Daria Tataj

Dr. Daria Tataj: “The Silicon Valley model cannot be replicated”

Author | Esther Fuldauer

Dr. Daria Tataj, Founder & CEO of Tataj Innovation, is a world-known expert on innovation and Network Thinking.  As Chairwoman of High-Level Advisors to European Commissioner for Research, Science & Innovation, she leads the policy reflection on the €100 billion Horizon Europe budget.

Dr. Tataj played an instrumental role in setting up the EIT and the first KICs and is the author of the book ‘Innovation and Entrepreneurship. A Growth Model for Europe Beyond the Crisis.’ She is currently working within two critical areas: the growth of innovation hubs for companies and for smart cities.

There is all the buzz about creating innovation hubs for cities, how do you think this fits in with the smart city concept?

I’ve been researching innovation ecosystems across four continents and more than 30 countries trying to understand why some cities or regions turn into innovation hubs, and other places do not, despite policy actions and investment.

Usually, the point of reference is Silicon Valley, how it emerged as the technology leader of the world. However, the Silicon Valley model cannot be replicated, whether it’s in Shenzhen, China or Eindhoven, Europe, the drivers for change have been very different.

The Silicon Valley model cannot be replicated

There are four necessary components to create a vibrant innovation hub. First strong research. Second, education, meaning good universities. Third, innovation, how it caters to global markets and lastly, entrepreneurship. These are the elements that need to be present for a region to be smart. And not only that, they need to be interconnected to create an innovation network.

I believe that three things make cities smart. Number one, the technology. However, for me, a smart city effectively deploys technology to improve services for citizens. This attracts the other two elements, smart citizens and smart businesses. When you have the four components of research, education, innovation, and entrepreneurship, you witness the three types of assets tend to be attracted therefore unleashing the exponential value of growth.

What do you mean by smart investment and what is Europe doing to foster innovation and smart cities?

With smart investment, I do not only mean the usual venture capital, business angels, serial entrepreneurs. I also mean governments. More and more, we are witnessing how public administration investment is driving smarter and smarter public initiatives.

Objectives set by governments would be related to societal goals, and societal growth. In terms of economic growth and development, smart governments move away from thinking in terms of just grants, and more towards redistribute the taxpayers money while also thinking in terms of maximizing the return on economic investments.

One of the five missions accepted by the EU Parliament is a mission on Carbon Neutral cities

For example, the European Innovation Council’s (EIC) new instrument for Horizon Europe will be a 10 billion-euros fund, a significant investment and the largest fund in history. The idea is to provide patient funding, early stage investments with the goal of greater long-term returns.

Another policy that is directed towards cities is the mission-oriented policy, which will be 30 billion euros. One of the five missions accepted by the EU Parliament is a mission on Carbon Neutral cities. So definitely this will be a funding line directed toward strengthening smart cities in Europe.

Now in terms of mission-oriented policy and cities, what you need to understand is that what’s essential is to interconnect this value web. Some people say value chain, but it implies that it is a linear concept, and today innovation really comes out of networks, and the networks are not linear, so that’s why I say value web or value net.

What are the key aspects to consider in the creation of a well-knit and thriving innovation ecosystem, what are the challenges?

We’ve been thinking that the world has been changing really fast over the past twenty years, when in reality we are witnessing quick change only now, because of disruptive technologies like 5G, artificial intelligence, blockchain, quantum technology. It isn’t hard to underestimate the depth of change taking place.

They will impact the way we live, the way we learn, the way we entertain. All of this is the quality of life, we will witness a significant polarization of society, with a lot of areas and cities that will become very affluent, and other places that will be left behind. Places that will not matter anymore, post-industrial towns that will become irrelevant.

Barcelona is a phenomenal example of a city reinventing a whole industrial past into a beautiful, progressive livable town. I think the project for transforming 22@Barcelona into an innovation district is really a model to understand. How building a network and bringing together an innovation community, the government, the businesses, the universities, can turn around a place. I think that this synergy is fundamental.

And in my experience as an expert in innovation through Network Thinking, I know that you can only do that in creating this innovation community. So it’s really about helping people understand how to build the leadership skills to interconnect, to communicate, to collaborate, and to create projects and create value together.

How do you become innovative?

Before the digital transformation teamwork was one of basis skills. Today, we work differently and networking is the basic skill for getting things done. Organizations today are structured as networks of communities. These communities collaborate (or not) off-line and on-line, locally and globally. We are not taught how to work in networks and we need leaders who can build and grow communities. A new growth model – or business model if you wish – in the digital age is always based on networks – networks of users, consumers, employees, investors.

I am particularly interested in the businesses of entrepreneurship. The vast majority of small and medium-sized enterprises struggle to become innovative. It’s hard because the sheer speed and depth of transformation are simply overwhelming, and innovation is beyond having digital tools. Network Thinking is just a very different way of thinking from the traditional mindset. I think these small businesses are fundamental for creating a smart ecosystem. These are not only high-tech startups but also every single business that can think differently about innovation.

The need to understand how to balance this network society, digital and offline, the human and physical, is critical

Do you mean an open government, providing open data about services and procurement and citizen engagement?

Yes. Open data for innovation and engaging citizens is about collaboration within a community. This is one element about Network Thinking that the individual today has unprecedented power to drive change, and this is simply by the nature of technology, leading us to communicate and collaborate.

Cities, like Amsterdam and Barcelona, have embraced this concept and created platforms to engage citizens, beyond digital. I’ve always emphasized the need to understand how to balance this network society, digital and offline, the human and physical, is critical.

Are you finding any challenges or advantages in starting an innovation hub in a city like Badalona, so close together to Barcelona?

For people from the outside, Barcelona seems like a beautiful city, but actually, Barcelona is a co-location of two dozens of different cities. This is a phenomenon that happens in every metropolitan area where basically the big city spreads out and devours smaller towns at about an hour’s drive. This process creates extreme diversity just 10 minutes away by bike. So only 10 minutes away from 22@Barcelona there are hundreds of post-industrial polygons which are part of Sant Adrià del Besòs and Badalona. This diversity of course creates friction but is the opportunity to drive exponential growth.

We created this lab as a thinking space to bring people together and to help drive change, and there are hundreds of midsize cities like Badalona. So this is one case where we try to deploy, test and pilot our Network Thinking process as a way to transform an environment. Network Thinking builds high performance communities. This process can help advance in-house innovation within a company, but it can also be deployed at an open innovation level, where you’re bringing this leadership development, this awareness and the ability to collaborate.

What is Network Thinking, and how can it help accelerate the creation of a thriving innovation ecosystem?

Network Thinking is a methodology that builds high performance communities. It was born in our Tataj Innovation Studio, on Badalona beach. The methodology is based on  my research on growth models for the network economy, and basically, innovation is a process. Innovation is not products and services. It’s a process that in our economy is structured and at the same time, chaotic. And you need to take into consideration these two elements. It cannot be only structured and requires leaders to be open minded throughout the process. Openness allowed into our process, these moments of serendipity, the moments of unpredictability, just open space where new things can happen.

Cities not only should grow with speed, but also with direction and meaning

The elements of the process we built for Badalona were a hackathon, an innovation masterclass for the whole ecosystem, and a startup retreat, to help find ideas for projects that could be transformed into possible policy pitches to Badalona’s mayor. The result was a concept for how the city should grow. But not only with speed, which is always essential, but also with direction and meaning, understanding where we are going and why, as a city.

Even though Badalona is a workers’ city, with all the problems of post-industrial cities, the city has managed to reinvent part of its post-industrial area around its port, and, if the city could manage to spread north and south, then I can see affluent citizens there, and businesses and I can see a city that can pioneer this transformation.

And this is precisely how it happened here in Badalona. We have a citizens group meeting here, discussing different aspects of how to transform the city. You know, to build this leadership and build this growing trust of citizens, to create a place in the digital age.

Photo | Tomek Gola