Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The White Noise Of Balearic Technology

The Balearic government, the current one that is, has its grand projects. One is the anti-corruption office, an agency now scheduled to open some time early next year, assuming there can be agreement on what its director should be paid.

This office, much spoken about as a symbol of the "agreements for change" struck between PSOE, Més and Podemos, has acquired an almost mythical status. This is because many of us had begun to think that it was a myth, that it was never going to happen. Were it not to happen, the government's credibility would shrink, in particular when it comes to corruption. There are voices, some of them close to the government (Podemos), who believe it has been soft on corruption allegations and therefore soft on Biel Barceló over the contracts affair.

Another grand project is largely the brainchild of Barceló. It is easy to forget that he has responsibilities other than for tourism. He is also minister for innovation and research. His ministry is a curious, almost personal interest alliance of tourism and what in former times we would have referred to as R&D.

That old usage is one now consigned to the past along with smokestack industry and forgotten giants of the corporate worlds of chemicals, automotive and metals. These industries remain but they have been re-cast for the contemporary day. They focus on innovation and technology, not dull old research and development. But then, didn't they always?

For governments, innovation and technology are the means to current and future ends of competitiveness. Harold Wilson's white heat has been turned gold, and governments thus expend effort (or at least words) in pursuit of the philosopher's stone of alchemy. Hitherto unknown chemical compounds are to be innovated and from their fusion will erupt the rivers of gold of hot technology and broad avenues with business laboratories dedicated to reincarnating Silicon Valley.

Innovation, innovation, innovation. The Balearic government has spoken of little else. It has a status akin to consensus and dialogue in the on-message statements of the president, vice-president (also Barceló) and others. It matches the message of sustainability, for innovation is the path to economic diversification and thus a diversion on the route marked only tourism. Spoken of little else and done virtually nothing.

This second grand project, you see, is the Balearic Islands Institute of Research. Oddly, and unlike the anti-corruption office, it has barely received any mention since those optimistic days when the agreements for change were being signed. It can appear as if this government is more wedded to a single "tion" - corruption - than to truly putting the "tion" into innovation. This might be thought to be the consequence of the firm Podemos line on corruption, but not so. Podemos, you might be surprised to learn, have a highly detailed economic and competitiveness strategy, one that has hung its hat on technological innovation. A Podemos forebear, the now dimly remembered Partido X, drafted the roadmap.

The institute is, we are told, going to open next year: the second half of next year. The same rigmarole with selecting its director will be gone through as has been the case with the anti-corruption office. Agreements for change are fine, but they can result in virtual stasis through lack of agreement - consensus and dialogue or no consensus and dialogue. There are those who suggest that the institute will in fact not open until 2019; it might never, as there'll be an election to worry about.

Other regions of Spain have this type of institute, the Basque Country for instance, one of Spain's principal centres of industry for as long as there has been Spanish industry, which isn't the case with the Balearics. The Basques of the old smokestack and of banking have a culture of research, one that the Balearics do not. The islands are playing catch-up, in word as much as (?) in deed. The institute is not to be heavily funded, yet it will benefit from 300,000 euros of tourist tax revenue. Seriously, if there is to be a commitment to innovation and technology as the means to economic diversification, why not use all the revenue in the pursuit of innovation?

Technology can perform wonders, such as for the environment, water resources, agriculture and restoration of historical buildings. These are purposes for the tax, so why not let technology loose on them? And in the process, there could come quantifiable benefits in terms of business development and employment. But then, an issue with talk of innovation is what is meant. There has to be a very meaningful bottom line; economic shifts need to be seismic not just a slight realignment of the plates.

Will this institute represent the future? What do you think, when the Balearics dedicate a mere 0.33% of GDP to good old R&D? The lowest amount of all regions. White heat or white noise?

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