This is part 1 of 2 on my view of the Innovation Ecosystem in Tijuana. In part 2 two I’ll share with you what we’re doing to approach these challenges.
Every city around the world that aspires to be relevant in the Next Economy by potentializing the talent of its citizens goes through growing pains, Tijuana is no different.
We’re going on 5 years since a couple of friends and I launched the 1st Startup Weekend in Tijuana, which became a catalyst for the ongoing entrepreneurial movement in the city. The local government launched their own initiative, Emprende Tijuana, 2 years later. Numerous accelerators, technology centers and co-working spaces have popped up since then.
It sounds great, to an outsider. But is the ecosystem really thriving?
If you’re satisfied with activities, then we’re doing just fine. In my view, we’ve still got ways to go to catch up or leap ahead other cities around the world.
So where are we?
As President of the Innovation Cluster of Baja California, entrepreneur, advisor to startups and large enterprises; I’ve got a holistic view on the ecosystem. Without the support of hard data, below are some thoughts on the 5 basic challenges Tijuana must overcome to become an innovation hub in the Cali-Baja region, Mexico and the world:
Quality of ideas / projects; lack of strategy
In the summer we organized a Binational Innovation Rally, the quality of ideas that emerged were very low. It is a fact that there’s too much focus on “tropicalization”, not innovation, here in Tijuana and Mexico in general.
What ends up happening is we get good enough products and services that solve local problems. I think this is the case with most ecosystems around the world not named Silicon Valley, New York, Boston, Tel-Aviv, London, Berlin, etc.; every idea is a local version of what worked elsewhere.
This point can also be described as an ambition deficit: exploration is not an actively practice habit and mindset.
In the bigger picture, there is no coherent strategy aligning efforts as to where they should be focused.
Collaboration with industry
A very big problem that I see is that established companies in this city / region do not participate in the startup environment. These companies have many problems, and no one cares to help them. Innumerable startup projects could be created to serve these local businesses.
Unfortunately, the industry pays lips service to giving a damn about innovation inside their organization. Most big businesses here are not where key decision makers hang out, so you have to slog through layers to bureaucracy to even get a chance to pitch anything. And because there are not key decision makers, there is a lot of resistance to doing new, surprising and radically useful things; so collaborating with outsiders is a tough pitch.
More mentality less methods
Following the previous point, I see that everyone wants to solve challenges with methodologies; be it design thinking and / or lean startup, or another methodology that was imported from another place. In the last two years I have seen people who participated in some Startup Weekend, attended some of my workshops, and based on that experience have convinced themselves to be experts in innovation.
Of course, “innovation consultant” is becoming a hot career as all that is required (in the eyes of those who are ignorant) is the ability to facilitate design thinking workshops. There are many charlatans using methodologies as an argument that they’re experienced in the art of innovation, combined with ignorant people who do not value real talent; it affects the ecosystem.
Just because you know how to list things in a business model canvas, recite the steps and use a couple of tools doesn’t make you a strategist; much less an innovator.
What’s missing is an exponential mindset across universities and the government, more on this on a later post.
Lack of identity
Back in 2014, I helped lead a strategic planning session for Emprende Tijuana and one of the points that came out of that is how Tijuana “should become a tech hub”. Of course, nowadays every city in world aspires to be the next Silicon Valley.
But we must accept the facts before even beginning to consider that narrative: Tijuana, first and foremost, is a manufacturing hub.
That isn’t going to change in the Next Economy. What can change is what it manufactures and how it manufactures. The challenge is accelerating and enabling this transition to robotics and other emerging technologies.
It’s also become the gastronomic epicenter of the Cali-Baja region, which gets more attention than anything else.
Becoming a thriving innovation ecosystem requires many things that Tijuana doesn’t have, three of which are universities focused on technology, diversity of thinking and financial support for ambitious projects like high VAT returns.
Just to give you an idea of how contradictory it is, the last Tijuana Innovadora was full of speakers and specialists in social media marketing; who are not innovators themselves.
I’m not saying there isn’t talent here, there is. The problem is risk aversion is ingrained in the culture and identity.
We don’t need another Silicon Valleys, we need different Silicon Valleys.
So, the question is: who do we want to be? What role does Tijuana play in the future of Mexico and the world?
Collaboration is an oxymoron
Continuing the previous point, thriving ecosystems of innovation have many components. But there is one trait we can adapt from Silicon Valley: pay it forward.
I believe this trait determines the success of an ecosystem because it is the most simple act of kindness anyone can provide. Put simply, you add value by helping push interesting ideas forward without expecting anything in return.
This attitude doesn’t exist on a daily basis in Tijuana. Most everyone looks out for their own interests first, second and third.
The word collaboration is thrown around like a badge of honor, but here collaboration means business opportunities; not exchange, sharing and development of new knowledge.
Nowadays we live in a connected society where we can connect with people across the world, if we can’t share and develop new knowledge physically then how can we expect to do it with people from different cultures?