Roig: "Barcelona has to be more than a brand!"

The CEO of SciTech DiploHub wants to turn the city into an influential geopolitical player through science and technology

Alexis Roig SciTech Diplohub
Alexis Roig SciTech Diplohub

Alexis Roig (Barcelona, 1987) is the CEO of SciTech DiploHub Barcelona. A non-profit, apolitical metropolitan hub, the public-private partnership works on three fronts: science, technology and diplomacy. Trained as an IT engineer, Roig has lived in Shanghai for the past 10 years and is president of the Catalan Institute of China. In his career he has worked in business and diplomacy, and has dedicated a lot of his time to advising European governments on scientific and technological strategy in their dealings with Asia. With the lessons in diplomacy firmly under his belt, he now returns to the city he has watched grow with the aim of making it grow even further. We talk about global cities, the public-private formula, Barcelona's values, his Alumni talent network, and the opportunities for Catalonia in China… As Peret sang, Barcelona es poderosa, Barcelona tiene poder (Barcelona is powerful, Barcelona has power).

How did the SciTech DiploHub Barcelona come about?

Global cities have a geopolitical role beyond that of states. Barcelona has all the ingredients: a very strong knowledge and life sciences ecosystem, a flourishing startup sector... Barcelona is a hub for international relations and is already the fourth city in terms of consular representatives after New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. It is also the headquarters for the Union for the Mediterranean. We shared the vision of moving forward with players in the scientific and technological ecosystem, as well as other institutions.

"Global cities have a geopolitical role beyond that of states"

The formula for shared leadership.

The economic context and the political turbulence of recent years have not helped public institutions to take the lead, so we began with civil society. We were thus able to bring together research centres, universities, former mayors and ministers... In short, the whole ecosystem. Now, our board includes the Catalan government and Barcelona city council, as well as Barcelona Tech City, Acció, Biocat, Fundació Catalunya La Pedrera, Fundació Banc Sabadell... Public and private members dedicated to science, technology and foreign relations that help us with financing and taking decisions.

The hub started out with a manifesto at the end of 2018.

The mandate comes from the manifesto signed by the rectors of the UB, the UPC, the UPF and the UOC, the former mayors Serra, Clos, Hereu and Trias, and scientists and academics, such as Bonaventura Clotet (IrsiCaixa), Joan Comella (VHIR), Hannah Abdullah (CIDOB), Andreu Mas-Colell (BIST), Caterina Biscari (Sincotró Alba) and Cristian Canton (Facebook), among others. We want to design and implement Barcelona's strategy of science diplomacy, represent our knowledge and innovation ecosystem abroad, act as ambassadors in other countries, and all with the mission of making Barcelona a more influential geopolitical player through science and technology.

Alexis Roig SciTech DiploHub

How is Barcelona positioned around the world?

Barcelona has an important role in culture, art, tourism and sport. Yet, it remains a brand... And Barcelona has to be more than a brand! The brand has an image but it is an object and the city should be a subject. Barcelona has to become a geopolitical player and we have to make the most of our assets. We have to take the initiative and lead. We are in the top ten of talent, startups, technology, life sciences, venture capital... and there are very few cities that are global with the size of our city. The ingredients are there, all that is needed is to bring them together and present the results to the world.

What is the secret to cross-party consensus?

It's not easy because there's a lot of pressure for projects to take one line or another from the political and social context. However, we spend our time on international relations and it must be stressed that this project is positive and beneficial for the ecosystem and society, independently of how the current political situation might be resolved. We have people and institutions in the hub with diverse profiles. In fact, we not only do diplomacy abroad but also within Catalan society. Yet, we are apolitical and non-partisan. When we visit the United Nations, ministries, or local authorities in other countries we always introduce ourselves the same way: Barcelona, science, technology and innovation.

"Barcelona is a hub for international relations and is already the fourth city in the world in terms of consular representatives"

What are Barcelona's values?

Diversity, integration, openness, ideas, people... Everyone is welcome! You have to see beyond the image of sky and sand. You can feel you are from Barcelona wherever you're from. Global cities have fluid identities. You can spend a decade living and spending time in Barcelona without feeling either Catalan or Spanish.

So, where do we stand right now?

We are very well positioned in the internationalization of our universities, at least in terms of students and researchers. The percentage of foreign students and researchers is one of the highest in Europe. And that is even more surprising given that most of the training is not in either English or Spanish. In terms of transferring knowledge and research from universities to industry there is no comparison because there is a big gap between generating knowledge and turning this knowledge into innovation that can be applied to business for the benefit of society... We are in transition and there are powerful initiatives, such as the one from Biocat. The transfer of knowledge is one of the issues still pending.

"Ah, the university!" as Genís Roca wrote.

We mainly work with Catalan universities but there are new players all the time that people also choose. Here we have the Harbour Space private university, of Russian origin, in the Port of Barcelona, where they do masters in artificial intelligence, making access to the labour market quicker. There are also other foreign universities here, such as the Toulouse Business School, the EU Business School... They are more flexible when it comes to adapting to the demand. At some point our universities will have to decide to go beyond traditional training, and it could be good if students could do a course here, a course there.

Víctor Costa and Alexis Roig

It is the era of personalization.

All that about studying for a few years and then never studying again is over! What you learnt five years ago ends up obsolete. At the same time there is a need for very specialized people, but bearing in mind that as many jobs become automated there will also be a need for people who can see the big picture and speak in a language the sector understands. That is what machines will take more time to substitute, if they ever do...

How did the Boston mission go?

We make lots of trips and we work a lot with the authorities in Geneva, Paris, The Hague... We also work with the United Nations' development agency in Asia... In Boston we did the Barcelona Innovation Day to connect our knowledge ecosystem with the ecosystem there. We began in Boston because it is a place of reference for science. The Barcelona Alumni network helps us a lot.

"The talent network of Barcelona Alumni is made up of people at Harvard, MIT, Nasa, Alibaba or Unesco..."

What is Barcelona Alumni?

It is the talent network that includes all those people who are abroad but who were trained in our universities, have done research in our centres, and who have worked in our innovative companies. It is the Barcelona diaspora of knowledge and innovation. They are powerful people who are in Harvard, MIT, NASA, Alibaba or Unesco and they have an emotional and vital link with the city because they are from here or because they spent a substantial amount of time here. During the meeting we did at Christmas we took 150 Alumni and we will do it again on December 27. They are people who want to do things for Barcelona, but sometimes you don't know how to or who to approach. There was never a network of city alumni before.

First the brand and then the community.

Exactly. There has never been a network with all this talent that has gone through Barcelona. We have about a thousand signed up and in the autumn we will launch a digital platform of Barcelona Alumni. It is one of our one-off projects. They are nodes we have all around the world.

First stop: Boston. And after that?

Paris, London, Shanghai and San Francisco. They are cities that are powerful in this sector, we have a good connection with them thanks to the Alumni and we have good relations on a government level. A lot is made of renting the hotel, taking the group photo and releasing the press note... But the impact is much smaller. We exchange our best practices for theirs. It is a one-on-one between cities.

How do you anchor all of this?

They are already concrete events that are very anchored. Sometimes intangible things can be hard to evaluate: they are not short-term and so it makes sense to have an initiative that is non-profit rather than short-term government policies that require a press note the next day. Perhaps the big news will land in five years' time. That is not politically sexy. Nor is our work the last mile, we help to forge connections and draw up the beginnings of an agreement that the universities end up understanding is their business. We can act as mediators and open doors that would not normally be opened through contacts, but we are not a consultancy.

"You don't land an agreement with the authorities in Boston if you're just selling smoke"

How would you answer the criticism that such initiatives are just smoke?

If they were just smoke, you would just do a pretty launch in the La Pedrera, release a press note, a few tweets and you're done. But what you don't do is land an agreement with the authorities in Boston and Harvard if you're just selling smoke. You don't secure a deal with Unesco if all you're selling is smoke... We are now doing the first training in the world in science diplomacy and over a hundred people around the world have implemented it. We have teachers in Unesco, the US government, the European Commission, and the Union for the Mediterranean, and all these people are not committed to the project just because of good marketing. They are specific projects that are tangible, that are put into practice and generate intangibles and economic activity.

What role does the administration play?

The administration does not take the lead because we have had to build this hub from civil society. Yet, the administration could have gone on the defensive but it hasn't. It has given us lots of support. Great nation states like the UK or the Nordic countries include it in their diplomacy strategy, but that is not the case in Catalonia or Barcelona. The innovation is already there: the Catalan capital is the first city in the world to have a player with the role of science ambassador.

Alexis Roig

Barcelona will host one of the new European supercomputers.

Barcelona Super Computing (BSC) is a member of our board. Another one of our projects is the diplomatic centre and we take the consular corps in Barcelona to visit cutting-edge projects in science, technology and innovation. The international collaboration projects help with major global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity, ageing and genomics... They are studies this computer uses.

China is not among the countries that invest the most in Catalonia.

In Catalonia and Spain, we have found it hard to see the opportunity China offers. It is a difficult market because there is no understanding of the culture, the ecosystem, the political system... The priority has been in other places in Europe or in Latin America without necessarily the need for the best investment. You have to go to China with a long-term vision and pooling a sector's strength or with a joint brand.

"In Catalonia and Spain we have found it hard to see the opportunity China offers"

The policy of clusters.

Exactly. It allows for making brands, for greater investment, for getting a return in the long run, and for achieving visibility in a market of 1.4 billion inhabitants, as in China. There are a lot of horizons to explore there in terms of knowledge, life sciences or artificial intelligence. In its latest five-year plans, the Chinese government is doing very well in terms of prioritizing research and innovation as strategic pillars of economic growth. It is going from being the world's factory to becoming the world's research centre. You need the money and to know how to execute. No doubt China does not yet see Barcelona as a partner in innovation and technology. There is still a lot of work to do.

What life lessons would you highlight?

Working on your own resilience as an entrepreneur, businessman or professional. Every time you fall has to help make you a better professional and person. Seeing beyond the complications to the positive part of learning. The Chinese and the Americans are this type of entrepreneur. I have set up and sold three companies. Anyone who has got anywhere knows you fail in life, but you have to pick yourself back up.

What is the long-term vision for the hub?

SciTech DiploHub has to become a reference in creating the city's knowledge of science diplomacy that can be applied to Barcelona as well as other global cities. We want to act as an active agent of science diplomacy in Barcelona. In 10 or 15 years, we want Barcelona to be talking one-on-one, not only with other cities, but with other nations in geopolitics, as a trusted partner that puts science and technology at the service of society and the economy.

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