Natalia Olson-Urtecho is co-founder and director of innovation and strategy at The Disruptive Factory and chief operating officer of RadicalxChange. She has also been a presidential advisor to Barack Obama and the White House on innovation and competitiveness. Olson-Urtecho defines herself as an urban planner and entrepreneur specialising in blockchain, smart cities, sustainable development and infrastructure. She has won a Women of Distinction Award for her work in the growth of the green economy. Her grandfather was the founder of the College of Journalists of Honduras and his dream was to create Happy Channel, a happy news channel. She is a neighbour of Mark Zuckerberg in Palo Alto, she has lived in Shanghai, and she is currently investing in Barcelona, where she has just bought a boat.
How would you define innovation?
The disruption of the traditional. Try to find the best solution when it does not exist. We often have good ideas, but there are no concrete solutions. Either by technology or method. Disrupt the system and a way of thinking and promote social and technical changes.
"Innovation must be seen in a very multifaceted way and from a systemic and holistic way of thinking. To innovate you need a creative attitude," said Ferran Adriàn in an interview with VIA Empresa.
To think “outside the box,” you need to be creative. Being disruptive is hard for a lot of people because you change the traditional way of doing things. There must be strong and scalable changes. If you do things the way they've always been done, you won't be able to innovate. If you don't break the mold, you won't create new molds.
"Obama was the first president to create the position of Chief Technology Officer"
What did you learn as Innovation Advisor in the White House?
With the recession a council of 15 people was set up, and we had to analyse what was happening and how we could innovate and return to competitiveness as a country. You can’t think about innovation without thinking about competing. Competitiveness gives you the fuel to think differently, and at that time the United States was competing against the recession. It was a crisis we've not seen since the early twentieth century.
Although many people may not remember it, the United States is “a new country” that's no more than 250 years old. We had a war economy, but the recession was a different war where we not only had to compete with ourselves but we had to create an ecosystem to attract innovation as well as new ideas that would help the government lead the country. The private sector can't do it alone but much of the technology and innovation in the United States has come from public-private partnerships. The government must push for new ideas from the private sector.
And the entrepreneurial state?
Government is the catalyst for changing the paradigm. Public policies can have a very large economic impact. We've seen it with the pandemic. When Trump says nothing is happening and instead Biden says something needs to be done... Overnight everyone starts getting vaccinated. The problem needs to be cured inside before it is done outside. The Internet started with the Department of Defense, which is the largest department in our government. Thank God we have small business innovation programmes! A lot of money is also given in grants to solve internal problems through entrepreneurs, innovators and different companies.
Tell us something about your time in the White House.
Getting out of the recession was a big win! The government realised that more than 50% of the American and global economy is due to the small businesses that drive growth. We needed to help the self-employed and small businesses with grants but also with information. That was when open gov, which is open government, was created. The information ceased to be secret in order to be shared and thus create the sharing economy. From there come Uber, Airbnb and other big companies. GPS was also the Department of Defense's secret technology.
"Uber or Airbnb come out of ‘open gov’ and the shift from secret information to a shared economy"
That reminds me of Cold War secrecy.
Sure, it’s a generational change. When people don’t know what the outcome will be, fear leads to doing nothing. It still happens in my government. Fortunately, Obama was the first president to create the position of Chief Technology Officer (CTO) in the office of technology and science. Obama started in 2008 and the smartphone was born in 2007.
What's your evaluation of Trump’s tenure and Biden’s arrival?
The Trump era has been tough, and thank God it’s over. It should also be noted that Trump was an alarm signal that showed that there were many people who think like him and who think they've been ignored. There was a technological leap from the 1980s to 2000 in global capacity and it went from the centre to the coast. The world is global and some coastal cities are being reborn with technology.
Trump wanted to return to a dormant and unsuccessful past but wanted to arouse anxiety and fear among the population. I made the transition from my ministry with the change of government from Obama to Trump and they were not at all prepared. No one believed they were going to govern. I told them "infrastructure, infrastructure and infrastructure." Both physical and digital. It was what they had to do and they didn’t because they didn’t listen to us. The important thing was to keep creating jobs and innovation. I'm now collaborating on the transition with Biden for the first 100 days and we have $2.3 trillion for infrastructure. 40% of Biden’s team is what Obama had.
"Trump wanted to return to a dormant and unsuccessful past, he wanted to arouse anxiety and fear among the population"
How has the coronavirus crisis altered the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
I was in the SDG negotiations in 2015 in Paris and the important thing is to realise what we don’t have. With the pandemic we saw the importance of access to food, health and everything that defines who you are and who you are not. It makes you think about poverty and not having capital, information or access to well-being.
Coronavirus does not distinguish between rich and poor. There are many countries that have needed external aid for vaccines. Some 50% of businesses had not carried out their own digital transformation. During the pandemic it was not the governments that provided all the services. We could not have survived the pandemic without companies. It's important that there is competition, no censorship, and not to depend on just a few.
How can political power be decentralised?
Who gives power to politicians?
Citizens and democracy.
There are many cases where it seems like politicians don’t know what they are doing and in fact the only thing they do is fatten the calf and put in more officials. People are frustrated and don’t think the power that has been given to politicians can return to the citizens. There are ways to empower the citizen.
What are they? Can technology help?
Blockchain leaves out the middlemen and those who tell you how to do things. You trust a decision and that generates a kind of power. Many people think that decentralisation is not having a government, but it's not. Instead, it's taking power back and giving it a voice. We know what the stats are and where every penny goes. Are my taxes used to benefit society or so that the most powerful groups benefit? It is decentralisation and it happens in both capitalist and communist governments. Communism should be afraid of blockchain.
China is very capitalist, but it stayed on the path of communism. Karl Marx already theorised about this. I insist that competition is very important. And without competitiveness only mediocrity remains! It's the circle of ideas.
"There are more Mark Zuckerbergs in the world than we can imagine," you said during the Barcelona Startup Congress.
Of course! There are many Mark Zuckerbergs, but we're not giving them room to believe in themselves. In the United States we believe a lot in ourselves, but in Spain you're told that you'd better not believe in yourself too much. You have to reach out to disruptive people because they exist and there are still many Zuckerbergs to discover. We need more examples of this new generation and for them to serve as an example to others.
"People are frustrated with politicians and with decentralisation they are taking power back"
Is Zuckerberg a good example for entrepreneurs?
He's a benchmark. Zuckerberg started at Harvard, had an idea and broke with the traditional. Boston universities in Washington are very conservative in the innovation transfer system but Stanford, for example, does not want to take over any company devised at the university. This freedom is the big difference. Universities need to be a little more innovative and less theoretical like in Europe. In the United States we are very good at selling because we're an immigrant country.
What do you look for when investing in a company?
The team is key. If you haven’t surrounded yourself with people more capable and smarter than you, the company won’t be able to grow. It's very important to have a global vision, you cannot think only locally. The world is global.
Would you invest in Barcelona?
Of course! Access is very important for cities. I came to Barcelona for my partner and because we had direct flights from San Francisco. In the past 20 years we've seen cities attract young people. I stay in Plaça Catalunya and it's amazing how you can get to any part of the city from there. You have access to the whole Mediterranean, you can fly anywhere in Europe, and it's a city that has a lot to offer. There needs to be more open policies and economic incentives. We're experiencing a great transition in the economy and we need to think about how to attract capital and where to invest it.
"Entrepreneurship is not being afraid"
In agriculture, health research, science centres, engineers, biotech... I'm starting an investment fund because there's a very high level of quality of life here. Spanish agriculture has a large market in Latin America and Asia. Olive oil and Spanish wine are amazing!
One last tip for entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurship is not being afraid. That fear of not saying things, of not complaining — everyone complains when eating at a table but then doesn’t say anything! There's no need for sorrow or shame that arises from fear. If you shout a lot they'll tell you that you're causing trouble. It happened to me when I talked about disruption. Fear must be removed! Think this: Yes, I Can.