Interview with José Manuel Leceta

Interview with José Manuel Leceta

José Manuel Leceta

“A Smart City is a city capable of rethinking itself by catalizing creativity and collective intelligence”

 “Responsible public management cannot only be measured in terms of certain funds being entrusted to a person in charge. It should also be measured in terms of efficiency”

 “We are not really aware of the social changes the ICTs are bringing about in the way we think and network”


SCASC.- Current prospects are that Europe will be the main continent in the development of Smart Cities before the time comes for Latin America and Asia all along the next decade. What can Europe contribute to the urban development of these continents, whether with examples or by the transmission of know-how?

JML.- A city is a “laboratory” in which complexity and sophistication should be managed in an intelligent manner; this is the reason for the growing interest in the role it plays in the areas of innovation and entrepreneurship. Smart Cities require technologies to be widely understood and accepted by citizens and by the administration at all levels, so that proper government, funding and tender models are applied. Successful solutions will be those that combine good ideas and mature technologies with prepared societies and proper regulations, so that Europe may effectively position itself in an advantageous position to develop models for other regions in the world.

Several initiatives are being launched by the EC institutions to encourage managers of European pilot cities to shape up their strategies and exchange practical cases in the “Smart Cities Stakeholders Platform” and the European Association Innovation “EIP: European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities”. Besides, from the 7th Framework Programme onwards, multidisciplinary demonstration projects have been funded, which integrate partners with different profiles, from large companies and SMEs to universities and research centers, besides, of course, public administrations. In the new H2020 Programme, in fact, “Smart Cities and Communities” has been awarded an exclusive call with a budget above 30M€. Such projects should encourage other cities to create a globalized network of smart cities.

 KICSCASC.- In that sense, what can the European Innovation and Technology Institute (EIT) offer to Smart Cities?

JML.- The EIT regards great social challenges as opportunities for innovation. To achieve this goal, we integrate the knowledge triangle formed by excellent higher education partners, research centers and companies commited to fostering the entrepreneurial spirit in Europe, particularly among young people, by means of interlinked ecosystems called “Colocation Centers”. KICs (Communities for Knowledge and Innovation) are the EIT operating agents, big, open and dynamic associations that focus on the creation of opportunities in response to challenges such as climate change or innovative energies, to name a few. The distinctive feature of EIT and KICs is the fact that they make use of currently existing capacities to focus on people and their attitudes.

The first three KICs in the EIT, Climate KIC, KIC Innoenergy and EIT ICT Labs are already working on some projects to be applied to Smart Cities. The Climate Change KIC has signed a relevant agreement with a pilot city in China. KIC Innoenergy defines business models for the deployment of electrical vehicles in cities. Finally, EIT ICT Labs has already launched several projects to improve clients’ experience in hospitals, for example. Besides, the Smart City area will be a field for collaboration among the three KICs.

 SCASC.- Among all technological and economical sectors involved in Smart Cities, ICTs are the sector with the highest expected growth. Given that ICTs are also one of your specialization areas, what do you think about such prospects for development?

JML.- Undoubtedly, ICTs are essential to include intelligence in systems management, and they are also productivity sources for individual companies and for the relationship between them. Technological aspects such as Social Internet, Big Data, Internet of Things, Open Data, Mobility and Cloud Computing will open new and yet-to-discover possibilities, thus making currently known economic sectors more dynamic, and creating new ones. This is why they are so important. However, as I already mentioned, such technological developments will require a great capacity for “administrative innovation” at the required speed. The combination between technological availability and ecosystems open to change will determine success to a great extent. Idea contests already being launched by cities such as New York and EIT ICT Labs in Europe already suggest a new way for community innovation.

SCASC.- In your term of office as International Manager of the Industrial and Technological Development Centre, Spanish participation in the research and development EU Framework programmes increased by 50%. Nevertheless, right now the R&D sector has been pushed back to the background in Spain, at least in terms of investment and government support. What do you think the consequences will be for Spain during the next few years in the European scenario?

JML.- It was extremely interesting, and I cannot but thank all the colleagues, authorities and partners with whom we made it possible for Spain to balance its participation in the R&D European Union Framework Programme. I believe that, in spite of the abundance of national funds available at the time (before the economic crisis), we managed to start a national debate on the added value of collaboration in R&D in general and on international programmes in particular. The Annual Conference that is still organized every year in a different autonomous region bears witness to that time

Supported by the political leaders in the Spanish and autonomic governments, by Fundación COTEC (COTEC Foundation) and by Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo (International University Menéndez Pelayo) where we met for three years in a row to share good practices in the internationalization of autonomic R&D systems it become possible for European R&D to be a “worth factor” for agents in the sector. By means of several incentives for companies and associations, the CDTI decisively contributed to the reequilibration not only of participation in absolute terms, but also of its composition. Before that, industries from other countries reaped the benefits from our participation (mostly from the scientific world), without our getting benefits for our companies in return.

The situation has changed a lot. Nevertheless, since the term of office of the last Ministry for Science and Innovation, I have witnessed a dispiriting debate on the budget assigned to public funding available in our country; while this is necessary for scientific research in particular, in my opinion it should not be the only point of view. In these affairs (as in others), I cannot understand how public management may be measured only in terms of funding entrusted to a certain person in charge of a project. On the contrary, I think responsible management should include efficiency criteria. In my opinion, there is too much at stake for Spain in this aspect, and, without the slightest doubt, citizens deserve that companies and people in charge take it all seriously.

From a more encouraging point of view, I can see an efervescence of big companies, “utilities” and network operators, but also financial institutions trying to “reinvent themselves”. “Corporate Venturing”, for example, is a new phenomenon entailing greater commitment to innovation from “pocket-size multinational companies”. I think this is not just another trend, but a need as traditional businesses open up to the competition; this would be the case of Telefónica. It is encouraging to think that perhaps such open innovation formulas will make up for the lack of risk capital.

SCASC.- You played a fundamental role in the Horizon 2020 Programme for innovation promotion in the EU. Is the programme being accepted as expected? What are your expectations for such an ambitious programme between nations?

JML.- Horizon 2020 is one of the most open-minded and ambitious international joint R&D programmes in the world, and it has already created great expectations, even though the results for many calls are yet to be known. It is structured in three pillars: scientific excellence, industrial leadership and social challenges (the new approaches lay on the second and third). There is a strong will to move a step forward from the cooperation in research cooperation that concentrated most research funds until now, with the remarkable exception of the European Research Council from the previous 7th Framework Programme. Besides, innovation and industry are underscored; this is not a new approach, but it has perhaps been stressed by the economic crisis, even in the academic world aiming to settle the foundations for a new “social contract” with science. The third pillar, social challenges, is clearly a new approach, and somehow attributes a mission to European R&D. The specific work of EIT in terms of education and entrepreneurship is included in this pillar.

Public expenditure by the Framework Programme as compared to publicly-funded R&D all over Europe only accounts for between 5 and 10% of the total, depending on measurement rates and periods. It seems clear enough that lack of funding in several countries may encourage many organizations to take part in European projects. But this fact, along with the expectations that were paradoxically raised by the impulse the European Commission gave to the simplification of Horizon 2020, could imply that successful access to the programme may become more complex. Nevertheless, it is worth giving it a try, as this is an unrivalled platform to access knowledge and markets.

Horizon 2020

SCASC.- Apart from Spain, you lived and worked in France and Finland, and you are currently working in Budapest. What is your opinion about urban development in Eastern Europe? Did it follow suit with Western Europe?

JML.- Budapest has been the headquarters of the European Institute for Innovation and Technology since 2010, and it is a fascinating and inspiring city for the mission we are carrying on. When walking along its streets, particularly in Pest, you realize how wide and homogeneous its dwelling stock is, as the city became established in about 20-30 years between the 19th and the 20th century. Budapest is a live witness of a vibrant economy based on entrepreneurship, which is precisely what we are trying to get back for the Old Continent. We should bear in mind that, in the last quarter of the 20th century, only a tenth of the new innovative companies that became world leaders were created in Europe. This fact is closely related to the revolution of knowledge society over the Atlantic ocean, and the slow European response we still have to put up with.

Budapest has great touristic potential, and the rehabilitation of its dwelling stock will require a significant level of investment. As in Spain, Hungary is looking for its growth sources, curiously enough with Spanish investors in the real estate sector. I have no doubt that it will find its place in the knowledge-based economy, as Hungary is the world country with more Nobel Prizes per capita in the world; clearly enough, the country lacks no talent. To sum up, Budapest is a nice symbol of the “Europe that could have been”; we will contribute to making it possible again by means of the EIT-fostered innovation focused on people.”

SCASC.- Besides telecommunications, you studied Business Administration. Your specialization, along with your involvement in the EUREKA European programme, probably made you understand the need to create opportunities and business models so that innovative technology initiatives may become more than just mere projects. Do you think enough business cases are being generated for Smart City initiatives?

JML.- This is an interesting consideration. The Eureka initiative was, back in its time, an inspiration source for the joint development of products and services based on cooperation and confidence between partners. As such, as a complement to the Framework Programme which has been essentially focused on pre-competitive R&D. Eureka required previous confidence between project partners, because of how close they are to the market and because they should be available to share results. In the same manner, projects for Smart Cities that involve innovation in business models, organization and sales aspects require confidence between partners in a sustained way in order to achieve an acceptance level that will determine their technological success and their social acceptance. In Europe, the “subvention mindset” is so deeply rooted that it becomes difficult for projects to become systems and services, which require partnerships to last longer than the project life cycle. That seems to me a real “European paradox”, because while public intervention may be justified to correct market and system deviations, projects may just remain as “good intentions” without continuity if no commitment is obtained from social and economic agents.

We are talking about innovation in the broader sense, given the number of disciplines and business sectors to be integrated in the production of solutions to be applied to networks, energy, transport, environmental issues, communications, citizen engagement… All this involves a significant level of effort and dedication, even for little smart towns. Even leader countries find themselves having to experiment with that. Let’s take Korea, for example: it could be compared to Spain in terms of size and number of inhabitants. Just a generation ago, it was mainly an agricultural country. Despite hosting great technological champions today, Korea should still reduce the difference between little villages and big cities. In order to achieve that goal, the Korean government has launched an OCDE-recommended programme to foster creativity. Nobody owns the talent monopoly; it’s just the opposite, on many occasions breaking ideas may come from the geographical or social periphery.

SCASC.- While working for the European Space Agency, you lead the launch mission of the SMOS satellite, which intends to monitor climate and water cycles in our planet, as well as humidity levels in the five continents. From this point of view, how important do you think the right management of water can be, in the framework of a smart and efficient city?

JML.- Clearly enough, social concern regarding climate change is on the rise. Measuring salt levels in oceans and humidity levels in soil are, according to the scientific community, two essential parameters, and these are exactly the main goals of the SMOS satellite, lead by Spain in the European Space Agency. As for leadership, SMOS is the most relevant initiative that was lead by the Spanish industry all along its participation in the ESA, an idea that we got back from their laboratories in the Netherlands. EUMETSAT has managed the Meteosat climate satellite system from the very beginning, and it has recently added a supplementary system of polar orbit satellites. It came to my knowledge that the aforementioned organization showed its interest in the SMOS mission. Whatever the system on which the intelligence required by the 20st-century cities lies, it is clear that there is room for improvement in terms of water management. As happened with air, which was considered valueless in economic terms by the economists in the past, the regard for water can only grow. This is why, to give you an example, Climate KIC is tackling projects such as Blue Green Dream, using water and vegetation to make cities more inhabitable, or Smart Urban Water, with new models for the management of urban water.

SCASC.- Another space programme you were involved in was Egnos-Galileo, which gave rise to the first GPS-positioning system owned by Europe. How much has that system helped us europeans increase our efficiency and competitiveness?

JML.- Galileo is the European satellite navigation and positioning system, similar to GPS (USA) and GLONASS (Russia). Previously, EGNOS was launched in Spain in the fast track thanks to the collaboration agreement between CDTI and AENA back in the 1990s. EGNOS is already being commercially used, and Galileo will offer many other business opportunities and applications to increase safety, efficiency and reliability in many sectors, not only in the air traffic sector but also in general transport, environmental issues, agriculture… Several examples are already available, and in the future we will witness the “democratization” of services of interest in several social and economic sectors.

SCASC.- From your current perspective as the EIT manager, which was the innovative technology that surprised you the most recently?

JML.- I think we are living wonderful times and that, perhaps because we are so familiar with that right now (“the Future shock” theorized by Alvin Tofler, for example) we are not aware of the social changes that are taking place in the way we think and network due to information technologies. This could be illustrated as follows: Youtube is a real library where multimedia “à la carte” contents appear in the first place. The tool makes it possible. In spite of that, I think that unraveling how the brain works is the great revolution to come, and that, when neuroscience has made enough progress, we will be able to understand ourselves and understand each other while benefitting from our respective strengths: we will be capable of socializing and being happier by focusing on the positive aspects we all have. A whole new horizon of possibilities for Smart Cities.

SCASC.- To finish the interview, please give us your opinion: a Smart City is a city that…
JML.- Is capable of “rethinking” itself by catalizing creativity and collective intelligence.

 By Jorge González-Páramo

Interview with José Manuel Leceta