Transforming innovation policy in Catalonia – An interview with Tatiana Fernández Sirera

Thinking & Analysis

Tatiana Fernández Sirera is Head of Economic Strategy at the Government of Catalonia, a new associate member of TIPC. Tatiana leads the development of Catalonia’s smart specialisation strategy 2030 (RIS3CAT 2030), which is aimed at accelerating green and just transitions and fully integrates Transformative Innovation Policy principles. Shared agendas form a key element of RIS3CAT 2030. These ecosystem-based missions empower actors to develop shared strategic agendas to tackle a systemic challenge, generating new collaboration networks, synergies, opportunities and development pathways for the region. How is RIS3CAT 2030 being implemented in practice? What are Catalonia’s biggest challenges and opportunities in achieving a green and just transition? And how have the region’s farmers turned into real change-makers? An inspiring conversation with Tatiana answers these and many more questions.

Tell us a little bit about your background, your relation to TIPC and your collaboration with the consortium up until this point.

I’m an economist and I have a PhD in International Relations and Economic Integration. For the last 20 years, I have been working at the Catalan Government. The last 10 years in innovation policy, coordinating Catalonia’s smart specialisation strategy.

The question that has been motivating me and guiding my work the most is how governments and public administrations can work together with companies, researchers and civil society to address the systemic, social and environmental challenges our societies face, more effectively. This is why I started familiarising myself with systems thinking and transformative innovation policy. It is how I discovered TIPC, because I was trying to find an answer to this question.

You are currently Head of Economic Strategy with the regional Government of Catalonia. This area of Economic Strategy was created to coordinate the design, implementation and monitoring of Catalonia’s smart specialisation strategy 2030 (RIS3CAT 2030). What does this strategy entail?

Smart specialisation strategies are related to European regional funds. All EU regions and countries benefiting from EU regional funds for research and innovation are required to have a smart specialisation strategy approved by the government.

I like to define smart specialisation strategies as challenge-driven innovation transformative agendas for green and just transitions. Not everyone agrees with this definition. For many, smart specialisation strategies are about competitiveness. And they are in a way, but in my understanding, competitiveness is only possible in a context of a green and just transition. If a smart specialisation strategy does not create value for the people, for nature, then it is not competitive.

Secondly, smart specialisation strategies are about prioritizing social and environmental challenges and opportunities according to the strength of the region. They are about discovering new business models and value chains, international cooperation, and very importantly, about collaborative leadership from the territory.

Public administration needs to work together with research and innovation agents, companies, and civil society to define the prioritizations – what are the challenges, and what kind of future do we want for our territory? These actors should participate actively in the innovation system to address those place-based challenges related to green and just transition.

And, finally, the smart specialisation strategy should provide broad directional goals that generate synergies and complementarities among funds, policy instruments and actions. The Catalan Government in 2022 approved the current strategy, which follows a transformative innovation approach: the focus is on accelerating green and just transitions through the transformation of sociotechnical systems.

In Catalonia, the TIP approach is being implemented through place-based and challenge-led Shared Agendas. They form a key element of RIS3CAT 2030. Could you elaborate on what Shared Agendas are and how their underlying principles relate to or deviate from TIP?

The RIS3CAT 2030 logic of action is based on the Transformative Innovation Policy (TIP) approach  and the Multi-Level Perspective (MLP) framework. The starting point is that current societal challenges cannot be addressed through science and technology or public policy alone. Instead, addressing these challenges requires the transformation of the socio-technical systems involved and profound changes in dominant practices (or business as usual).

Therefore, we first need a profound understanding of these systems and their underlying processes of change. This is where the TIPC conceptual framework is very helpful for us. It provides a theory of change, a narrative for the work we are doing.

The strategy is based on the assumption that interactions between landscapes, regimes, and experimental spaces or niches are the main driver of systemic transformation. Governments, through anticipatory processes, can accelerate systemic transitions by nourishing and aligning the spaces of experimentation and supporting the expansion and adoption of alternatives aligned with the shared vision of the future (destabilizing and opening up the regime).

Therefore, with RIS3CAT we focus on two lines of action. Nourishing, so connecting and expanding experimentation spaces which develop alternative practices that are aligned with the future vision. And opening up the regime by reducing resistance to change and supporting a green and just transition.

The RIS3CAT 2030 logic is addressing the transformation of socio-technical systems through ecosystem-based missions that we call shared agendas. The strategy sets the directional goal. This is a green, digital, resilient and fair socio-economic model. And then we support the definition of these shared agendas, through initiatives providing the necessary mandate and resources to the relevant actors for them to develop shared strategic agendas to tackle a systemic challenge. By empowering actors to structure their ecosystem and define their own agenda, shared agendas foster stronger directionality, legitimation, and wider participation from a variety of partners that can then undertake various joined-up initiatives aligned to the same directional goal. Thus, we generate new collaboration networks, synergies, opportunities and, in the end new development pathways for the region.

Illustration of shared agendas in Catalonia.
Stakeholders then collaborate in experimental spaces to explore, develop and test possible pathways and alternatives. What do these spaces look like? Could you give an example?

Shared agendas are those spaces in which actors explore, develop and test possible pathways and alternatives. So far, we have two successful pilot cases, that have scaled-up and we have started collaborating with a number of others that we expect to start scaling in a few years as well.

One of these pilot cases is the Terres de Lleida, Pirineu i Aran shared agenda which was initiated to address the problem of manure management in this rural territory. The local farmers, supported by experts and by public administrations, participating in innovation camps and working groups and learning about the experiences in other countries, realised that these kinds of natural resources can turn the problem into new business opportunities, new values, change, new ways of doing things (i.e. the bioeconomy).

As a result, 150 families joined forces to create a company (Alcarràs Bioproductors SAT). They bought 17 hectares of land to install a composting plant and a biogas plant to process farmyard manure and other agricultural waste, in an area that has eventually become the first specialised bio-polygon in Spain and will host other added-value businesses related to organic waste and by-products valorisation. This local initiative evolved into a portfolio of actions, going beyond the local level, mobilising several private and public actors, and tapping into funds at the local, Catalan, Spanish, and EU level.

Alcarràs Bioproductors SAT land owned by 150 farmer families.

Many actors are engaged in this agenda, working in a coordinated way to accelerate the economic and social transformation of this rural region. Some actions include quantification of the bio resources and identification of possible uses and value chains, approval of special urban plans for bioeconomy industries, creation of the BioHubCat – a publicly funded one-stop shop to accelerate the transition to the bioeconomy in all Catalonia, the creation of new professional profiles, identifying which companies of the innovation infrastructures are necessary for the desired transformations, articulation of new research projects, etc.

In these processes, innovation camps are an important space that enable the building of shared understandings of the current situation, the desired future and the needed actions. And for that we use the TIP frameworks and tools: the MLP and the pentagon with the 5 dimensions of sociotechnical systems are always present in the innovation camps.

The innovation camps are action oriented, so those actors wanting to implement transformative actions coordinate themselves in different working groups. In all these processes it is important that there is an organisation legitimising the process and acting as a technical office and that there is a steering group of entities with legitimacy. But this a progressive process, it is not from one day to the other.

We want young people to be fully engaged in these place-based transformative processes as well. This is why we are working with universities and schools to develop programmes, methodologies and tools to make this possible in different ways. Here, it is worth mentioning that very often the prevailing view within governments and public administrations is that public sector should not engage in experimentation or in exploring new opportunities entailing some risk of failure. Delivering of everyday activity, providing certainty and zero error and minimising risk cultures should be the prevalent principles for action.  

My answer is always the same: what is extremely risky and costly is to continue doing business as usual. Opening new pathways, and generating alternatives is the most effective way of decreasing the risk for our economy, it is the most effective way to increase its resilience and its capacity to adapt to climate change and to the turbulent times ahead of us. The metrics, narratives and approaches we use to measure impact, performance and success or failure are key to change mind-set and to embed experimentation and innovation in the design and implementation of public policies.  

Innovation camp in Lleida.
Participants discuss place-based challenges related to the bioeconomy.
The Shared Agendas approach brings together various stakeholders, including governments, investors, researchers, business sector, students, civil society, to develop a shared systemic understanding of the challenge or problem they want to address. What does this process look like in practice and how are shared challenges identified?

Shared agendas are articulated bottom-up, but they take place within a regional strategy with clear directional goals and with instruments to support these processes.

They start from the identification of a complex environmental or social place-based problem, and a group of stakeholders willing to address this challenge in a direction that is aligned with a green and just transition. Once we have this group, we support it with a series of instruments to engage the relevant stakeholders, to define a shared vision of the future, and to develop a shared diagnosis of the current situation (global trends, limitations of current socio-technical systems).

The way of working is through facilitated innovation camps supported by deskwork and constant interaction with multiple stakeholders. A tailored approach is developed for each process, but at the same time we are conceptualizing and systematizing methodologies and tools in collaboration with the research center INGENIO. Formative evaluation and a theory of change based on the MLP with a TIP approach are central elements in our strategy.

Under the smart specialisation umbrella, the regional Government has dedicated staff, integrated in different regional Ministries, working together to support shared agendas addressing regional challenges and the transformation of current socio-technical systems (rethinking policies when necessary). We have incorporated more than 20 people with capabilities in facilitation, experience in research and in the different themes and they are working in the different regional ministries with other policy makers, at regional and local level, and also with universities, research and technological centres and civil society. Therefore, it is common that staff from the Government facilitate innovation camps at local level providing support to elaborate the theory of change, etc. This is something that we are progressively developing.

Another key instrument that will be approved in the next months, is a program to incentivize and support universities and research centres to engage in shared agendas. The engagement of researchers in these processes is key.

One thing that is important to note is that the alternatives developed within shared agendas are oriented towards opening new pathways. They are not against “the dominant ways” or business as usual. They are oriented to generate new opportunities, also for the incumbents. For example, in the shared agenda of Terres de Lleida Pirineu i Aran, companies from the meat industry are engaged in generating new opportunities for alternative protein sources. The companies consider the process as an emerging chance for their business.

Plan of the future pre-industrial plant for alternative protein to be placed in Alcarràs.​
The generation of new knowledge, evidence and common narratives shall facilitate the adoption of alternatives and accelerate green and just transitions. Why are common narratives so important and are they enough to motivate stakeholders to make different choices and take action?

A very distinctive characteristic of the Catalan process is that all the narratives and methodologies are based on practice and supported by theory, by research. Before it all began, we started with place-based complex challenges and from there, together with the stakeholders we started to explore which frameworks and which tools could help us to move forward. And it is in this search that we connected with TIPC and developed the concept of shared agendas working on three pilot cases. With the stakeholders of these pilot cases, we created the narrative of shared agendas – combining real action with strong conceptual frameworks as the ones TIPC provides, it is what has allowed us to gain credibility, within our region but also in the international community.

To have practical cases, demonstrators showing transformations, framed in a robust conceptual framework, supported by a strong theory of change and strong narratives which can inspire other territories. This is key.

The shared agenda of Terres de Lleida Pirineu i Aran is an agenda in a depopulated rural area. Engaging all relevant stakeholders and empowering them to explore and open new development pathways with new opportunities for their people provides a strong narrative, legitimacy, credibility and enthusiasm.

And this is a very important value TIPC is providing: this general narrative and theory of change for the transformation of socio-technical systems. The local transformative processes and experiences become much more powerful and more meaningful to other territories when they are supported by strong narratives based on solid theories of change and using an international language that researchers and policy makers understand.

Here maybe I would like to add that it is important for TIPC researchers and policy makers to work together to make this common language more acce­ssible and understandable. Since language is very often an important barrier for translating TIPC approaches into practice. It is also important that researchers understand that we cannot expect place-based transformative processes to accommodate and adapt to the theory and to the conceptual frameworks.

In my view it is important that the transformative processes are inspired by a strong conceptual framework and that the theory of change for the interventions is developed within this strong conceptual framework. But not all actions need to be 100 % coherent with it. Transformative processes are open to emergence and have to support emergence. In this sense the collaboration we have with INGENIO is an example of how to do it. It has been a learning process for both sides, and of course there are tensions, but these discussions and debates are always bringing value to what we are doing, and this is what makes it possible for us to generate motivating narratives leading to transformative action.

What would you say are dominant practices that hinder a green and just transition to take place in Catalonia? What are the greatest environmental and social challenges in your region?

I would not say that here Catalonia is different from all other countries. Social and cultural values and behaviours, dominant narratives, current governance systems, institutions, policies, markets, infrastructures, current economic structure, financing system, evaluation of impact, science and technology priorities, conflicting interests. In all these dimensions there are plenty of dominant practices and routines that hinder a green and just transition. Transitions do not happen from one day to the other, they are long term processes that cannot be planned in advanced. 

In Catalonia I would say that the most pressing challenge is climate change with the increase in temperatures and the scarcity of water.

What are promising niches and policy innovations that you observe in Catalonia which are likely to contribute to long-term system transformation? What are the biggest opportunities?

Catalonia has a very diversified economy, industry is very relevant, but also health, tourism, culture, agriculture, and research. Catalonia is one of the regions in Europe attracting more EU competitive funds for research and innovation. With 12 universities and more than 40 research and technology organisations we have a strong research potential. But, as in many other countries, this knowledge, this technological capacity is not contributing enough to the necessary transformations, to the green and just transition. All the work we are doing with the smart specialisation strategy is focused on the hypothesis that if we are able to mobilise this knowledge, if we are able to articulate shared agendas or collaboratively learn and cocreate spaces in which researchers, policy makers, companies and civil society engage in exploring and developing alternatives to address social and environmental challenges related to green and just transitions, then we will be able to accelerate the necessary transformations.

Therefore, our focus is on activating transdisciplinary and multi-actor networks to develop and test alternatives to current unsustainable practices that are effective in addressing current social and environmental challenges, solutions that can be applied in Catalonia and in many other places. We see Catalonia as a lab for developing new social practices and alternatives that can be inspiring for many other regions. This in itself could be defined as a promising niche, that needs to be protected and nourished.

Your latest publication addresses reparative futures in Catalonia and explores Shared Agendas for just sustainability transitions. What kind of progress are you envisioning for a Catalonia in 2030 and in 2050?

This is a difficult question. We live in a very complex and uncertain world with huge environmental and social challenges that our institutions, our experts, us, are not able to address. We are living far beyond planetary boundaries and we are still talking about growing.

The future of Catalonia as the future of most other regions will be strongly conditioned by the landscape, the aging population, the wars, geopolitical tensions, climate change, the scarcity of water, which is a huge problem in Catalonia, the tensions with the energy supply and distribution, the increase in social inequalities, the pressure on social and health services. I think that in 2050 the situation will not be better than now, in general, because the pressures of the landscape are huge, but so are the resistances to change. We know how difficult is to change policies, investment decisions or dominant practices.

But I’m not pessimistic. As we know green and just transitions require radical changes in our socio-technical systems, and as we know from the TIP framework pressures of landscape can become windows of opportunities. In this context, the work we are doing becomes very important because we are working on building alternatives, on building collaboration networks, on changing mind-sets, on developing skills for managing uncertainty and complexity. We are preparing our country to be more resilient for what will come in next years and decades.

The regional government of Catalonia has recently become an associate member of TIPC. What does this membership mean to you and where do you see its value?

We have been collaborating with TIPC since 2020 through our collaboration with the research centre INGENIO.

TIPC for me is a unique community in which policymakers and researchers implement radical collaboration to develop new conceptual frameworks, knowledge, evidence, narratives, tools, and policies. To be part of this community, to have the opportunity to learn with and from other researchers and practitioners is a privilege.

As I’ve explained our work is inspired and is following the TIPC approach, so to be part of this community is very important for us. At the same time in Catalonia, we are testing the conceptual framework, the tools and we are generating new learnings and new knowledge that is providing value to the international community. So, it is a win-win situation for all parts.

What are some of the next steps that you are planning as part of this collaboration and the RIS3CAT 2030 project more broadly?

In the short term, we have the stakeholder’s engagement week organised by TIPC and the Deep Transitions Lab with the support of the Catalan Government taking place in Barcelona in September. We are honoured and happy to be hosting this gathering of policymakers and researchers from all over the world. 

More broadly, the current smart specialisation strategy was approved by the end of 2022 and is still starting. The strategy recognises explicitly the need to transform our current sociotechnical systems our food, energy, health, or mobility systems. And its main priority is creating collaborative learning spaces in which policy makers, researchers, entrepreneurs, and citizens work together to generate alternatives to address place-based social and environmental challenges, articulating coalitions of the willing with the capacity for system change. The alternatives developed in these spaces are not based solely on technology but also on new social practices, including changes in policies, mental frames, narratives, values, and behaviours.

So, this is our main plan for the next years, and we want to do it in strong collaboration with the TIPC community, learning with you.

About Tatiana Fernández Sirera

Tatiana Fernández Sirera works at the Catalan Government as Head of Economic Strategy. She has more than 20 years’ experience in Public Administration. She holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and a Ph.D. in European Integration and International Relations. Her fields of interest and activity are smart specialisation strategies (S3); transformative innovation policies for green and just transitions; place-based and challenge-led shared agendas; formative evaluation and participatory monitoring systems; public procurement of innovation; systems thinking, and capacity building for systems change. She regularly collaborates with universities, companies, public administrations, and civil society at regional and international levels. She is a member of the Eu-SPRI Stakeholders Board, the S3 Community of Practice Experts Group, and the TIPC network. 

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