According to the OECD’s Observatory of Public Sector Innovation, Portugal orginated 37 of the 415 innovative virus responses that the organization is tracking. That’s more than any other country in the study.
Coronavirus isn’t over in Portugal (or anywhere), but the state of emergency is. With ample testing and available hospital beds, the country has opened up its economy and turned its attention to mitigating the financial and social fallout from the lockdown.
Along with the usual government programs, both from Lisbon and from Brussels, several tech entrepreneurs are setting out to innovate their way to new solutions in a public-private partnership between the city hall of Lisbon, established corporations, and a raft of global startups.
“Lisbon is a city of experimentation,” says Pedro Rocha Viera, the CEO and co-founder of Beta-i, a Lisbon-based global collaborative innovation consultancy, referring to the Portuguese capital’s credibility as a center of start-ups. “We want to be a leader.”
And so, in short order after the depth of the crisis settled in, Beta-i started developing the newest incarnation of its Smart Open Lisboa program, whose acronym conveniently spells the Portuguese word for “sun,” and conveys all the optimism one might expect. SOL Tomorrow is designed specifically to connect key organizations in Portugal with innovative startups from around the world to create quick solutions for the social and economic challenges created by the Covid-19 lockdown. These include remote work, unemployment, new work paradigms, city resilience, trust-building and—especially dear to my heart—rebuilding tourism, a central pillar of the country’s economy.
“We believe collaborative innovation is the way to solve the challenges of this new world,” says Rocha Viera. “With big cities having initiatives like this, it becomes very obvious that they have the speed to organize around new challenges like Covid-19.”
His fellow co-founder and head of innovation for Beta-i, Manuel Tânger, says that one of the challenges they open to address around tourism is how to open it safely: How to manage queues? How to inform people of health measures and personal risk in different situations?
One priority for the city hall, says Tânger, is developing a real-time counterpart to Portugal’s Clean & Safe certification. This could show how diligently restaurants and hotels are actually performing with their daily cleaning.
While SOL projects typically last nine months, this one has been fast-tracked to four, given the urgency of the situation. Beta-i will complete its scouting phase on July 2 and then get started with two batches of ten international startups each. All pitching and brainstorming will happen remotely.
A major partner is Turismo de Portugal, which has already been collaborating with Beta-i on the company’s NEST initiative, and independent unit based on innovation around travel. Back in 2019, the biggest problem was overtourism—what a difference a virus makes, right?—and that was the focus. Now that Covid-19 happened and “everything exploded,” says Rocha Viera, “we did a survey of hotels, tour operators and other providers about their issues and their ideas for the future of tourism.”
The conclusions aren’t exactly revolutionary: There will be a trend of smaller groups, tourism away from big cities, going to remote and distant places. This new reality, it turns out, is a good opportunity reinvent the image of Portugal and create a more sustainable tourism.
And Luís Araujo, the president of Turismo de Portugal, points out that Portugal is a prime lab for testing innovations: a small territory with strong institutions focused on innovation and other entities that have been around for a long time. Between 1 million and 1.5 million euros of the annual budget are dedicated to promoting innovation, especially around sustainability, data management and a seamless tourist experience.
“This is the way we like to work,” he says. “Finding solutions for the city of Lisbon is very interesting.”
Araujo proudly points out that Portugal has a strong record of innovation, particularly around the virus. According to weekly reports from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Observatory of Public Sector Innovation, Portugal is credited with 37 of the 415 innovative responses to the virus that the organization has tracked. That’s more than any other country in the study.