the work that lies ahead to solve them.

He unashamedly recognises the problem of the incorporation of women into the technology sector, the ageing of the population and the lack of innovation suffered by both companies and the public administration itself. Although he points out that this lack of innovation is not so much related to technology as to management, people and culture. Aware that society has changed and that companies now have to adapt to people's needs, it tries to promote a change of mentality, which also considers a way of innovating.

Innovation seems like a buzzword present speeches from any political or business leader. What does it mean for you? How is innovation integrated into public policies?

Innovation has to be intrinsic to everything we do. It is often treated as something absolutely separate from day-to-day politics, but it must be internalised within all our processes.

Although we are a very small country, our private sector is very internationalised and must compete globally. A large Basque company is tiny on an international level. If innovation is not integrated at all levels, it will be impossible to compete at an international level, and that is something that is already happening.

Another risk we face, especially in the Basque Country, is that when we talk about innovation we are referring exclusively to technology. Companies have well absorbed all that part, machinery, training, technology… However, the non-technological part, management from the point of view of people, management teams, operators and even financial systems, marketing and design costs us a lot more. Innovation in processes and products is very easy for us, while non-technological innovation linked to management is not valued.

“Before, the productive fabric produced well what it knew how to produce and people went to their door to buy it. But now we have to know what services and products society demands and adapt. And that's costing us.”

Does this difficulty of innovating in management affect only the private sector or also the public sector?

All of them. We are very accustomed to changing programs, systems, forms of communication… we are doing quite well in both sectors. The question is how do we involve people in the process, how do we make them feel that they are contributing? It is a challenge linked to culture, not only in Euskadi but in general.

If we are 'fighting' to attract talent, we must ask ourselves what we offer him so that he decides to come. In addition to salary, young people now value many other things, such as quality of life, professional growth, the ability to contribute to the project… All these things are already valued in other parts of the world and we have to start applying them here, because this is also innovation.

We've always attached a lot of importance to doing things right, to selling high-quality products, but we haven't paid as much attention to design, something that, in other countries, like Italy, is very important. There too we have a lot to do. We've got used to being bought, but now it's time to sell. It's up to us to get closer to the customer to find out what they want and adapt. Before, the productive fabric produced well what it knew how to produce and people went to their door to buy it. But now we have to know what services and products society demands and adapt. And that's costing us.

And why is it so difficult for us in Spain to adapt to the client?

Well, each country has its own way of doing things, and what we have to do now is adapt to what society demands. But in a global world, we have to be able to introduce these innovation factors.

He comments that, without innovation, the future will be even worse. Why?

Before, industrial revolutions started with industry, and society was adapting. But the fourth revolution is just the opposite because of the disruptions in connectivity.

Robotics and automation have been around for a long time, so has data management. What makes it different now? Interconnectivity, something that society has absorbed much faster than business and government. Smartphones got to the street before they got to the industry.

How does this affect the industrial fabric?

SMEs and many large companies have not yet realised the potential of knowing what your customer is doing. Booking and Amazon have a lot of information about us, they know our buying habits and offer us options based on that. Meanwhile, our productive fabric has not realized that there are almost infinite possibilities of reaching new markets and business models. This happens especially in the manufacturing sector which, although it is beginning to be aware, society has gone faster.


And what is the situation of public administration in this sense?

We are like the industry of our environment. It costs us. It's getting easier and easier, but we still have a long way to go.

In the department I'm heading right now, the other day we realised that we have some 500 programmes, structures and channels of communication with the industrial fabric. And it turns out that we are still in the process of digitizing everything so that the people who communicate with us do it more easily and we have all that information.

What process is being done to digitize the administration?

We are trying to take a holistic approach. But, we talk very quickly about digitizing ourselves and talking to the public without taking into account that there is a need for infrastructure. We want to be in the cloud, but the cloud needs its land to function. It's fine to talk about digitization, but if we don't accompany it with support for businesses and people, we won't actually be digitizing.

So, given that each entity is adapting its own technologies and innovations, do you think that the key to digitization lies in connectivity and communication?

Well, in the case of people, either we are able to bring to rural areas the same services that the big cities have or they will be deserting more and more.

The other day we were in a village of about 800 inhabitants very dispersed. Having a network in order to be able to communicate with each other and to be able to make all the arrangements from the town hall itself has meant an enormous revolution for them. And the same for the students of the school.

We talk about great things in innovation, but if we don't give it the right support we will be favouring desertification and depopulation in rural areas, despite the potential for economic development they have. Our mouths are filled with words like innovation and digitization but we forget about the day to day.

With regard to attracting talent, there are cases of jobs not being filled due to a lack of qualified personnel, while at the same time there are people who are becoming unemployed due to not having certain new skills. How is this situation being experienced in the Basque Country?

The same thing is happening to us. But the companies that are adopting these new ways of doing things. They are sharing with us the training they need so that we can offer it both to young people and to people who need to be recycled. But there are also people who have been unemployed for a long time and who are finding it hard to integrate. We are a very old society with a very low birth rate, so we need to bring in more people. We are working with many long-term unemployed and also with immigrants. We prepare them for the skills we need.

Could you comment on any specific initiatives to retrain the long-term unemployed and what key competences you are focusing on?

One example is the employers' associations in our three territories. They have carried out a very in-depth study of what the needs of companies in the Basque Country are going to be in the coming years. What kind of people and profiles. So we are trying to match those needs with long-term employees. For example, if we need 50 people trained in high level welding, we look for long-term unemployed people who have welding experience, and if there aren't, we look for those who best fit in and we train them so that they can access these new jobs.

How do these long-term unemployed react to a completely new training?

They show a double feeling: interest in the possibility of approaching a job, but also skepticism. In any case, it is something very new and I believe that it is the way forward.

And what can you tell us about the incorporation of women into technological sectors?

Well this is an endemic evil throughout Europe. By 2005 there were about 30% of female engineers in the Basque Country. Now that figure is 20%. That means that we are not being able to convey that there is employability, that these jobs are stable and that their nature has changed and that they now allow us to have a very attractive career. That is something that is costing us. But when we look at other highly industrialised areas such as Germany, it turns out that the percentage of women is even lower. So it is something that costs a lot in general.

But as the industry associated with digitisation is growing, there is an opportunity to attract young and not-so-young people.

What advice would you give to other regions with a lesser degree of economic development that want to contribute through innovation?

The most important thing is that innovation is not an option but an obligation. And once the decision has been taken, especially in the private sphere, it is essential that it be accompanied by a lasting public policy and strategies. Policies must be sustained over time, we cannot reinvent the wheel in each legislature. And this is one of the differentiating points of the Basque Country, which has a track record and focus on innovation sustained over time. Another differential element was the early application of the cluster policy, which allowed the large industries to work with the small ones to form value chains that were resistant over time and capable of offering very complete solutions.

But I do have to keep just one: policies and strategies maintained over time. And, of course, budget, because without budget, everything remains a mere speech.

Published by OPINNO © 2022 MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW spanish edition