Boyd Cohen: “I don’t think today cities want to replicate what Silicon Valley has”

Boyd Cohen is a recognised global leader in entrepreneurship, innovation, sustainability and smart cities. He holds a PhD in business strategy and entrepreneurship from Colorado University, he is cofounder of various start-ups in green building, software and energy efficiency. He is currently a professor in the EADA business school and the University of Vic. In this interview he explains the role of European cities as new hubs of entrepreneurship and innovation in the world, and Barcelona’s place in this role.

Now you are living in Barcelona. why did you chose this city?

Good question, this is my third time living in Europe: I’ve lived before in Madrid, Copenhagen and now in Barcelona. I’m from the USA, there I lived in Denver, Atlanta and several other cities. I also lived in Vancouver, Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile. I consider myself a citizen of the world, but I’m also an appreciator of cities. I study cities as a scholar, I research innovation in cities and Barcelona has been calling me for a long time, actually. Many of the research projects I’ve done have included references to the innovation in Barcelona like 22@, like the solar thermal ordinance and some other work around smart cities.

So, I’ve been following Barcelona for a long time as a scholar, but also during my visits for professional reasons like Smart City Expo, I also grew to really appreciate the quality of life that Barcelona offers. The combination of having an innovative city with a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem, a government that has always been forward thinking around how to innovate within the city and a vibrant marketplace for me to study as a scholar is what really drew me to the city.

For you, which are the best top 3 cities in terms of business and quality of life?

This depends on what kind of entrepreneur you are, and which kind of start-up you want to create. Obviously if you want to create a start-up with very global ambitions that is going to require a lot of investments from venture capital there is no better place in the world than San Francisco and Silicon Valley, no one will deny it. But, like I discuss in my book The emergence of the urban entrepreneur, I’ve been recognising several trends that are sort of reducing our dependence on that kind of start-ups as well as the dependence on a lot of venture capital. If your start-up isn’t going to require a lot of venture capital, there are a lot of great places to live beyond San Francisco. This city for example has a lot of problems with the living costs and, in general, there is an issue in the USA that the cities are not very liveable compared to European cities.

Outside of that, I would start to look at Europe as a great place to start, and I’m talking about Barcelona, Berlin, Paris or London. Now London with Brexit is very concerning for an entrepreneur who has even European ambitions and how difficult it will be for them to cross borders, and so on. So I’d be focussed on continental Europe, and with Paris is having a lot of problems right now, I’ll probably be more oriented toward Berlin, Amsterdam and Barcelona.

Can Barcelona be the next Silicon Valley?

Being the new Silicon Valley is the wrong question in essence. I don’t think today cities want to replicate what Silicon Valley has. Silicon Valley is not urban, it’s actually suburban, it doesn’t have walkability or a good dynamic mix of economy; there is no culture, no artists. Millennial entrepreneurs and their employees are not looking for that lifestyle, in fact that’s why a lot of them are leaving Silicon Valley and going to San Francisco.

It’s an awesome time for Barcelona, not just because of Brexit. People are looking for high quality of life, and Barcelona has good weather, great food, low living costs, proximity to beach and mountains, good communications with other major cities in Europe. Barcelona has all that in advantage, but also let’s talk about what Barcelona offers to entrepreneurs besides quality of life: a very strong network of shared work-places, growing fab-lab market places, both a city and regional government that have been very pro innovation and entrepreneurship for a long time. They are constantly innovating and trying to create new programs that will be useful for entrepreneurs and innovators, both local ones and also ones that are coming around the world. And Catalonia and Barcelona both have a very dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystem, with one of the world’s first and best innovation districts in 22@.

So Barcelona and Catalonia have a lot of opportunities. And I’m not alone thinking like this, there are a lot of people recognising the city of Barcelona as an interesting opportunity for starting and growing a business.

Are there any other interesting cities in Catalonia beyond Barcelona?

I’m still learning about this, but Barcelona is obviously the city that gets all the attention. But what I like from other smaller cities in Catalonia is their city feel, their urban aspect, their walkability, they have a town centre, and all the services for entrepreneurs and for anybody living there could need. In many cases you could maybe live there and don’t have to come to Barcelona, and many of this cities are fairly well connected with public transit.

We can talk about the city of Vic, where I work as joint professor at the Universitat de Vic, that has the urban centre and a lot of urban strength there, but for the moment there aren’t enough innovation strengths, with less co-working places, and a slightly worse connection to Barcelona. I’ve also been in Sant Cugat many times, both for business and for pleasure and I really like what Sant Cugat has to offer. It has a very nice city centre, it’s walkable, plenty of restaurants and bars, a little bit lower cost of living. They have more energy around innovation than Vic has, there is EsadeCreapolis, which is drawing student populations, there is also an acceleration space and an incubator space, and you have start-ups there. The city also counts on a good communication and easy access to Barcelona, and this is good to get investors and experts out to Sant Cugat and for people living in Sant Cugat to gain access to events like the one we just had in Catalonia Trade & Investment, it’s more viable than when you live in some of the other areas.

There are a lot of towns in Catalonia that have the potential, because they have the urban fabric already, and to me this is the number one thing. You don’t have to be a big city but you have to offer quality of life, walkability, cultural activities and most of the towns in Catalonia offer that. A critical ingredient is very easy access to a major city, and some of them are still struggling to have that good access.

In your book you highlight three elements: urbanization, collaboration and democratisation. Why?

As a result of my last five or six years of research I recognised three converging trends that are coming together and driving entrepreneurship in cities and they are: the fact that the world is urbanising, creating opportunities and also challenges to the cities regarding to infrastructures, energy, food, housing, jobs and energy. That’s actually creating a new type of entrepreneurs which I call civic entrepreneurship, who are trying to solve civic problems with business models. But there are also these two other elements that are very important: collaboration and democratisation.

In collaboration we have two things, both new collaborative business models: entrepreneurs parenting with cities and companies to actually solve some of these urban challenges as the cities are growing this problems, and you also have the collaborative economy. Then you have democratisation, and all of this play together. Democratisation is the argument that over time, the tools of innovation and entrepreneurship are becoming more accessible to a larger part of the population. You combine all these things and you look at things like co-working spaces, which are part of the sharing economy and are also what make entrepreneurship more democratized and more dynamic and energetic.

Boyd Cohen

Barcelona offers not just quality of life to entrepreneurs, but a very strong network of shared work-places, growing fab-lab market places, a city and regional government that have been very pro innovation and entrepreneurship for a long time

The combination of having an innovative city with an entrepreneurial ecosystem, a government that has always been forward thinking about how to innovate within the city and a vibrant marketplace to study as a scholar is what drew me to the city.

Catalonia in Business