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bilbao's big

Hit by high unemployment levels among its younger population, Bilbao's mayor, Juan Maria Aburto, tells Courtney Fingar how the city is looking to the digital sector and tourism to reverse its fortunes.

Q: Bilbao is placing great emphasis on being a ‘smart city’: why is that? What benefits doing you see to this approach, and does it have an impact on FDI?

A: The digital transformation is unstoppable, all around the world... we have to see this as an opportunity to generate and develop economic activity, because if we are able to generate economic activity, we are able to generate employment, and that is very important.

The work done this past year is beginning to bear fruit, and we would like to continue attracting investment to develop this digital transformation. We want to work with companies that could come and invest in Bilbao, and design processes to attract talent and training to meet the specific needs of these companies. So for us it’s going to be very important to have more digital vocations, and this means we have to focus on digital education.

Q: What other sectors are your prioritising?

A: Perhaps the most important is the digital sector, but we have done smart specialisation [as a sector strategy] and because of this we want to focus our economic activity in some different sectors. One of them is going to be advanced services. Bilbao was an industrial city and now the industry is outside the city, but [we can supply in the city] the important services that these industries in our territory need. Perhaps the most important in this case could be regarding ‘Industry 4.0’ [the trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies]. 

Another sector that’s important now is tourism. The importance of tourism to our GDP, 30 years ago, was very low. Nowadays, the weighting of tourism in Bilbao is close to 7%. So this means that it’s important, that we’re attractive, that people come to visit us, and this is an opportunity. What is our tourism like? It’s cultural, gastronomic, it is congress tourism, and it is increasing with greater spending capacity. So we have to see tourism as an important economic sector and we have to develop infrastructure to continue growing. We are not going to be [popular beach resort] Benidorm or [those in] Andalusia, because of the weather. But we want to develop the tourism. We have to look at the city in two different ways. One, look inside the city, develop the city for citizens. But we have to have another look, to look outside, to be attractive for people to come and visit and enjoy our city. 

[We are also looking at] medical technologies. We are living longer, so it means we are going to have more [medical] needs. With adequate technology people can have a better life. We want to bring together the engineers and the medicine, and see if we are able to develop an economic centre in medical technologies. 

Q: How is the local economy performing at the moment? What is the outlook in the short to medium term? 

A: The situation is changing very fast. The financial crisis hit hard in Bilbao and in the Basque Country. In the past two years, the indicators say that the situation has improved and growth should exceed more than 2% in 2017. But this doesn’t mean that employment [opportunities are being created]. It’s true that jobs are being recovered, but we have an employment rate that we have to improve.

The problem we have is that most of the employment that is being generated is unstable and temporary and part-time. We need our young people to have the opportunity of having stable employment that will allow them to have an independent life. That is probably one of the most important challenges we have. And we are working for young people to have the opportunities they need in the city. But I would like to underline the commitment to innovation and internationalisation that our Basque companies are developing.

This article is sourced from fDi Magazine
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