copy the linklink copied! Chapter 5. Seizing the opportunities from the digital transformation for jobs and innovation

The digital transformation has the potential to cut across all economic and societal activities, raising opportunities and challenges. Taking advantage of these changes requires a workforce that can adapt to technological changes and firms that are able to innovate. Colombia needs to continue its reforms of education and labour market institutions and take measures to boost innovation in firms in order to seize the opportunities from the digital transformation.

The first section of this chapter identifies some of the challenges that the Colombian labour market faces in providing workers with the necessary skills, outlines actions being taken by the Colombian government, and suggests further reforms to educational and labour market institutions to promote job quality. The second section reviews Colombia’s recent innovation performance, examines the main policy initiatives in support of research on and diffusion of information and communication technologies (ICTs), and formulates recommendations to foster digital innovation.

copy the linklink copied! Preparing the labour market for the digital transformation

Colombia is making progress in adapting its labour market for the digital transformation, though significant challenges remain. Digitalisation can increase wages due to higher productivity and benefit those with skills that complement new technologies. However, those with lower skills are at risk of being displaced, face spells of unemployment and may be left behind due to the lack of a social safety net. At the same time, digital technologies can increase information for students regarding what courses to pursue, and also improve targeting of social protection. In addition, use of digital platforms can help bring the large number of informal workers into the formal economy.

The Colombian labour market is experiencing change

The Colombian labour market has been undergoing significant changes in the past decade. Strong economic growth from the mid-2000s, in large part due to a commodity boom, has helped to boost employment, especially for marginal labour groups (such as youth, women and older workers) (OECD, 2016d, 2017c). These gains, in combination with welfare programmes, have reduced poverty and inequality (OECD, 2017c). Such changes are enduring as, although unemployment has increased slightly in the past few years, Colombia has weathered the commodity downturn better than most countries in the region (OECD, 2018c; 2019a). Nevertheless, inequality and gender gaps remain high (OECD, 2017c).

Changing the skill mix in the economy and adapting institutions will be necessary to take full advantage of the digital transformation and ensure that further progress is achieved. In recent decades technical change has globally tended to be skill-biased, improving wages for those with a tertiary education. The digital transformation can potentially benefit lower skilled workers, by reducing the fixed costs of exporting for smaller firms (through the use of platforms) that tend to employ more low-skilled workers. However, such workers are also at risk of being displaced due to automation, especially in emerging markets. Meanwhile, improved labour market matching can improve outcomes for all workers (Dutz, Almeida and Packard, 2018; OECD, 2019b). Nevertheless, a growing supply of highly educated workers is necessary to meet the growing needs of the digital economy. Whether or not the digital transformation benefits most workers, and helps to reduce inequality, in large part depends on whether gains in educational attainment keep pace with technical change (Goldin and Katz, 2010).

Many Colombians lack basic skills

At present, many Colombian workers lack the foundational skills to take advantage of new technologies. Due to a legacy of poor educational attainment, only half of adults have an upper secondary education, compared to about three-quarters in the OECD (OECD, 2017b, 2017c). There have been improvements in attainment over the past decade as school enrolment has increased (with upper secondary education becoming compulsory) and, in an international assessment of the skills and knowledge of 15-year olds (PISA) average scores have improved, especially in science (Radinger et al., 2018; OECD, 2017c).

Despite these improvements, many younger Colombians continue to leave education without the skills necessary for the future. Almost 30% of 25-34 year-olds do not have an upper secondary education, twice the OECD average, and almost two-thirds of current students do not gain even basic literacy and numeracy skills, compared to a fifth for the OECD average (Figure 5.1) (OECD, 2017c). In addition, there is a strong urban-rural divide, with a 20 percentage point gap in enrolment for both lower and upper secondary education, with rural students achieving lower literacy and numeracy skills than urban students (Radinger et al., 2018).

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Figure 5.1. Educational attainment is low in Colombia
Educational attainment of 25-34 year-olds, 2017
Figure 5.1. Educational attainment is low in Colombia

1. Data for Chile refer to 2015 instead of 2017.

Source: OECD/ILO/UIS (2018), Education at a Glance Database,

There is also evidence of an inappropriate skill mix in the workforce, with a lack of workers with professional and technical training relative to those with a university education (OECD, 2014). Almost half of workers in Colombia are either under- or overqualified for the job they are in, higher than the OECD average, though in line with neighbouring countries (OECD, 2019a). This is compounded by weak incentives for firms to provide training due to the risk of workers moving to another company (OECD, 2014).

Meeting the skill needs in the future can be achieved by continuing to invest in general education. This will require greater investment in the foundational stages of education for young Colombians. Also, as tertiary education expands, measures will need to be put in place to ensure that quality is maintained (OECD, 2016a). However, as many have already left education in recent years with low skills, it will also be necessary to strengthen adult and continuing education for older Colombians. Finally, Colombia will need to ensure that a sufficient pool of workers with ICT-specific skills is available to take advantage of the digital transformation.

Colombia is taking steps to improve ICT specialist skills

In addition to policies to increase upper secondary or vocational qualifications, Colombia has taken measures to increase the number of ICT specialists. This complements programmes to boost basic ICT skills, such as the Computers to Educate (Computadores para Educar) programme (see Chapter 3).

The Ministry of Education has developed a new curriculum that allows students to specialise in ICT-related subjects in the final two years of their secondary education. The aim is to give students skills in areas such as programming and web design, and to encourage them to pursue tertiary level ICT-related courses, with students receiving a specialised ICT Certificate (Bachillerato TIC) (Colombia aprende, 2018). So far almost 100 000 students have participated in this programme, with the first students graduating in December 2018. However, only four schools delivering the information technology (IT) specialisation have been allowed to award the specialised ICT Certificate, with students in other institutions only being awarded a standard Leaving Certificate (MinTIC and Ministry of Education, 2018). Increasing the number of schools allowed to award the specialised Leaving Certificate, as planned by the government, has the potential to increase participation in the programme. In addition, in order to keep pace with technological change, it will be necessary to regularly update other modules to ensure their relevance and provide continuous training for teachers. Other programmes being implemented by the government include Programming for Boys and Girls (Programación para Niños y Niñas) and an agreement with the Foundation to allow secondary school students access the platform under the guidance of trained tutors.

Technical training provided is relevant to Colombia’s skills needs

Post-secondary technical training is provided by the National Training Service (Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje [SENA]), which also plays a role in providing employment services and seed financing to entrepreneurs. SENA typically provides vocational and technical training to those who have completed an upper secondary education, and training is provided free of charge (SENA, 2016).

SENA offers a range of IT-related courses, which are delivered on line or in a traditional manner. These include relatively short 40-hour courses to update a workers’ skills (such as how to apply ICTs in various occupations), or serve as an introduction to ICT specialist occupations (such as database management). Though online courses can be useful for updating a worker’s skills, they are appropriate for those who are already strongly motivated and aware of the skills they need. Therefore, increasing the availability of courses delivered through traditional channels should be a priority. In addition, SENA offers two-year programmes delivered in person, e.g. analysis and development of information systems (análisis y desarrollo de sistemas de información) and short-cycle tertiary courses (SENA, 2019; Marta Ferreyra et al., 2017). Such courses are available from the vocational level (calificados) up to the managerial level.

SENA has the ability to adapt its courses as technologies change. The relevance of SENA’s offering is ensured by employers providing work placements for elective practical modules. In addition, employers and experts participate in sectoral roundtable meetings (mesas sectoriales), which play a role in setting curricula and establishing labour competency norms (normas de competencia laboral) (SENA, 2018a, 2018b). As a result, SENA’s programmes are effective in improving the labour market prospects of graduates (Novella and Rosas-Shady, 2018).

Financial support is offered to encourage students to pursue IT technical vocational training (in addition to support to pursue tertiary level education, see below). In September 2017 it was announced that 8 600 scholarships would be given for technical vocational training in ICT-related subjects (relative to an estimated shortage of over 45 000 ICT professionals for 2018). In 2017, over 9 000 people were studying ICT-related courses at a technical, technological or university level, and received forgivable loans from the IT Talent (Talento TI) scholarship (MinTIC, 2017a).

Although new forms of training, such as coding bootcamps or web-based learning, may be beneficial in teaching digital skills, it is important that such novel approaches are systematically evaluated. Coding bootcamps have been used in Colombia in order to give students employable programming skills (in Ruby, Rails, HTML, JavaScript) following 12 weeks of intense training. However, following a randomised control trial in Medellín (in association with Ruta N, see below) it was found that the training had no significant effect on the employment rates of participants, although there was a positive (though statistically insignificant) effect on the probability of finding a better quality job (World Bank, 2018). Evaluating new teaching approaches can help ensure effective use of resources.

There is a lack of tertiary educated workers and ICT specialists

Low educational attainments are also visible in the shortage of tertiary educated workers, in both ICT-related professions and for those whose skills are complementary to digital technologies. A relatively low share of 25-34 year-olds have a tertiary education, leading to a particularly high tertiary wage premium (Figures 5.1 and 5.2). This shortage also contributes to poor quality of management in Colombia, even in comparison to other emerging markets, which can hinder the adoption of innovative new technologies in firms (see Chapter 3). In line with several other Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) countries, Colombia has made strides in recent years to increase access to tertiary education, with access rates having increased since 2000 due to a combination of higher secondary school completion rates and increased progression rates (Marta Ferreyra et al., 2017).

Although the share of graduates that studied an ICT-related subject in 2015 (5%) is in line with the OECD average, Colombia is at risk of losing these graduates to other countries, with the highly skilled being over-represented in emigration (OECD, 2017a, 2016d). Salaries for ICT specialists are approximately five times the national minimum wage (ranging from approximately COP 13.2 million annually or USD 4 500 for service engineers to COP 55 million annually or USD 18 000 for senior software architects) (Observatorio TI, 2017). However, salaries are only the seventh highest in Latin America, and less than a quarter of the wage in the United States (OECD, 2018a).

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Figure 5.2. The demand for skills is reflected in a high tertiary wage premium
25-64 year-olds with income from employment; upper secondary education = 100, 2016
Figure 5.2. The demand for skills is reflected in a high tertiary wage premium

1. For adults with upper secondary education, relative earnings are 100 and earnings (dis)advantage is 0.

2. Data refer to 2015 instead of 2016.

3. Upper secondary education refers to the combined ISCED Levels 3 and 4 of the educational attainment levels in the ISCED 2011 classification.

4. Data refer to 2014 instead of 2016.

Note: Tertiary education includes short-cycle tertiary, bachelor, master, doctoral or equivalent degrees.

Source: OECD/ILO/UIS (2018), Education at a Glance Database,

To encourage more people to pursue an IT career, in 2012 the government launched Talento TI, which was part of the Live Digital (Vive Digital) plan. Approximately 6 400 people have benefited of the scholarship to pursue ICT-related tertiary level education, and 21 700 have benefited from funding to pursue continuing education, though this is far below the estimated shortage of over 45 000 ICT professionals (Talento TI, 2011; 2016). In addition, a budget of COP 10 billion (about USD 3 million) was made available to cover university fees (MinTIC, 2017a). The government has replaced this programme with one whereby the government funds 50% of the cost of courses for 131 firms that meet specific requirements and have a deficit of digital skills.

ICT-related tertiary educated is largely provided by leading public higher education institutions

Tertiary education in Colombia is provided by an approximately equal number of public and private higher education institutions (HEIs). Since 2000, the number of suppliers of tertiary education has increased, especially for private HEIs, with the number of programmes also increasing. Bogotá has a large number of HEIs (40) (Bonilla, Bottan and Ham, 2017). Tuition in public HEIs is about a fifth of that in private HEIs, and public HEIs also provide discounts to poorer students, while semester fees at private HEIs may be more than the equivalent of the annual minimum salary (Marta Ferreyra et al., 2017). Student loans are available, but require a co-signer, who must undergo a credit check, thus making access to these loans more difficult for those from a low-income background (Bonilla, Bottan and Ham, 2017). Although HEIs are independent, Colombia can steer the HEI system through discretionary research-oriented funding, such as the CREE (Technical and Technological Improvement Fund).

The quality of Colombia’s HEIs varies. About 6% of Colombia’s HEIs belong to LAC’s top 50 universities (as ranked by Quacquarelli Symonds), in line with other LAC OECD countries; and two Colombian HEIs appear in Latin America’s Top 20 (according to the Times Higher Education rankings) (Marta Ferreyra et al., 2017). However, Colombian HEIs do relatively poorly in terms of income earned from activities such as innovation or consulting, which may hamper Colombia’s innovation potential (see below) (OECD, 2014). In addition, Colombia has a large number of low-quality private “garage universities”, which tend to cater to disadvantaged students (OECD, 2019a).

Given the rapid pace of technological change, it is important that HEIs have the ability to create new programmes and adapt curricula to meet changing demand. New engineering or education programmes are usually created by higher end public HEIs. This is as opening new science and technology programmes tend to have a high fixed cost, making it unprofitable for private HEIs, unless they already have a similar programme in existence which they can adapt (Marta Ferreyra et al., 2017).

Greater use of data could improve the quality of tertiary education

There is evidence that students take poorly informed decisions regarding what tertiary course to pursue. In addition, there is wide variation in the return to tertiary education, with dispersion between institutions and subject areas. Approximately 30% of Colombian graduates earn negative net returns, which is especially the case for those in technical and technological programmes (González-Velosa et al., 2015). Colombia also has also one of the highest drop-out rates in LAC, with a third of drop-outs doing so in the first year (Marta Ferreyra et al., 2017).

Colombia has taken steps to provide information on programmes’ outcomes and enforces disclosure of information on public HEIs, though only some private HEIs also do so. Colombia ranks HEIs (though not individual courses) using MIDE (Model of Education Performance Indicators), which is based on factors such as student attendance, international links, learning and graduate outcomes (such as employability), and the level of teacher qualifications and research outcomes. In addition, the Labour Observatory for Education (Observatorio Laboral para la Educación) tracks the labour market outcomes of graduates, although much of the information provided is dated, with wage data dating from 2014. Despite this, it is found that giving secondary education students such information can direct them towards attending more selective HEIs, although students maintain inflated expectations regarding future earnings (Bonilla, Bottan and Ham, 2017). Providing more timely information could help improve prospective students’ decisions.

A system of accreditation is used to signify the quality of individual courses, though this can potentially hinder the adaptation of courses as technologies change. However, accreditation is only compulsory for some programmes (such as teaching), and can voluntarily be applied for other courses, with the share of accredited programmes having increased from 6% in 2004 to 23% in 2013 (Marta Ferreyra et al., 2017). However, the information signal of accreditation is limited as it rarely includes outcomes, despite such data being collected. Indeed, evidence shows that that accreditation does not attract students with higher entry scores (Marta Ferreyra et al., 2017). Including information regarding outcomes, and including the participation of potential employers, in the accreditation process could help improve its value as a signal of quality. In addition, creating a system similar to MIDE for individual courses could help improve information for students.

Using technology to facilitate learning

The Colombian government is committed to a Special Rural Education Plan to reduce the rural-urban divide. Although use of ICTs is not strongly linked with better results among primary and secondary students, digital technology has the potential to broaden student options, especially in rural areas (OECD, 2016b; Radinger et al., 2018). Colombia already makes extensive use of computers in secondary education, though their use in rural areas is hindered by a lack of Internet access (see Chapter 3).

ICTs can also play a role in bridging the 35 percentage point difference in the share of 18-24 year-olds attending tertiary education between urban and rural areas. Colombia already has a relatively high number (over 12% in 2013) of students enrolled in distance learning programmes; however, only a tenth of these are in Internet-based programmes (OECD, 2016a). In addition to online courses, other learning aids appropriate to tertiary education are available. Online laboratories allow students to conduct experiments remotely (or simulate virtual experiments), and ICTs can allow students to collaborate with others remotely. ICTs also offer the advantage of real-time formative assessment; and a combination of online and traditionally delivered courses has been found to be effective (OECD, 2016b).

Although online courses are not a substitute for traditionally delivered courses, they can be of benefit to autonomous learners (OECD, 2016b). However, distance learning also requires appropriate teaching and counselling support for students (OECD, 2016a). There is also a risk that remotely delivered programmes do not meet the needs of the regional labour market. Therefore, having local involvement in setting out curricula is important. Incentivising universities to provide distance learning options, or establishing a distance education university (such as the United Kingdom’s Open University), could help improve access for those in rural areas, though this is reliant on continued expansion of the broadband network, and the outcomes for students of such courses needs to be closely monitored.

The Internet also gives Colombia the opportunity to export services (see Chapter 4), including education services. This can be seen with the success of the Colombian start-up Platzi, which live-streams interactive classes in addition to pre-recorded classes as with other common online courses. Platzi has already expanded into other Spanish-speaking countries and has begun to add courses delivered in English.

Finally, use of technology could also facilitate students applying to HEIs. There is a lack of a national clearing house for transitioning from school to university. This can make accessing higher quality HEIs more difficult for disadvantaged students that are unable to navigate the process (OECD, 2014). Creating such a system could help ease the application process, and be combined with information on course quality to improve student decisions.

Colombia lacks a safety net for those left behind

Continued public support is necessary to maintain the digital transformation. However, job losses can be expected for some workers, especially those who perform routine tasks that can be easily automated (OECD, 2016c). Policies are therefore necessary to assist workers that become unemployed as a result of digitalisation, something which the Pact for the Digital Transformation of Colombia (Pacto por la Transformación Digital de Colombia) aims to address (DNP, 2019).

Compared to most OECD countries, Colombia lacks an effective system of unemployment insurance, active labour market policies (ALMPs), social protection and social dialogue. Social security spending is very low, with the tax system having only a minor redistributive effect. In addition, most self-employed workers are in unregistered businesses and are not covered by social security (OECD, 2016d). Meanwhile, the extensive use of temporary work agencies, non-regular employment contracts and the near absence of trade unions has led to a low level of job security (OECD, 2016d, 2017c). Good labour relations and social dialogue are important for managing transitions; however, in Colombia labour relations are particularly weak, with the lives of trade union organisers regularly threatened, especially in rural areas (OECD, 2019a, 2019b).

Protection for unemployed workers was improved somewhat in 2013 with the introduction of an unemployment protection system (mecanismo de protección al cesante), which includes unemployment benefits, a jobs database and ALMPs. All unemployed workers (whether formal or not) can make use of the national Public Employment Services (PES). However, payments are only available for formal workers, and in 2016 only 10% of the unemployed received support payments (OECD, 2017c). In addition, minimal funding for ALMPs limits the support they can provide to unemployed workers (OECD, 2016d).

By increasing resources devoted to ALMPs, the government can help the unemployed adjust to the new world of work. Policies that aid job-search and referrals to training programmes could help people find new work (OECD, 2016c). However, such programmes are unlikely to be helpful to those whose skills have become obsolete. Given the lack of social payments, there may be little immediate incentive for workers to engage with ALMPs, and workers may find it more beneficial in the short term to work in the informal economy rather than pursue retraining. Therefore, linking ALMPs with a general system of adult education could help protect such workers.

Use of big data and web scraping may help Colombia create a more effective vacancies database (OECD, 2016c). The PES includes a network of agencies, with one administered by SENA (see above). Although SENA collects data on vacancies through it labour market observatory (with firms having a legal obligation to notify vacancies), the use of such data is limited and the PES only accounts for 1% of job matches in Colombia, compared to almost 10% in the European Union (Pignatti Morano, 2016; OECD, 2019a). The use of other technologies, such as web scraping, could help the PES improve the information it provides on vacancies and improve matching. However, despite the benefits of technology, human interaction remains necessary. The analysis of data from 2008-14 suggests the PES is more effective (in terms of matching candidates with better quality jobs) when delivered face-to-face than on line (Pignatti Morano, 2016).

In addition, the use of ICTs could help improve the targeting of social protection, making it more effective. Colombia uses a strata (estratos) system to determine eligibility for subsidised public services, where geographical areas are grouped into six strata (with 1 being the poorest and 6 the richest). This system is complemented by a separate information system (SISBEN) that identifies those families eligible to social programmes (OECD, 2016d). In the absence of better data, the strata system can have some benefits. However, it is inefficient: people with a relatively high income may wish to move to an area ranked as a lower strata and take advantage of public subsidies, and the reorganisation of strata boundaries may be controversial. Use of ICT and big data could allow a more targeted use of social spending, aligned with the eligibility conditions identified by SISBEN.

Use of digital technologies could help reduce informality

Like other countries with a similar level of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, Colombia suffers from widespread labour informality (IMF, 2018). The majority of the workforce is in informal employment, and although informality is higher among the low skilled, half of the medium to high-skilled are also in informal employment (OECD, 2016d; IMF, 2018). In addition, transitions from informal to formal employment are low (OECD, 2016d). Use of digital technologies may offer Colombia a route to greater formalisation in the labour market.

Colombia has promoted formalisation with a “Formalisation and Job Creation Law of 2010” and tax reform in 2012 which helped to reduce informality by 5 percentage points (OECD, 2016d). Such programmes have shown some success, with the share of workers not paying social security falling from 70% in 2007 to 62% in 2017. The government is currently introducing a single affiliation system for the different forms of social insurance which will help reduce bureaucratic hurdles to formalisation (OECD, 2016d; IMF, 2018). In addition, a shifting composition of the workforce due to greater educational attainment has played an important role in reducing informality (IMF, 2018). Nevertheless, there continues to be limited incentives for workers to formalise (OECD, 2016d).

Digital platforms could help play a role in boosting labour market formality, a key priority of the new government. In addition, some platform-based services, such as ride-sharing, have the potential to increase employment, including in rural areas. On the other hand, there is a risk that some employee relationships are misclassified as self-employed, a practice already widespread in Colombia (see Box 2.4 of OECD, 2019b; OECD, 2019a). Digital platforms can reduce costs of formalisation by allowing workers complete some of the steps to formalisation via the platform. In addition, the use of online platforms to arrange transactions which previously took place due to word of mouth can allow tax authorities to gain data on such transactions (OECD, 2018e). This can be advantageous in Colombia, where informality is highest in the primary (fishing and agriculture) sector, but also in the hotel and restaurant sector, for which several digital platforms are already in existence (OECD, 2016d).

Whether platforms boost formality depends on whether transactions are reported to tax authorities, and a variety of approaches having been taken by different countries to facilitate data sharing. In Estonia, a co-operation agreement was reached between the Estonian Tax and Customs Board (ETCB) and several ride-sharing platforms on information sharing which allows for entirely filling tax forms electronically. Under this approach, platforms first gain permission from drivers to share their data with the ETCB. These data are then sent to the ETCB, which prefills drivers’ income tax returns with the relevant data, simplifying the tax return process. Meanwhile, the Finnish Tax Administration has used legislation to collect data from platforms within Finland, and a combination of web scraping and co-operation with the tax administrations of other countries to access data. Finally, in Mexico, platform drivers are required to obtain an electronic tax certificate before registering with the platform. Drivers are also able to use the platform to send invoices to the tax authorities and to customers (OECD, 2018e).

However, the development of a platform economy is in part inhibited by a lack of clarity regarding regulation, with different ministries on occasion issuing conflicting regulations (Alejandra Medina and Hernández Bonilla, 2017). Clarifying and streamlining regulation can help the sector to develop.

Other digital technologies can also aid formalisation. Colombia has already used technology to simplify business and worker registration, and plans are in place to introduce digital identities (see Chapter 3). Continuing this simplification, such as by introducing a one-stop shop for licencing and business registration, could further foster formalisation, and also simplify regulation of platforms (OECD, 2017c). In addition, technology can be used to enforce the collection of taxes, with Hungarian value-added tax (VAT) revenue having increased by 15% following a requirement for businesses to have electronic cash registers. The use of electronic invoicing can reduce fraud and Colombia has already taken steps to implement this, although the original plan that all companies which pay VAT have electronic invoicing in place by 1 January 2019 has been postponed (Roseth et al., 2018; ANDI, 2018). Finally, the use of algorithms to analyse the data collected by the tax administration can improve the detection of tax evaders (OECD, 2018e). For example, the District of Bogotá has put in place a system to detect tax evasion on gasoline through the analysis of a large database on the payment history of each taxpayer over the last ten years.

copy the linklink copied! Boosting innovation to take advantage of the digital transformation

For Colombia to seize the opportunities of the digital transformation, it is necessary to have innovative firms. However, Colombia spends relatively little on research and development (R&D) and innovation, and this expenditure is largely focused on science and research in HEIs rather than on promoting innovation within firms. Colombia has introduced a multitude of policies implemented by various agencies to promote a range of ICT companies with various levels of sophistication and to facilitate the adoption of their innovations. Streamlining these policies could boost their effectiveness.

Growth has been led by extractive industries rather than by innovation

Raising productivity is necessary in order to increase living standards. However, economic growth has largely been driven by expansion of extractive industries, rather than increases in productivity. Indeed, in recent years labour productivity has begun to stagnate (OECD, 2019a). In order to move Colombia’s economy up the value chain, it is necessary to nurture and grow innovative firms which not only use ICTs, but use them in novel ways in order to raise productivity.

R&D presently plays a small role in Colombia, with the share of GDP spent on R&D stagnating at a low level relative to other countries with a similar GDP per capita, particularly among businesses (Figure 5.3). In addition, total spending on broader science, technology and innovation (STI) activities as a share of GDP has also stagnated (Martínez and Poveda, 2018). The share of intellectual property in investment is low, even in comparison to other emerging markets (Figure 5.4). In addition, the share of STI workers is small (OECD, 2014, 2017c). As a result, STI output is low, with relatively few scientific papers published or patents granted (OECD, 2014).

Colombia lacks many of the drivers that promote business innovation, such as competitive pressures (see Chapter 3). Nevertheless, the framework conditions for innovation have improved in the past decade with a stable macro environment, a reduction in red tape, and competition policy within international norms (OECD, 2014).

Innovation is predominantly state-led

Colombia has been building its research capacity, and improving links between HEIs and firms. Nevertheless, STI activity remains largely state-led and science-focused. In addition, available government supports to firms’ R&D and innovation activity are complex, with many programmes with overlapping aims. Many programmes are run jointly by different agencies, reducing accountability.

Innovation has a prominent place in the Colombian government’s National Development Plan (Plan Nacional de Desarrollo [PND]) 2018-2022, which includes a Pact for the Digital Transformation of Colombia (OECD, 2014; DNP, 2018, 2019). The formulation of STI policy is the responsibility of the government agency Colciencias, together with the National Planning Department (Departamento Nacional de Planeación), the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism (Ministerio de Comercio, Industria y Turismo [MinCIT]) and iNNpulsa. Colciencias is also responsible for developing innovation and research capacities and programmes for higher education and the business research sector, and developing skills in research and innovation. It has strong links to academia, though less so with business. The National Commission on Competitiveness and Innovation (which aims to improve competitiveness) is a separate public-private co-ordination body with separate strategies (OECD, 2014). In 2019, Conciencias’ competencies and resources were transferred to the newly created Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (Law 1951 of 2019).

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Figure 5.3. R&D spending is low
Figure 5.3. R&D spending is low

Sources: OECD (2019c), Main Science and Technology Indicators Database. (accessed in June 2019); Torralba Barreto and Cotte Poveda (2018), “Bibliographic production”,

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Figure 5.4. The share of investment in intellectual property products is low
Gross fixed capital formation of intellectual property products, as a percentage of GDP, 2017
Figure 5.4. The share of investment in intellectual property products is low

Source: OECD (2018b), National Accounts (database), (accessed in June 2019).

As part of the 2014-18 PND, the government aimed to double R&D spending to 1% of GDP by 2018, a target it is unlikely to have met. Under the General Royalty System (Sistema General de Regalías) of 2011, which distributes oil and related royalties, 10% of non-renewable resources were to be allocated to an STI fund, leading to a large increase in resources for STI. However, a proportion of the money was earmarked for local governments with limited capacity to evaluate projects, and due to governance issues, not all of the available funding has been spent (OECD, 2017c, 2019a; World Bank, 2016).

This method of funding of Colciencias has led to a fluctuating budget and high staff turnover of some of its programmes, especially of younger researchers (World Bank, 2016; Martínez and Poveda, 2018). Some of Colciencias’ responsibilities have shifted to the Ministry of Education as part of the Colombia Cientifica programme, such as funding PhD scholarships (which accounted for approximately 70% of Colciencias’ current expenditure) and promoting research networks (Ecosistema Cientifico). This has had the benefit of reducing the financial burden on Colciencias, allowing it to focus on innovation and competitiveness (World Bank, 2016). Nevertheless, greater financial stability would allow the new Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation to develop its capacity in a sustainable manner and reduce its reliance on temporary staff.

Overall, Colombia has been lacking an integrated policy perspective on innovation, and strongly relies on state actors. The prevalence of a “science push” approach – where (largely public) “knowledge producers” are on the supply side of the innovation process and businesses constitute the demand side – may be partly explained by Colciencias’ original role as a science funder, and the relative weakness of the role of industry in the innovation system. In any case, this approach does not facilitate the building of innovation capacity within firms, which helps strengthen their absorptive capacity and is critical to transforming them into innovators in their own right (OECD, 2014).

Improvements have been made to infrastructure of innovation

Research currently plays a limited role in Colombian HEIs, with research activity concentrated in a small number of higher quality HEIs. Only a small share of university teachers have a PhD, though this is higher in leading HEIs where many did their PhD abroad. In addition, a small proportion of university funding comes from scientific output such as Colciencias-managed grants, with minimal industrial grants (OECD, 2014).

However, the government has made efforts to improve the educational infrastructure of innovation (such as HEIs and training agencies), and to improve research skills (OECD, 2014). Support for students completing a PhD within Colombia has expanded and the number of PhDs awarded in Colombia has increased, from less than 100 in 2007 to over 600 in 2016, although this remains low relative to other OECD countries. Support has also increased for Colombians pursuing PhD studies abroad. In addition, the number of active researchers (of which almost 30% work in the field of engineering and technology) has increased dramatically and research output in terms of publications and patents has also increased substantially (Figure 5.5) (Martínez and Poveda, 2018).

Measures have also been taken to facilitate the development of research careers, which also serves to increase Colombia’s research and innovation potential. Research funding has been made available for postdoctoral research, which had been absent in the past (Colciencias, 2018). In addition, Colombia has begun to develop centres of excellence (see below), which can help create an effective system employing researchers at various stages of their career (OECD, 2014). Finally, the law regarding the spinning-off of firms by HEIs has also been reformed (Law 1838 of 2017). Public researchers can now profit from a share of spin-off companies, whereas previously they were not allowed to have income other than their salary (OECD, 2014). The spinning-off of firms also has the benefit of giving public institutions a greater link to the business sector.

Strengthening intellectual property rights could further boost Colombia’s infrastructure of innovation. HEIs use intellectual property as evidence of their research abilities when they wish to collaborate with business. However, the intellectual property system suffers from backlogs and poor enforcement (in line with Colombia’s overall slow judicial system). The use of copyright and trademarks should be supported in addition to patents. Schemes to encourage the use of intellectual property could also become more effective if simplified (OECD, 2014).

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Figure 5.5. The number of active researches has increased substantially
Active researchers associated with a research group
Figure 5.5. The number of active researches has increased substantially

Source: Torralba Barreto and Cotte Poveda (2018), “Bibliographic production”,

Links between firms and higher education institutions are improving

Involving firms in innovation can ensure that innovations are created which match a market need, and such involvement is enhanced by promoting links between the public and private sectors. This allows firms to play a greater role in identifying innovation opportunities. Despite firms lacking in-house R&D capacity, there are limited academic-industry links (OECD, 2014). Providing incentives for collaboration between firms and HEIs would boost collaboration, although public officials are reluctant to subsidise business due to past examples of corruption (OECD, 2017c, 2014). Links could also be improved through the secondment of staff of public research institutions, and those with research training (such as PhDs) to firms (OECD, 2014).

Such links are being facilitated through the development of centres of excellence (centros de excelencia y apropiación [CEA]), which are supported by the Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies (Ministerio de Tecnologías de la Información y Comunicaciones [MinTIC]) and Colciencias. Two such centres, for big data (CAOBA) and the Internet of Things (IoT) (CEA en IoT) have been established as collaborations between several HEIs based in Bogotá, Cali and Medellín, private and public companies (including Colombian firms and multinational enterprises), and the state. Each centre has approximately 50-100 staff including masters, doctoral and postdoctoral students. Some funding is received from the government (mainly to cover the cost of scholarships, administration and designing R&D projects), with the remainder coming from participating firms. In addition to producing scientific publications, the centres also support the development of spin-off companies (CAOBA, 2018). A Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution was recently opened in Medellín, with a technological focus on artificial intelligence (AI), the IoT and blockchain. Meanwhile, an agreement between the Medellín-based Ruta N (Box 5.1) and the US-based Institute for Robotic Process Automation and Artificial Intelligence has been made to promote the development of machine learning and robotic process automation technologies (Ruta N, 2017). Ensuring stability of funding is necessary so that centres of excellence can continue to develop their capacity.

Links between firms and HEIs have been promoted by reforms to the tax law (see below). Firms benefit from a tax incentive for R&D, which includes providing scholarships (Law 1607 of 2012). However, the vast majority of PhDs continue to be funded by state agencies, with a relatively small number having been funded by Mazda and Ecopetrol – ICP (Martínez and Poveda, 2018).

In addition to HEIs, Colombian research and technology organisations exist to produce knowledge for industry, although they tend to be focused on narrow sections of the economy (such as rubber and plastics), rather than on technologies as in other countries. They therefore play a small role in ICT-related innovation (OECD, 2014). Meanwhile SENA also aims to diffuse new technologies in firms as part of the SENNOVA programme, operating through a network of Tecno Academia (which promote research by those with a secondary education) and Tecnoparques (which bring people together to develop prototypes, including ICT and digital technology). Colombia also has basic research institutes and government laboratories; however, these do not play a direct role in innovation.

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Box 5.1. Ruta N: A local institution navigating complex supports

Ruta N offers support to start-ups and entrepreneurs in the city of Medellín, and offers one method to navigate the complexity of Colombia’s various supports for start-ups. It is a public-private partnership which was launched by the Medellín Mayor’s Office, Tigo-Une Telecommunications and Empresas Públicas de Medellín as part of a broader strategy to transform the city, such as through improving public transport. Ruta N operates with national level agencies (such as iNNPulsa) to complete projects, using its knowledge of local needs. It links firms, entrepreneurs and academia; and focuses on the digital, biotech and energy sectors.

Ruta N collaborates with other organisations (such as with SocialAtom Ventures) to provide physical infrastructure to start-ups, such as mentoring and co-working places (OECD, 2016e). In addition, in 2017 Ruta N, co-operated with Medellín’s municipal authorities to launch a Creation Laboratory to train 2 000 people and help firms create 800 prototypes (Ruta N, 2018). Ruta N also provides both non-repayable and repayable financial support and has a capital fund (managed by Vellum Ventures) (OECD, 2016e).

Ruta N continues to develop and advance its activities and is currently developing a centre of excellence to work on robotic process automation and AI. In addition, Ruta N hosts the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Source: Ruta N (2018), Informe de Gestión 2017.

Attempts have been made to promote R&D within firms

Attempts have also been made to increase research activity within firms. Colombia has expanded tax incentives to increase the amount of R&D carried out by firms. Up to 2015, such incentives mainly benefited firms in extractive industries, but it is now easier for any company to use the R&D tax credit regardless of its size or sector, with the National Council for Tax Benefits (Consejo Nacional de Beneficios Tributarios, CTeI) deciding whether projects qualify (OECD, 2019a). The use of such incentives has increased in recent years and since 2016 the total quota of tax benefits has been assigned (Colciencias, 2015; OECD, 2019a).

There is evidence firms’ innovation efforts have increased; however, innovation activities are being concentrated in a smaller number of firms. Although the amount spent on STI activities by firms has been increasing, the share of manufacturing and services firms engaged in innovation was halved from 2008 to 2015, and the number of employees participating in innovation activities in these sectors shows considerable fluctuation (Martínez and Poveda, 2018).

There are several programmes to support entrepreneurs, but they tend to overlap

Since the 2010-14 PND there has been a greater emphasis on supporting entrepreneurs and start-ups in the challenges they face (OECD, 2016e). Start-up firms report difficulties in accessing capital, which can be linked to problems related to protection of minority shareholders (see Chapter 3) and strict regulations surrounding investments (introduced to restrict pyramid schemes and financing of the drugs trade) (OECD, 2014). Data from 2015 show that less than 10% of Colombian tech firms received an institutional investment (World Bank and Endeavour Insight, 2015). In addition, entrepreneurs have other non-financial needs, such as mentoring or co-working spaces. To meet these different needs, the Colombian government has put in place a number of support programmes for entrepreneurs across sectors.

iNNpulsa was established by MinCIT in 2012 to promote entrepreneurship and overcome the financing difficulties of start-ups. iNNpulsa provides (non-repayable) seed capital to high-potential export-oriented start-ups. iNNpulsa helps firms that have already been in the market for two years (including digital start-ups) and have already made some sales, but wish to expand into the external market (OECD, 2016e; 2014). Although 95% of its funding is from public funding, it has private rules in terms of setting contracts, which allows greater flexibility in allocating funding. In 2017, iNNpulsa provided funding of COP 87 000 million (USD 29 million), with an additional COP 30 000 million (USD 10 million) being contributed by third parties.

iNNpulsa also provides mentoring and business training (as part of the Aldea and MegaUP programmes), helping 178 firms in 2017. In addition, iNNpulsa runs programmes to promote a culture of entrepreneurship and administers the MiPyme programme to promote the use of digital technologies among small firms (see Chapter 3) (iNNpulsa, 2018). In association with MinTIC, iNNpulsa launched C Emprende with the aim of becoming the largest entrepreneurship campus in Latin America.

Colombia’s largest seed capital organisation (with approved resources of COP 570 000 million, or USD 190 million) is the Fondo Emprender, which is a part of SENA. The aim of the fund is to allow graduates of SENA’s programmes to use the training they have received in order to establish a company. Applications can be received from SENA’s apprentices and participants of SENA’s graduate training programme, in addition to those who have graduated (up to PhD level) within the past five years (SENA, 2018c; OECD, 2016e). Similar to iNNpulsa, SENA also has programmes to promote a culture of entrepreneurship and provides mentoring.

In addition to national agencies, both private sector actors and regional governments play a role in supporting entrepreneurs. The private fund SocialAtom Ventures is an important mediator for mentorship connections, although most start-up founders find their mentors while at university (World Bank and Endeavour Insight, 2015). Meanwhile, Ruta N (Box 5.1) in Medellín is a prominent example of the support delivered at a regional level. Attempts have been made to establish start-up hubs in Bogotá and Medellín (OECD, 2016e). Meanwhile, in Cali, the Fundación Bolívar and the Cali Chamber of Commerce run the Valle Impacta acceleration programme to support the scale-up of firms (OECD, 2016e).

Overall, the aims and objectives of SENA’s Fondo Emprender and iNNPulsa tend to overlap, a problem which is general to government programmes in Colombia, which makes accountability difficult (DNP, 2018). In addition, small and medium-sized enterprises find it hard to navigate all the various supports (OECD, 2019a). Clearer divisions of responsibility between different agencies could improve the effectiveness of programmes and allow agencies develop their core expertise.

Programmes targeting the ICT sector frequently overlap with other programmes

In addition to general programmes to support entrepreneurs, there are several programmes which focus on entrepreneurs in the digital sector. Though this can be beneficial to the extent that the needs of entrepreneurs in this sector differ from those in other sectors, it adds to the number of overlapping supports for entrepreneurs.

Several programmes have been launched that specifically aim to promote entrepreneurship in the ICT sector as part of the Strengthening the Information Technology Industry (Fortalecimiento de la Industria de las Tecnologías de la Información) strategy (OECD, 2014). These programmes aim to develop an ecosystem of app developers and ICT service providers, and complement programmes to promote the use of ICTs among firms (see Chapter 3). Two main programmes involving MinTIC are and Colombia Bring IT On.

Colombia Bring IT On is a collaboration between MinTIC and the export promotion agency ProColombia (see Chapter 4). It aims to promote exports of digital services, and also digital solutions in sectors such as agriculture (such as the app Farmapp which is used for pest control) and tourism (supporting the development of and is not specific to start-ups.

In contrast, the programme was established to support app developers from the very initial stages of forming a company, with the aim of providing coding skills to 67 000 people in Colombia, with free online courses available. Supports follow several stages and include giving potential entrepreneurs software development training (provided by third parties); advice on developing a business model; support to scale-up a business by accessing new markets and customers; and finally, an acceleration stage to help start-ups to grow steadily (OECD, 2014). Indeed, some firms have progressed from working with to iNNPulsa. The programme has had some success, as with the app which boosted the efficiency of taxis and placed a great emphasis on security. Nevertheless, there is some overlap with the aims of SENA’s programmes.

Also overlapping somewhat with the aims of is the Vive labs programme. This aims to create digital content, with 17 Vive labs offering free training courses in content development (such as creating apps and video games). However, these labs lack output targets and are not connected to the programme or Tecnoparques (run by SENA) (OECD, 2014). Between 2012 and 2014, over 79 000 entrepreneurs registered, leading to the development of 2 000 apps (OECD, 2016e).

Meanwhile, MinTIC has several small programmes that aim to promote digital entrepreneurship, such as Colombia en Línea, which gives awards for the best digital initiatives designed in the country and IT Mark certification is awarded (in co-operation with Colciencias) for proficiency in business and technical methods ISO 29110 quality management model (MinTIC, 2017b). MinTIC and iNNpulsa have recently launched C Emprende, with the ambition to create the largest entrepreneurship campus in Latin America.

MinCIT has also created a plan to promote the IT industry as part of the Productive Transformation Programme (Programa de Transformación Productiva [PTP], now Productive Colombia [Colombia Productiva]). The plan aims to increase the sophistication of products offered by the IT sector, identify where IT can increase productivity in other sectors and bring the IT sector up to international standards. However, some programmes appear small, and overlap with MinTIC programmes. For example, the PTP’s aSALESelerator (2018-19) programme (with a budget of USD 71 000) aims to help entrepreneurs develop business models and grow their software and ICT companies in the Caribe region (PTP, 2018). In this way, it overlaps with the programme.

Overall, there is considerable overlap in the aims, target groups and methods of the various programmes to support digital entrepreneurs. In the attempt to promote ICT-related entrepreneurship, it is logical to make use of pilot programmes to assess which methods of innovation are most appropriate. However, as the industry is maturing, integrating such programmes into the general system of innovation is likely to be the best approach. In addition, effective monitoring and collection of data of such programmes is essential in order to assess their effectiveness.

copy the linklink copied! Conclusions

In order to begin to take full advantage of the digital transformation, Colombia must invest not only in physical telecoms infrastructure, but also in complementary assets. In particular, improving the skills of the workforce and the innovation capacity of firms are necessary to enable Colombia to take advantage of changing technology. Colombia has taken great strides in improving education and innovation, and has launched many programmes and initiatives, and it is necessary that such progress is maintained.

Colombia has launched many programmes to support skills development and innovation in firms, with many of these being pilot programmes from which valuable lessons can be drawn. However, as the digital transformation matures, it will be less feasible to promote ICT through stand-alone programmes. Therefore, integrating such programmes into Colombia’s labour market and innovation institutions would be beneficial.

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Box 5.2. Key policy recommendations

Creating an adaptable workforce

  • Strengthen investment in general education.

  • Increase investment in adult and continuing education.

Increasing the number and skills of ICT specialists

  • Systematically evaluate the benefits of novel teaching approaches, such as coding bootcamps.

  • Increase the number of schools which award the ICT Certificate (Bachillerato TIC).

  • Include information regarding the labour market outcomes in the HEI course accreditation process, and also include the participation of potential employers. Create a system (similar to MIDE) for ranking individual courses.

  • Create a central clearing house for applications to HEIs.

Using ICTs to improve the efficiency of the labour market

  • Ensure more regular updates of information provided by the Labour Observatory for Education.

  • Use webscraping to improve the monitoring of SENA’s jobs vacancy database.

  • Create a system to share data between digital platforms and the tax authority.

Boosting Colombia’s innovation system

  • Ensure the newly created Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation has stable funding by breaking the link with oil and related royalties.

  • Strengthen intellectual property rights.

  • Streamline innovation policies, ensuring clearer divisions of responsibility and reducing overlaps of the aims of different programmes.


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Chapter 5. Seizing the opportunities from the digital transformation for jobs and innovation