The Second Strategic Plan for Bilbao

March 27, 2017

The current conditions and needs, following the implementation of the first strategic plan that transformed and repositioned Bilbao locally and globally, are quite different from those in the 1980s and 1990s. A global economic crisis that has challenged the model of transformation, as well as the need for new economies that demand new alliances rather than new buildings, are two aspects that point out the necessity to establish a new strategic plan for the future of the city.

Architect and former Mayor of Bilbao Ibon Areso outlines in this essay the second strategic plan for Bilbao, from its overall goals to specific areas of intervention, from models of engaging a larger set of participants to social and demographic trends. It is a look at what’s ahead for a city that wants to be part of a competitive world of cities and regions.


Mas issue bilbao the second strategic plan for bilbao 01

Zorrotzaurre. © Aitor Ortiz.

Our new strategic plan, like the previous one, focuses on employment and is based on the knowledge economy. Unlike our first strategic plan, the one that gave us fame, this one can’t be photographed and involves more participants than the previous one in which the public administration had a strong investment role. This strategic plan’s main points are the following:

Increase the Area of Influence and Strengthen its Qualities as a Capital City

We are a mid-sized city and we need a critical mass to be able to compete in this globalized world and to support the existence of advanced services that tend to require a larger population. The world increasingly belongs to cities and regions, and states are losing the influence they once had. We have to articulate and generate synergies with eight mid-sized cities in the southwest of France and north of Spain that can define an area of influence of more than three million people. Greater Melbourne, for example, has a population of four million people. Between the neighboring cities we need to change the verb ‘compete’ to ‘collaborate’, looking for synergies and creating a bigger critical mass.

An Intelligent Economic Specialization

Those of us governing cities have the obligation to encourage an increase in wealth and employment and support the companies present in our municipalities. The most important element for social cohesion and equality is employment. In our case, we need to have a vision for the future and invest in the economic specialization of Bilbao. We need to focus our economy towards those areas that generate added value and that can guarantee the economic viability of the city.

To that purpose, we are working in four areas:

1. Creative Industries: Art, Technology, and Design
In the new economy, it is becoming evident that the more creative cities are, the more prosperous they are. We believe that we have specific capabilities and opportunities, mainly in the design field that can generate added value in industrial products.

These activities already play an important and growing role in the real economy and in the image that the city can project externally to attract both investment and talent. Besides their strategic impact, on the one hand these activities have always benefited from an industrial and dynamic environment like ours. On the other hand, creative industries require an important international network and can address the local/global tension.

In effect:

  • Creativity’s target market is the world.
  • Creative and design values mobilize economic activity, youth, and entrepreneurship internationally.
  • Creativity can be learned and it is not exclusively an inherent characteristic.To do that, it is important to establish collaborations with other leading centers worldwide.

One of our shortcomings to support the initial entrepreneurship in this field is the absence of venture capital firms, which forces our youth to have to look for those resources elsewhere. It is a problem that needs to be addressed.

2. Tourism and Healthcare
Tourism is a fundamental way to increase the floating population and diversify our economy. It currently represents 5.6% of Bilbao’s gross domestic product (GDP) and we aim to achieve 8%, understanding that the hospitality and commercial sectors have to be complimentary activities to the city and not its main activities. In terms of healthcare, we have an aging population. By 2030, it is estimated that the population over 65 will increase by 18.5% and the population over 85 will increase by 37.8%. We need to work in this area, turning this issue into an opportunity to generate a new economy and employment. Besides that, we need to make an effort to attract a younger demographic.

3. Urban Solutions and Environmental Technologies
The transformation of Bilbao has been achieved with technology developed by Basque companies. We have great engineering knowledge that emerged from the industrial past that is now helping companies to compete for city services, especially in regions such as Latin America.

4. Advanced Services for the Industrial Economy
Bilbao needs to strengthen itself as a center of services for the industrial economy of its territory. Those advanced services include financial, insurance, consulting, engineering, architecture, communication technologies, audiovisual, and university, among others.

Internationalization. The Bilbao Brand

I have mentioned earlier that the world increasingly belongs to cities and regions. The first strategic plan for the transformation of Bilbao positioned the city as a referent in urban transformations and good practices.

This circumstance has had a positive effect on our industrial fabric. Despite our small size, we have been able to become a referent and an example of success and good practices. This has created a framework for our large and small companies to present themselves worldwide as part of a competitive region, showcasing our city in front of other cities with a large economic potential where the Basque companies have a market to explore and conquer.

In the World Cities Summit hosted in Bilbao in 2013, the Minister of National Development from Singapore stated that there is no reason to reinvent the wheel and what we have to do is identify those who are being successful and import their knowledge. Thus, our companies have a great opportunity to showcase their achievements to future importers of solutions.

The “Bilbao” brand is fashionable, but the wave we are currently riding won’t be eternal and we need to take advantage of it to secure our presence in the international networks. To achieve that goal, we are working on agreements to collaborate with leading international cities. Initially, our international positioning was generated spontaneously as a result of Bilbao being considered a successful case of best urban practice. Afterwards, however, we must purposely and intensively work on this aspect as we consider it fundamental moving forward.

External Connectivity and Internal Mobility

Connectivity was part of our first strategic plan, and we need to strengthen it both externally and internally. Only well-connected cities will have the capacity to compete globally in the future. We need more port, airport, high-speed rail, and internal networks that facilitate basic mobility to build up the nature of the capital city.

University as Hub

Universities, science, and technological institutes are fundamental in a society like ours that, since our mining became extinct, doesn’t have resources beyond our human capacities. In any case, the richest cities are not those that have more natural resources, but those who have the most qualified people. The current world is the knowledge world.

Bilbao is not known as a university city and one of our goals is to recover the university as agent with presence in the city, promoting and facilitating the location of new centers. The University of the Basque Country was founded during the dictatorship and, in order to prevent conflicts with students, its campus was located in a remote area of the metropolitan area, outside Bilbao.

First, university and technology with their research and innovative activities are a component of excellence around which we want to redefine an important part of our economy. They also generate a high degree of employment as eight out of ten graduates become employed in three years after completing their studies. The impact of the economic crisis has lowered that percentage from 87% in 2008 to 77% in 2011. Besides, there is an important collective that is getting trained in these areas, between 6% and 8% of the total graduates.

Second, I consider the university an economic element and generator of employment. But besides being a “company” in itself, it is also an agent that supports other activities of high added value. At the same time, students and college life invigorate life in the city, providing places with unique identities and synergies with other sectors such as residential, leisure, and hospitality.

But this strategic and programmatic approach towards the university requires specific and tangible solutions.

In terms of urban visibility of the university, I want to start with Abandoibarra, one of the new central areas of Bilbao, where the new University of Deusto Library and the University of the Basque Country Bilbao Aretoa building are located. The campus of the University of Deusto is expanding and in Sarriko, we have provided land where a legal and economic center will be located. The Basurto-San Mamés axis is becoming a technological and healthcare center, with land reserved for the new Medicine School. At the same time, we have contributed to the Bilbao location of the Mondragón University by providing a municipal building.

But we can’t focus exclusively on traditional university infrastructures. We also have to develop units that can incubate companies and create university spin offs, establishing learning hubs for university-company collaboration.

In the public university we have the ZITEK program geared to the creation of a business fabric generated not only by the ideas coming from research groups, but also by any entrepreneurial agent with a current or past relationship with the campus in Biscay and more specifically with the Engineering School in Bilbao. The University of Deusto has “DeustoKabi” in Bilbao, a space to activate and connect people that work within and outside the program. Also, the Bilbao City Council has established an agreement with the University of Deusto and its Basque Institute of Competitiveness, “ORKESTRA,” to analyze the economy of the future that Bilbao aspires to and its capabilities to reach it. The Mondragón University has created the “Bilbao Berrikuntza Faktoria,” an innovation and entrepreneurial center to support the early stages of business projects and their subsequent consolidation. The postgraduate studies aim to ultimately create real companies.

Finally, I’d like to mention the DigiPen Institute of Technology. DigiPen is a leader in education and research in computer interactive technologies. With campuses in Redmond, Washington and Singapore, its Zierbena campus is part of the metropolitan area of Bilbao.

Continue with the Urban Transformation

We are not done with the transformation of the city. We are starting the development of new areas where we are combining mixed-uses and incorporating sustainable urban guidelines. Some of these areas include:

  • Zorrotzaurre: Zaha Hadid Architects designed its master plan. It will be a mixed-used area including creative industries, a technological park, and residential uses among others. Initial development of the area has already started.
  • Punta Zorroza: Plans for its urban redevelopment are being processed in order to generate a mixed-use area combining housing and work. In Bilbao, we must keep our feet on the ground, so we want to keep part of our traditional industry within the city once it is renewed and it becomes more competitive thanks to innovation and technology. First, we need to facilitate the relocation of industries that are incompatible with their urban location and replace them with others that are cleaner, more modern, and can provide a bigger added value. That way we will also reduce as much as possible the time spent commuting between home and work.
  • Basurto-San Mamés: It is an area currently under major transformation. New sport facilities (not just the San Mamés Stadium), the technological and healthcare area, the new residential development in the former military headquarters in Garellano, the undergrounding of the FEVE rail infrastructures, the new bus terminal, and the transformation of Sabino Arana, with its viaduct already having been demolished, will generate a city rich in uses and the type of future for which we are looking.
  • Abando Station: This is also one of the main spaces with ample opportunities that we need to tackle in the future. It will be the location of the high-speed rail station and it will affect the urban configuration of its surroundings.

The Relaxation of the Urban Regulations

The goal is to facilitate the establishment of new activities, allowing for more flexible activities, and supporting businesses that want to invest in Bilbao.

The Neighborhood Cores

We need to find a better balance between the center of the city and its neighborhoods. To that end, we are developing a comprehensive and advanced study to strengthen each neighborhood as a social and economic core.

Unlike the directional and representative activities that typically tend to be located in the center of the city, the creative, cultural, and software activities are more competitive in neighborhoods where they can find affordable locations. Therefore, we need to use the neighborhoods to invest in startups and other entrepreneurial activities.

Creative industries are characterized by being based on individuals and their value lays fundamentally on the intelligence and intellectual property, initially not having any financial capital. As opposed to the more traditional and technological industry, a creative industry requires a smaller investment and its facilities fit perfectly within the city.

I have mentioned earlier the issue of our aging population and the need to attract a younger population, as well as emerging companies by providing access to the neighborhoods so they can settle there.

On the one hand the goal is to create an interesting space in each one of the neighborhoods, turning them into the hearts of the area and combining areas dedicated to housing, leisure, and work. We don’t want dormitory neighborhoods, so from the City Council we need to facilitate adequate infrastructures, such as our program “Auzo Factory.”

We have to establish “neighborhood factories” that integrate the new entrepreneurial community with the surrounding collective groups. We have already opened the first two spaces in Matiko and Bilbao la Vieja and we are rehabbing one in Rekalde that will be followed by others in other neighborhoods. It is a new type of infrastructural investment that differs from that in the first strategic plan, one that created the Euskalduna Conference Centre and Concert Hall, the Guggenheim Museum, and the subway, among others.

To conclude, I’d like to briefly mention four other topics:

Maintenance of the City: First, we need to take care of the maintenance of the city. It is the responsibility of the Bilbao City Council and it is a non-transferrable task. We have to give a good impression and not one that could be interpreted as a city in decline. To some, this aspect might seem inconsequential, but it is not. It is necessary to have an adequate environment in order to be attractive, to facilitate economic activity, and to generate trust. A proper maintenance is essential and we should delay certain investments if that is required to pay for the costs.

Culture: It was also part of our first strategic plan. The strengthening of the cultural sector is an element of internal revitalization and promotion of the city externally. In contemporary societies, cultural, artistic, sport, and leisure activities are measuring tools of their collective vitality. It is important for those of us living in the city and it also determines how attractive the city is, contributing to its external image and capacity to attract new activities.

Leadership and Governance: This is something that is the responsibility of all of us in the municipal government, to have a vision of what we want and manage it. Our vision is the one that I have outlined in this text. On top of that, we need to be responsible for the adequate management of the funding that the citizens put at our disposal, investing it to make this project a reality and incorporating other public administrations, companies, and agents to our efforts. The Bilbao City Council has zero debt, pays in 26 days, has been a leader in transparency five years in a row, and has received first prize in transparency by the European Union for our management. Legitimacy is achieved not only with the electoral results, but also with the daily work. We need to be close to the citizens, close to the economic agents, and have integrity so that we all recover the confidence in politics. The Bilbao City Council is a public institution that projects stability.

The Encouragement of Values and Attitudes: We have to be open
to minorities and diversity as well as encourage values of hard work and solidarity. Given our demographic evolution, Bilbao will have an increasingly mixed-raced population. Despite our aging population, we have to be tolerant and allow those activities and leisure options that the youth demands in order to attract them. We can be rigorous in our values, but flexible in light of social changes. To sum it up, we were able to overcome our crisis in the 1980s and now our challenge is to do it again, with new industrial policies and economic specialization. We are already working on it and I can assure you that we are going to achieve it with the same level of success of our first strategic plan.

Recently, fDi Intelligence, a specialist division from The Financial Times, recognized Bilbao as the fourth best European city for investment in the section “Mid-Sized Cities,” which includes metropolitan areas with a population between 200,000 and 750,000 inhabitants. During the recent World Cities Summit 2016 in Singapore, two members of the Bilbao government were present and they were positively surprised about the impact that Bilbao had in the event. While Bilbao is the brand, it also represents the impact of Biscay and the impact of the Basque Country. Let’s take advantage of our opportunities.