Academic literature is very clear that place matters for policy. The same policies applied in the same way will inevitably have different effects in different places because they meet with different economic, social and institutional context.
The types of firms present (sectors, size, ownership...), the state of infraestructure, the physical geography (urban, rural, montainous, coastal...), and the existing cooperative dynamics are just some of the factors that place different constraints on firms' competitiveness and offer different opportunities. The challenge for policy is to be flexible enough to adapt to these place-specific factors.
Yet while there is a strong consensus on the need for place-based policy, there is a big gap in terms of actually putting it into practice. It tends to be easier to create standard, uniform policy frameworks. Experimentation is badly needed to learn how to inject greater flexibility and adaptability into these existing policy frameworks, so that they can better meet the specific needs of the often very different places within their jurisdiction.
This is indeed one of the great challenges of competitiveness policy-making, and it is one that the project Bizkaia Orekan sets out to address head-on. Bizkaia Orekan – meaning 'balanced Biscay' in the Basque languaje – is a collaboration project being developed by the Provincial Council of Bizkaia, its economic development agency BEAZ, and Orkestra. The project has its origins in a competitiveness analysis conducted by Orkestra in 2014 that identified quite different economic situations and challenges in different parts of the Bizkaia province. Building from that analysis, the project seeks to improve the fit and responsiveness of competitiveness policy to the needs of specific places within the Province.
This is being pursued through an approach that encourages experimentation by creating new spaces for meeting, collaborating, learning and articulating the actions of the diverse range of actors that make up the competitiveness policy panorama in Bizkaia. Semi-permanent, regular forums have been established in four zones of the Province (North, South, East, West), and these have opened the way to a fascinating process of experimentation that can be seen in various concrete ways.
Firstly there is a very clear experimentation in governance taking place. Again, we know from the academic literature that governance is a critical factor for territorial economic development. It is important that there are mechanisms enabling actors that have different pieces of the competitiveness policy puzzle (provincial government, municipal governments, local economic development agencies, training organisations, etc.) to understand how their actions fit alongside those of others. In this sense the zonal forums created by Bizkaia Orekan are a significant governance innovation that is having and important impact in terms of generating mutual understanding.
These forums are raising awareness within the provincial government of the specific needs of different parts of the province, and are simultaneously increasing understanding of government policies among local actors. This enables better decisions to be made at both levels in terms of the articulation of different policy actions, and in terms of adjustments to policies themselves. Policy innovations are emerging from this process, including for example a new policy that seeks to respond to challenges that have been identified in the management and maintenance of industrial estates, and adjustments to the development of the Provincial Government's tool for monitoring the use and availability of land for industrial use.
The zonal forums are also creating new spaces for learning between actors who have different experiences with initiatives to support the competitiveness of local businesses. The regular meeting of local development agencies and other key institutions from neighbouring areas is fostering an environment of trust which in many places was previously missing. As trust is built it is becoming easier to share ideas and experiences (both successes and failures), to learn from others and to openly experiment with changes and new ways of doing things.
Experimentation in competitiveness policy is widely acknowledged as being important in a rapidly changing world, but experimentation is both difficult and risky. Being part of a wider learning community breaks down some of the barriers to experimentation because it helps to validate and create confidence in initial ideas and provides a sounding-board for issues that arise as the experimentation takes place. While it is easy to under-estimate the importance of such 'soft spaces' in the policy process, the experience of Bizkaia Orekan to date is really highlighting how critical they can be.
The results of governance innovations and a more experimentation-friendly environment can be seen most explicitly in the progress that is being made to address specific competitiveness challenges. Real advances have been made in different zones in terms of fostering a culture of innovation among local firms, understanding the opportunities from better inter-firm collaboration in specific value chains, or sensitising firms to the challenges and potential of embracing circular economy business models.
More generally, across all zones the dynamics created by Bizkaia Orekan are supporting local agents in engaging more effectively with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The scope and scale of the project offers local development agencies greater legimacy to approach firms in their territories so as to understand their problems: in words that have been used many times in project meetings "it opens doors". From the perspective of the provincial government, these dynamics enable them to reach out to smaller firms that traditionally have not engaged with their policies.
For all involved the project is enabling new policy ideas to be tested in territorially-bound pilot projects. These can later be extended (or not) across the province in ways that are sensitive to the specifics of different places. While there is a long way still to go in the project and much more to be learned in making competitiveness policy more responsive to place, the impacts of a process that was started in Bizkaia over three years ago now starting to be felt.