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José V. Roces, a postdoctoral researcher at the Creaf center, finished his Ph.D. five years ago and left Spain in 2017 in search of international experience. Although he explains to Business Insider Spain that he was not forced to leave, he emphasizes that it becomes an almost indispensable condition in research, which especially affects many female colleagues, who on many occasions decide to leave the career.
“The problem of the system is not so much this, which can be, buxt that you leave and manage to return, but you are not clear if you will be able to continue in Spain or if you have to leave again. Resources are scarce and in Spain, we train a lot of researchers. It is very difficult to get long contracts and to have stability,” the researcher emphasizes.
Many young Spaniards like Roces are forced every year to leave their places of origin to go abroad or to other large cities in the country, such as Madrid or Barcelona, where they are more likely to find work, and not only in research. The most immediate consequence is that the towns in these regions, located in the center of the country and on the periphery, are emptying and aging since the few remaining inhabitants are generally of advanced age.
Asturias is one of the most aged regions in Spain and also has a youth unemployment rate of 37.5%, which is why young Asturians decide to try their luck in other regions or countries. In recent years, the number of Asturians leaving “la tierrina” has not stopped growing: according to INE data from 2019, 37.1% of graduates from the region in 2014 work in another autonomous community or country.
Youth unemployment data in other areas of the emptied Spain are also bulky: in Castilla-La Mancha the rate is 36.79%; in Aragon, 34.37%; in Galicia, 33.66%; and in Castilla y León, 31.97%. There is no miracle solution that will erase these figures, but there are original ideas on the table that could at least reduce them.
One example is the decision of the Principality of Asturias to bring its technology centers to rural areas, with a clear intention: to retain talent and maintain territorial cohesion. But this is not the only measure that the community has implemented, nor is it the only administration that has programs related to innovation and research to curb the flight of its inhabitants to large cities.
Business Insider España has talked to the administrations of the Principality of Asturias, Aragón, Galicia, Castilla y León, and Castilla-La Mancha to find out what measures and programs they are putting in place in this regard, as well as to 2 startups that are not located in big cities, to find out what are the disadvantages of not having their headquarters in these.
“Physical presence is hardly needed”.
“In Spain, we do good science for the resources we allocate,” Roces insists. “The problem is that we allocate very, very little. The percentage of GDP that we invest is much lower than the European average and the surrounding countries”.
The innovation budgets of the autonomous communities and the central government have increased this year thanks to the European funds that will be arriving in the coming months and amount to 150,000 million euros.
However, many of the technology centers that will benefit from this money are located in large cities.
The map drawn up by the Spanish R&D Observatory shows a large number of institutions related to research and innovation in Madrid, where 373 can be found, a figure that contrasts with that of other autonomous communities, which can barely be counted on the fingers of one hand.
This graph shows how Spain has become the leader in youth unemployment in Europe.
“Ultimately, in Spain, much of the research ends up being done in Madrid or Barcelona. People end up there because that is where there are more opportunities, but those people would also have no problem going to live in a smaller area with a higher quality of life if there was a temporary continuity”, defends Roces.
Startup location trends are similar: most are based in large cities. Herminio Fernández is CEO of Eurocoinpay, a startup based in León that makes it possible to pay everyday expenses with cryptocurrencies. Fernández explains that startups located in “more depressed” parts of Spain have disadvantages compared to others located in large cities in terms of credibility, reaching official bodies, etc. However, talent detection is not one of them.
“Physical presence is almost not needed,” he explains. “The Internet has broken down physical boundaries.” The CEO and founder of Gijón-based startup i4life, Marián García, agrees and stresses that now all meetings are virtual, so there are no longer as many problems as before. “Before, there were differences in communication. Everything was based on face-to-face meetings, face-to-face business… Then being far away from the nuclei and with less communication was a huge handicap.”
The CEO of Eurocoinpay says that before the pandemic, the company was already working remotely, with colleagues connected from other places, even though Eurocoinpay’s headquarters are in León. In addition, she stresses the need for regional and central governments to support R&D companies, because that is “where the future lies for young people”.
“I always say that young people are not going to be able to look for work, they are going to have to invent it,” she defends. “Spain now has a great opportunity with the funds they are going to receive from the European Union (EU).”
For his part, García stresses that working in smaller environments also benefits companies. “There are very few of us, so standing out as an innovator in Madrid among many companies (…) is more difficult,” she says and highlights the support from the Principality of Asturias and the Gijón City Council. “You have the opportunity to have them explain the financing instruments first hand”.
Empowering rural areas as innovation centers
With the youth employment data from these administrations, retaining talent becomes one of their priorities. “This is not about constructing buildings, it’s about articulating socioeconomic transformation plans. It’s very different,” the Asturian Minister of Science, Innovation, and University, Borja Sánchez tells Business Insider España, adding that European funds have to put the value in the rural world. “We have no other choice.”
Sánchez says that the strategy of the Principality has 2 layers: social innovation and connectivity, with the development of 5G technology.
In this first one, he highlights the commitment to rural centers, which is also a question of territorial cohesion. “If you want to deploy innovation throughout the territory, you have to think not only in your central area or in the cities, but also in your councils,” he explains. To this end, the Consejería has decided to transform and adapt our network of Centros de Dinamización Tecnológica Local (CDTL) – known to Asturians as telecenters – as this is where the Principality has staff.
Sánchez points out in the interview that it is important to remember that this is the first time that the autonomous community has a specific Department of Science. “What is most urgent in Asturias is to organize a regional science and technology ecosystem that brings together public and private agents,” Sánchez explains. “That is before injecting a huge amount of resources. It wouldn’t be very intelligent to do so if we don’t have the ecosystem created.
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The principality’s strategy involves merging all its technology centers, as well as increasing spending centers and encouraging large companies to create their own in the region. “We have to encourage more innovative SMEs and, above all, we have to remake, transform or redirect the role of the technology centers,” explains the minister.
Roces stresses that these measures will not be enough to rehabilitate depopulated areas, but they can be part of the driving force. “Research is not going to be part of the solution by itself in the long term (…). It can be a gamble. The solution involves incorporating many more things and this could be a small part of it. People who do research would have no problem with going to a more unpopulated area if there are good conditions.”
As for repopulation programs in other communities, Aragon -the Zaragoza Provincial Council, specifically- launched in 2018 the Challenge program for young students, better known as rural Erasmus, with the aim of completing their training in municipalities of less than 3,000 inhabitants located in counties particularly hit by depopulation.
Now, the Aragonese government wants to extend it to the rest of the provinces of the autonomous community. These students receive a grant of 300 euros and accommodation and subsistence allowances are also paid. According to the regional government, 79 young university students have obtained jobs thanks to these programs. The number is expected to increase when the program is extended to Huesca and Teruel.
Castilla-La Mancha already agreed in 2016 to define 5 geographical areas with specific development needs and receive what is called Integrated Territorial Investment (ITI). Between 2017 and 2018, the La Mancha government published 2 calls for proposals endowed with 20 million euros in total, of which 7.6 million went to finance 87 projects in ITI areas, 40% of the total submitted.
Among them, there is a wide variety of initiatives. For example, one is focused on technological advances applied to support and improve teaching activity in Rural Aggregate Schools (CRA), and another on non-woody biomasses for thermal energy production.
With the slowing down of depopulation also as an objective, the Xunta de Galicia wants to promote the creation of hubs in rural areas, conceived as spaces equipped with 5G connection coworking with 5G connection and the necessary equipment to turn them into spaces for technological entrepreneurship.
Smart villages are another part of the Galician strategy. These are “communities in rural areas that use innovative solutions to improve their resilience based on local strengths and opportunities”, with a participatory approach to develop and implement their strategies to improve their economic, social, or environmental conditions.
In the case of Castilla y León, there is financial aid for entrepreneurship in rural areas, with amounts of 10,000 euros, which increases if the project is innovative or is led by women and young people. In addition, 2 sectors stand out: cybersecurity, for which an investment line will be announced in the coming weeks, and retail, with aid to local entities and merchants’ associations for online promotion and sales.
Skills qualification and job retraining
A report by the consulting firm EY published at the end of 2020 points out that retraining employees will be one of the priorities in terms of people management in the near future, as the need for new skills has accelerated, especially in relation to new technologies.
This need for technology positions means that many people’s skills are becoming obsolete, and many employees need to be retrained to adapt. The lack of technical skills is more noticeable in rural areas: the Asturias counselor specifies that part of the digital transformation of the community lies precisely in the qualification and training of the unemployed. For this reason, most of the autonomous regions contacted have ICT programs for their inhabitants.
Aragon organizes ICT workshops to fight the digital divide aimed at older people or those unfamiliar with the use of these technologies. The courses are given in public centers in towns with less than 2,000 inhabitants. In this way, they also seek to consolidate these spaces.
For its part, the Galician Agency for Technological Modernization (Amtega) launched the Network of Centers for Technological Modernization and Inclusion (CeMIT Network) with the aim of achieving technological convergence with Europe. This network consists of 98 classrooms spread throughout Galicia.
The ICT skills learned can be accredited with a CODIX, that is, a certification of digital skills in office automation, which is obtained by passing a test organized by the Agency for Technological Modernization of Galicia (Amtega).
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Castilla y León also organizes training courses in new digital skills and Castilla-La Mancha offers its citizens courses in basic and advanced office automation, internet, and new technologies, as well as workshops to teach network management, internet shopping, and digital culture, among others.
A good internet connection, the key to attracting teleworkers
The confinement, which forced employees and students to do their work from home, highlighted the great digital divide that exists in Spain, where there are still villages that do not have access to the network. For this reason, another of the most frequently repeated measures is the implementation of programs that seek to bring the Internet to every corner of the territory.
The Department of Science, University and Knowledge Society of Aragon has just launched the 100×100 plan, with the aim of bringing 100 megabytes to 100% of the territory, with an investment of 20 million euros (complementary to that of the central government) to deploy broadband and guarantee internet connection as a right.
For the implementation of 5G technology, Aragon wants to implement 3 pilot projects to test its effectiveness in strategic sectors. They will work on autonomous vehicles, self-sufficient farms and virtual reality applied to tourism.
The Principality of Asturias is also initiating the procedures to deploy 5G technology, after meeting last year’s goal of making the Internet available throughout the region. Sánchez stresses in the interview that improving connectivity is key to attracting telework, especially for people who appreciate the environment.
In May 2020, the Institute for Business Competitiveness (ICE) of Castilla y León reached an agreement with the European Space Agency (ESA) to develop a project that would allow the extension of the signal and connectivity in rural areas through 5G networks.
Castilla-La Mancha, meanwhile, has connected all its educational centers to ultrafast broadband thanks to the Escuelas Conectadas program, which has benefited 1,105 schools, Special Education Centers (CEE) and Grouped Rural Centers (CRA).