RIS3CAT: Challenges and Opportunities – Albert Castellanos Maduell

In the world, in Europe, in Catalonia, we are immersed in a paradigm shift at all levels. Everything around us is changing at a dizzying pace. Rapid technological advances, Internet and the digital networks have generated a technological and cultural rupture that is affecting the most diverse sectors of society: institutional systems, power relations between groups, access to information and services, social structures, business models, research and innovation models, relations between governments and citizens and more. The great challenges that face us as a society (unemployment, population aging, climate change, etc.) urgently demand new responses.

For the 2014-2020 period, the European Union called on all regions to draw up and implement regional innovation strategies for smart specialisation (RIS3 strategies), co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). The objective of RIS3 strategies is to focus the economic and knowledge specialisation of regions (based on their resources, strengths and capabilities) and to promote action plans providing public support for innovation to strengthen the competitiveness of the territory and foster more sustainable and inclusive growth.

RIS3 strategies are based on open innovation models in which, besides companies, research and innovation actors and governments, citizens must also be present, as they are the main beneficiaries and users of innovations. This is particularly important in a context in which new responses to the great economic, social and environmental challenges necessarily entail changes in behaviour at both individual and societal scale.

The RIS3 strategy for Catalonia (RIS3CAT) was approved in 2014. The RIS3CAT Action Plan has a budget of more than 400 million euros from the ERDF to promote innovation in the sectors defined as priorities in Catalonia. This sum is used to cofinance projects and investments worth more than 1,000 million euros in total.

One of the main objectives of RIS3CAT is to transform knowledge and technology in the territory into shared value; that is to say, into economic value that also creates value for society as it addresses, among others, the following needs and challenges:

  • To transform the production system and establish a more competitive R&D&I system
  • To enable the appearance of new emerging activities and their subsequent consolidation
  • To establish a more sustainable development model
  • To promote the creation of more highly qualified jobs
  • To improve public services
  • To enhance quality of life

RIS3CAT combines traditional tools for supporting research and innovation with more innovative mechanisms aimed at promoting new forms of cooperation between people and organisations to co-create public policies and innovative solutions that will enable the formulation of effective responses to the great challenges that face our society.

In this context, a key question that RIS3CAT seeks to answer is: How can the public administrations, universities, research and technology centres, companies, education system and civil society  (associations, non-profits, citizens, etc.) be encouraged to become more actively involved in the innovation that is needed to respond to shared societal challenges?

As RIS3CAT has evolved, the role of the public administration as a driver of innovation and social transformation has been strengthened through policies aimed at mobilising the knowledge and capabilities that exist in the territory in order to develop new responses to societal challenges and generate shared value. The main tools used to shape this emerging role are:

  1. Sectorial groups of companies and R&D&I stakeholders, which develop common sector-based research and innovation agendas and implement collaborative projects (RIS3CAT communities).
  2. Innovative projects promoted by local authorities in cooperation with research and innovation players and other actors in the territory with a view to responding to challenges of a territorial nature (PECT).
  3. Public procurement of innovation (PPI) to develop and implement new solutions to societal challenges through the acquisition of new processes or services.
  4. Articulation of a social, digital and collaborative innovation network in Catalonia (Catlabs) to advance towards a universal system of innovation.
  5. Design and comparison of new processes and methodologies aimed at responding to complex social challenges that require a collective impact approach and the involvement of quadruple helix stakeholders.
  6. Development and implementation of monitoring and evaluation systems that focus on collective learning (as well as accountability) and on impact on complex and dynamic environments.


These new tools, the fruit of a new paradigm and a new way of understanding research and innovation (more open, more collaborative, more transversal, etc.), often clash with the contradictions of an old paradigm that is still too present among the different quadruple helix actors. This old paradigm greatly hinders the possibility of sharing knowledge and generating methodological or procedural innovations without arousing suspicion. The contradictions between the new tools and the paradigm are manifested in different areas: in regulations that restrict the implementation of projects; in the way of working; in the way of understanding collaboration; in closed-minded views about opportunities to create shared value, etc.

The European funds channelled through RIS3CAT should be a central tool—or, at least, a stimulus—for advancing towards this new vision of things. Indeed, despite the contradictions and barriers raised by those who are content to say “that’s how we’ve always done it”, more and more stakeholders and projects are adopting the parameters of this new paradigm. To encourage many more to adopt new ways of doing things, work is needed on the following lines of action:

  • Formulating new, evidence-based narratives that promote a new way of doing things (changing people’s mindsets), especially in the case of projects that are profitable for the private sector, which generate great social impact and have very high public value. Here, we need to find new ways of promoting complementarities.
  • Identifying and raising the profile of entities and people who work with this vision, as well as successful cases (in the fields of the administrations, universities, companies and civil society) which demonstrate that operating under the parameters of the new paradigm can be beneficial to all. Innovating and doing things differently is possible, and the results make the effort worthwhile. Sharing knowledge requires the establishment of relations and bonds of trust that cannot be created overnight but which, in the end, can help to produce very good results.
  • Supporting the establishment of collaborative networks and new alliances of actors to contribute to the paradigm shift through a collective impact approach and the generation of shared value. Generalised participation in European programmes has persuaded most researchers and professionals to adopt collaboration as a condition of their research activity. However, this culture has not yet penetrated business or the public administrations to a sufficient degree.
  • Questioning—through specific cases but from a systemic perspective—ways of doing things under the old paradigm that prevent us from advancing. Asking why things are as they are is a good start. There is an explanation for everything, but the current context is not the same as twenty years ago.
  • Developing new methodologies that enable collaborative innovation and enable public policy to focus on collective impact. We should remember that all creative processes are generated by interactions between people.
  • Promoting the development of new professional profiles that can acquire transversal competences. Very different experts are needed in research and innovation projects but, above all, profiles are required that are capable of connecting different competences and matching capabilities to unsatisfied needs.

In short, we need to work on changing our mindsets, to understand the challenges in all their complexity, to establish a strategic framework shared by all relevant stakeholders involved (both those affected by the challenge and those that can suggest solutions to them from the world of public policy, knowledge, or the development of new products and services) and to articulate responses capable of generating shared value to the challenges that face the country. If the best responses to population aging, growing digitisation or the sustainability of the planet involve us all… then why don’t we get used to working together right from the start?

Albert Castellanos Maduell
Secretary General of the Vice-presidency and of the Economy and Finance

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