CAN’T STOP WON’T STOP

Spain 2020 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

Smart and nimble responses to the 2007 financial crisis have helped make Catalonia the number-one region in southern Europe for investment.

Joan Romero
BIOGRAPHY

Joan Romero holds a degree in economics from the University of Barcelona, a master's in operations management, and a DAF diploma in operations and innovation, both from ESADE. He taught Spanish and world economics as a professor at the University of Barcelona. He has participated in the preparation of several public policy plans: the Catalan Agreement on Industry; several research and innovation plans of Catalonia; the Catalan Agreement on Research and Innovation; and different CIDEM and ACCIÓ strategic plans. He has also conducted annual research and innovation reports on Catalonia as well as the annual innovation barometer.

How has the agency evolved since its creation?
ACCIÓ is the Catalan government agency in charge of FDI promotion. It helps Catalan companies internationalize and innovate, working from both its headquarters in Barcelona and the 40 offices around the world that collectively cover 115 markets. It is a dynamic organization that was created in 1985 and has evolved significantly since then, always trying to adapt to the needs of Catalan industry. The agency opened its first international offices in Tokyo and New York 30 years ago, and the office network has handled more than 20,000 company projects to date. The agency also works actively on promoting clusters; in fact, Catalonia was a pioneering region internationally when it began to put public promotion policies for clusters into practice a quarter century ago.

What have been some of ACCIÓ's recent projects?
As an agency, we have traditionally been firmly committed to internationalizing Catalan companies. In fact, for the last eight years Catalonia has been consistently breaking records in terms of exports. For example, we are working above all to minimize internationalization barriers via a specific team that helps SMEs export to the UK after Brexit or the US after its new agro-tariffs. But now is the time for innovation. Today, we have a clear strategy focused on digitalization and new ways to innovate both locally and worldwide with multiple cooperative programs in other regions including Israel, South Korea, Chile, Germany, France, Scotland, and more. In 2020, we have decided to go even further and have launched an initiative called Catalonia Exponential, through which we help the more disruptive companies contrast their projects in different international innovative environments, such as Silicon Valley.

Where is the urgency for innovation coming from?
The 2007 crisis was a crucial point for everyone. It forced our companies to find their way in the international market. Furthermore, we are now facing on-going revolutions, like Industry 4.0, which involves challenges that we must face very differently to how we have in the past. We used to have many constants with only one value that was changing. Now, changes come from many directions, from consumers, the process, technology, the materials, and more. It is a huge revolution that evolves on a day-to-day basis, and imminent changes are harder to predict.

Do you have specific examples of such changes?
If a company wants to continue exporting, it has to incorporate new technologies into its processes, products, and business models. In the automotive sector, for example, if we move toward electric vehicles, there will be a lot of companies producing parts for petrol-powered cars with no market. They need to change and take into consideration the new products they should be developing for a broader sector.

How important is FDI for Catalonia?
It is crucial for the economy: Catalonia has attracted EUR23 billion over the last five years, 45% more than the previous five-year period. We have 8,600 multinational companies that are the motor of our economy and that work with many local companies. We try to have as much foreign investment as possible, such as in R&D, where Barcelona and Catalonia are highly competitive. In this sense, our offices and strategy here are mainly focused on attracting technological projects, R&D centers, and industrial investments (both greenfield and reinvestments) through tailor-made projects. Our international offices work to get Catalonia on the shortlists of these projects. It is worth mentioning that the Financial Times Group recognized Catalonia as southern Europe's top region for investment in 2018-2019. They also gave an award to Catalonia for having the best FDI attraction strategy.