Creative entrepreneurship in Portugal: Looking for directions

Feb 16 2012

Portugal’s economy is stalling; new, creative ideas and business are badly needed. From this perspective, the Serralves Foundation in Porto organised a conference on creative entrepreneurship. How can it be promoted, what barriers of all sorts must be removed, which type of policies make sense? Hundreds of people showed up, a great mix of entrepreneurs, students, policymakers and managers. The debate was lively and intense at times: the theme is very much alive, with a number of insightful interventions on the absence of an entrepreneurial and innovative culture, the burden of bureaucracy, and serious flaws in the educational system –still very traditional and based on the principle that the student must sit and listen to the teacher.

Paulo Alves from the Serralves Foundation (http://www.serralves.pt/) invited me to Porto to deliver a speech on creative entrepreneurship in cities, with a focus on the question how cities can develop spaces or areas where creative activity can flourish. I elaborated on the link between creative industries and urban development, stressing the significance of creativity as engine for economic and social change, and the frontrunner role of creatives in changing deep “industrial” patterns of organisation and city planning that still dominate in city planning.

I learned that creating “incubators” has become very fashionable in Portugal. Heavily sponsored by European and national funding, many municipalities, large and small, urban and rural, are creating spaces and buildings for young companies, typically in old, abandoned factories, or in dilapidated buildings in the city. In incubators, companies get all sorts of support, from low rent and desk services to professional guidance on business plan writing, venture capital, and contacts with existing businesses. Incubation would helps firms in their critical start up stage, and by putting a number of young firms in one building, they may develop networks among each other as well. Some incubators are doing fine, but others –mainly in smaller cities- have a hard job to find enough tenants. Urbanisation is unstoppable, and the young are moving to the larger (university) cities and typically don’t come back after graduation. One wonders what happens when public funding dries up…
An inherent risk of incubation is to pamper entrepreneurs to such a degree even unviable companies that otherwise would have no chance can survive in the protected womb. Without disregarding incubation –it certainly has its merits-, it is probably time to look for alternative approaches, and the speakers at the conference offered clues.

One clue is in education. Henna Kaariainen from Finland showed how to organise entrepreneurial education at the university: see www.banana.fi (Henna’s T-shirt and shoes also had the banana yellow). This lays a foundation for new companies

Another great idea is the CitiLab in Barcelona (http://citilab.eu/) presented by José António Galaso. Here, children are offered the opportunity to experiment, learn, create things and solve problems in a challenging way. One can interpret this as a bypass to the traditional schoolsystem, where experimentation and joint learning are not encouraged.

An example of a well-functioning incubator was demonstrated by Leo van Loon from Rotterdam: the Rotterdam Creative factory. Its social approach seems to work very well. See http://www.creativefactory.nl/

Moreover I believe that creative entrepreneurship could enhance social innovation, an many opportunities are still unexploited. Platforms like Pakhuis de Zwijger (www.dezwijger.nl) in Amsterdam can do much to take creative entrepreneurship to a higher level, by organising new coalitions of creative people and other segments in society and economy, and promoting design thinking in other realms as well. It has little to do with stones and buildings…