2/8/22 · Institutional

Mariana Mazzucato: "It is a mistake to think public institutions are there just to fix market failures"

Renowned as one of the world's most influential economists, Mazzucato has been awarded an honorary doctorate by the UOC
Photo: UOC

Photo: UOC

Mariana Mazzucato, renowned as one of the world's most influential economists, was awarded an honorary doctorate by the UOC on Thursday 3 February. UOC President Josep A. Planell led the ceremony in Barcelona City Council's Saló de Cent. Also taking part were Àngels Fitó, UOC Vice President for Competitiveness and Employability; Teresa Ribera, Spanish Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge, and Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona. The event was streamed online.

Mazzucato began her speech by highlighting the significance of being awarded an honorary doctorate by the UOC, a university that is strongly committed to "education for all". She noted how it even has the word "open" in its name, which echoes her thoughts: "we have to start by setting goals, such as health and education for all, and then backtrack and design the economy to deliver on that" instead of the other way around. One of the central premises of Mazzucato's work is that "nothing is inevitable" and "if you see the economy as an outcome, as a result of the decisions we make, we need to start holding ourselves very, very accountable for those decisions".

According to Mazzucato, "it is a mistake to think public institutions are there just to fix market failures", and they should be seen as another stakeholder in the co-creation of the economy, together with the private sector. She noted that while a large number of companies "just focused on their share prices, short-term profits and quarterly returns", in the corporate world there are many forms of governance – some of which include civil organizations and trade unions on their boards – and our current working conditions are the result of hard-won fights. Mazzucato also referred to the concept of "mission economy", a concept she herself has developed, which consists of "unpicking the governance structures which have led us astray". "There is nothing inevitable to make companies just worry about their share prices, but that requires a redesign, and that comes back to experimentation," she said.

She referred to various ways of establishing public-private partnerships and gave the example of COVID-19 vaccines. "In the case of the AstraZeneca vaccine, there was a tense negotiation between the publicly funded researchers, from Oxford University, and the company in question. They negotiated that the knowledge created would be shared more widely, with weaker patents. Other companies, such as Pfizer, chose not to do this," she explained. "It is very interesting, even with something as specific as the vaccine, that there is this heterogeneity: there were different ways to do it and some chose to do it in a way that was better for people globally, because the mission was not to make the vaccine, but to vaccinate everybody".

Mazzucato, who is also an advisor to political leaders around the world on sustainable and inclusive growth driven by innovation, ended her speech by saying that, in her opinion, "this is an optimistic moment in Europe". This is because the European Union's recovery plan, NextGenerationEU, moves away from the austerity and fiscal deficit reduction targets that dominated in the wake of the financial crisis, and which caused countries such as Spain to cut back on publicly funded research and development in order to make way for investment. But she warned that it is important for conversations about how to spend money to have real citizen engagement, so that citizens help set priorities. "The moment is going to be wasted if we don't really harness it to question ourselves and to undo so many of the problematic governance structures we currently have," she said, because "there's no point in having money thrown to you from Europe if, on the ground, we don't have trust in the politicians and businesses, if we have weak public administrations, and we don't have any no serious mechanisms through which policymakers listen to citizens."

Academic excellence and humanistic spirit

Àngels Fitó, UOC Vice President for Competitiveness and Employability, gave the ceremony's laudatory speech, outlining Mazzucato's career and merits which, in the words of the latter, can be summed up in one main contribution: "rethinking the state". In her speech, Fitó highlighted how "Mazzucato is writing the script for a new form of capitalism that cannot conceive of growth that is not smart, inclusive and green, and that cannot understand innovation that is not collective, symbiotic and ecosystemic."

Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona, who is working with Mazzucato on projects such as the Metropolitan Strategic Plan, acknowledged during her speech that the economist's thinking is an "inspiration for action" for the city and for a world that "needs to transform itself" in the face of huge challenges such as climate change, the fight against inequality and the strengthening of public health. Teresa Ribera, Spanish Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge, expressed similar views. She said that, "in a complex setting where, over the years, a reading of reality and a certain way of doing things has been consolidated, [it is] particularly refreshing" that there is someone who "is questioning whether this is the best way to solve the problems".

In his closing speech, UOC President Josep A. Planell referred to the academic excellence and humanistic spirit shared by the figures to whom the UOC has awarded an honorary doctorate. He highlighted Mazzucato's ability to "depart from pre-established ideas" and "question a narrative that has been dominant for decades about the supposed success of the market versus the failure of the state". He highlighted how, in pursuit of the common good, public institutions have shown that they are "the best vehicles for innovation and transformation, the best at aligning private efforts and individual interests, the best at directing knowledge towards a genuine social impact, and the best at motivating and involving citizens".

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