7th June 2019 

The idea of smart specialisation strategy (S3) has aroused interest in numerous European cities as a means to define their development strategy. Bilbao is an example of this type of cities, which work on what is called: “Urban Smarts Specialization Strategy”. As one of Europe’s pioneering cities in adopting in this strategy, together with the Basque Country's commitment to implement the RIS3 strategy in the entire region, Bilbao has become a leader of the Urbact In Focus project. The project has been designed to support cities and their respective territories in working on smart specialisation at the urban level.
Through the Bilbao Next Lab project, Orkestra has been involved in developing smart specialisation strategy since 2013. Bilbao Ekintza and the Bilbao City Council are participating in this initiative. Miren Estensoro, researcher at Orkestra, coordinates this project at the institute. The action research methodology is applied to prompt reflection on the challenges and aspects that must be considered to “build a shared vision” which will enable successful development of Bilbao's S3 strategy.

miren estensoro perfil baja

Bilbao, a pioneer in development of smart specialisation strategies. Why did the capital city of Biscay start to develop this type of strategies?

Bilbao began to develop this strategy in 2012. At that time, following the city’s physical transformation, the focus shifted to the third stage of change: economic development. Bilbao’s policy and budgetary competences are more limited in this area. For this reason, the mayor’s cabinet began to develop its own smart specialisation strategy. The purpose was to assert a more active role and align with the smart specialisation strategy that was taking shape in the Basque Government. When the City Council realised that Orkestra was already working in this area with the Basque Government, they contacted us and we embarked on the Bilbao Next Lab project.

"The mayor's cabinet began to develop its own smart specialisation strategy in order to take a more active role in the city’s transformation and align with the smart specialisation strategy that was taking shape in the Basque Government"

And since that time you have spent seven years working on the city’s S3. How is this built?

We are working on this initiative through action research. We are identifying the challenges involved in driving smart specialisation and the problems that Bilbao is facing, particularly the City Council, to move forward with the process.

We have defined three main challenges and are now focusing on them. The first one centres on working together with a team of politicians, managers and technicians so that they can act as facilitators to drive the city's smart specialisation strategy.

The second challenge would be coordinating the smart specialisation strategy with the Basque Country’s RIS3 from a multi-level perspective.

And finally, we are working on building a shared vision of smart specialisation between the different departments of the City Council, above all in aspects that concern Zorrotzaurre, for instance.

Returning to point two, “coordinate the Basque Country’s RIS3 with Bilbao’s smart specialisation”. How is this work being approached, taking into account that our territory is very institutionally complex?

By including key people in the process and designing a space for dialogue where participating institutions and agents as well as researchers are present. We found that each Basque institution worked on smart specialisation like a silo.
In this respect, Orkestra is deeply involved in the development of these strategies in Biscay, Gipuzkoa, Bilbao and the Basque Government and we noticed that we were also working the same way. We were asked to present the Basque case at the workshop on the Smart Specialisation Platform S3 organised in Bilbao by the European Commission in April 2018. We took advantage of the event to create a space to drive mutual learning between projects and contribute to the coordination between strategies.

What have you learned since then?

The first steps have been taken to build a shared language, which we consider important in order to move ahead together in the same direction. There is a very interesting debate on how the official RIS3 strategy should be called. We agreed that the most suitable name was "umbrella strategy". Shared challenges such as the following have also been identified like reaching small firms with RIS3. Based on shared learning, one example from the perspective of value chain identification is that Bilbao intends to learn from the methodology used in Bizkaia Orekan.

We have mentioned action research as the methodology used to work on building smart specialisation strategies. Are there differences between cities, provinces, etc. when applying action research?

Cities are microecosystems where everything is much nearer. They are economies of scale. Many assets are concentrated in a limited space, which makes it easier to experiment in this field. On the other hand, industries have nothing to do with the case of Bilbao as regards Biscay or the Basque Country from the economic development perspective. Industry, as we know it in the rest of the Basque territory, is not found in the capital city. We have cultural, creative and services industries in Bilbao. This is a highly complementary aspect relating to the rest of the territory as we are referring to advanced services for Industry 4.0. Furthermore, the type of actors we interact with is quite different, meaning that the action is different as well. For instance, in Bilbao we work with only one development agency whereas several agencies come into play in a province. This difference opens up new fields of action for us such as in the organisational context of public entities.

Continuing with the contrasts, and based on what has been learned through the Urbact In Focus project, how is Bilbao different from other European cities?

"In order to learn from other European cities, a good example for Bilbao would be cities specialising in advanced services as they have managed to develop services that cater for and respond to the needs of industry in their territory"

Bilbao has a very good size to be innovative. It has an excellent geographic location. For example, it has undergone economic development with strong specialisation in services that intend to be knowledge-intensive and indeed, some already are. And linked to all of the above, it is a city that is distinctive for development of policies with vision, where there is a clear commitment to transformation. This does not mean it is not facing a series of challenges in the near future, such as working on coordination mechanisms with other territorial levels and their respective strategies or, more specifically, talent development (retention and attraction). In order to learn from other European cities, a good example for Bilbao would be cities specialising in advanced services as they have managed to develop services that cater for and respond to the needs of industry in their territory. In any case, it is important that the advanced services taking shape in Bilbao are not only capable of addressing the territory’s needs but also opening up its market.