Friday, August 26, 2016

Where's The Investment?: Mallorca's Innovation

It wouldn't be correct to assign full credit to a previous socialist-led administration for the establishment of Mallorca's technology park, but it is true to say that ParcBIT in Palma was officially inaugurated during the period of the first Antich government: the date was 30 May, 2002.

There really should be no need for political philosophies to invade the world of technological innovation and entrepreneurship, but somehow they do. Fourteen years on from ParcBIT's inauguration, technology, innovation and development and research are at the core of left-wing economic thinking. Do they not form part of the right's thinking as well? They do, but if you care to look at the programmes of what might be called the "new" left, you will find that technology is a key element of its economic strategy. Podemos espouse it. The now-forgotten Partido X, from which Podemos derived a good deal of its philosophy, emphasised it. Més, with its mish-mash brand of socialism, nationalism and ecology, are no different.

Technology, or this is how it seems, offers the hope of business democratisation, an opening-up to entrepreneurs, researchers and innovators, a means of creating and sharing wealth for the greater good. It's hard to see how this differs from what the right might believe, but there you go.

Biel Barceló is minister for more than just tourism. His portfolio was handmade for him, as it also includes innovation and research. Given the overriding importance of tourism and the attention given to touristic matters that this government has demanded, it is easy to overlook this dual responsibility. It has appeared at times as if Barceló has himself overlooked it. There again, his combined ministry for tourism and innovation and research has an in-built bias towards tourism - innovation and research account for around a tenth of the budget.

This amounts to some five million euros or so per annum, a tiny sum relative to the overall government budget. Whatever investment there therefore might be from the ministry will also be tiny, though there are other sources for innovation investment, not least Iago Negueruela's trade and industry ministry. Which does perhaps beg a question as to why innovation and research aren't with Negueruela. Other sources are state funds (if the government could ever lay its hands on them) and European funds, on which regular demands are made or planned. Palma town hall, also wedded through its Més deputy mayor Antoni Noguera to the notion of democratisation through technology, is one of the first to hold its cap out. In addition to ParcBIT, the town hall wants to establish a "creative economy" centred on the old Gesa building. Europe will help, it hopes.

The level of institutional investment in innovation and technology is pitiful, and it has been for years. Crisis wiped out much of what the Partido Popular under Jaume Matas had devoted to it, yet the decline in investment was much greater than in other regions of the country. The second Antich government saw to that. So much for democratisation through technology.

Barceló is clearly intent on reviving this. An announcement this week regarding ParcBIT might have hinted at something significant. What we got instead was a government plan to reduce costs for businesses located on the technology park. Every bit helps of course, but this hardly constituted a major initiative for new business development.

ParcBIT has its successes and it has its failures. It is, it is fair to say on the government's behalf, managed by a company in which the government holds 100% of the capital. But how much of its successes are attributable to the government is questionable. Habitissimo, for example, an online service for the building industry, grew on the back of ingenuity and some venture finance. A mark of it as a business was that it was founded and grew during the crisis - that took some doing. It isn't, however, a product of Mallorcan innovation.

It is the failures, though, which capture the headlines. Low Cost Travel has been the most notable, but there was the fiasco with the Microsoft Centre that preceded it. In terms of kudos, the decision by Trivago to up sticks and find more spacious facilities on the Paseo Marítimo was not the best of news.

The idea for ParcBIT, with its business incubation and its technology clusters for the likes of marine technologies, nautical, audiovisual and of course tourism, is sound, yet perversely it can be subject to the vagaries of governmental policies or inaction: the audiovisual sector is a prime example. It is a vital means of boosting economic diversification but if government hampers it, then the chances of real "killer" innovations breaking through which could provide a quantum leap for this diversification are lessened.

Ambitions for a creative economy, a minister for innovation and research. All fine, but ParcBIT and Mallorcan innovation require rather more than saving costs for waste management.

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