Smart Specialisation Platform



Policy areas

Organisation name Unit B3 Territorial Development, Joint Research Centre, European Commission

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Contact person: Alexander Kleibrink

Public administrations at regional and national level in Europe are strained in various ways:

  • economic stagnation while globalisation increases competitive pressures;
  • fiscal constraints while citizens and stakeholders demand better involvement and results;
  • rapid technological change while societies need solutions that tackle both their local needs and are commercially viable.

Dealing with this conundrum of complex expectations and realities is a vital public task. The European Commission has a powerful instrument that can tackle these challenges: the cohesion policy supporting regional development. Even more importantly, this instrument is co-managed together with regional administrations that are best suited to identify their development needs. Yet, European citizens have often seen the implementation of EU cohesion and regional policy as a prominent example of maladministration and ineffective spending. What can be the best European solution for many of the contemporary socio-economic challenges is perceived by many, rightly or wrongly, as part of the problem and not part of the solution.

To remedy this perception and improve EU investments for innovation and economic growth, the European Commission established the Smart Specialisation (S3) Platform in 2011. A small team of around thirty applied researchers, based at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Seville, have been supporting regional and national administrations to prepare and implement transparent and participatory innovation strategies that address societal challenges. This new practice of public administration is called ‘smart specialisation’ because it asks governments to duly justify in which domains they want to concentrate their efforts and funding. In the past years, the project has provided hands-on guidance, methodologies and analysis with a view to building capacities in public administrations to be more focused in setting priorities for public investments. Our work builds on a new legal requirement that defines preconditions for disbursing European Regional Development Funds.

To comply with this new rule, around 120 national and regional administrations had to prepare and adopt research and innovation strategies for smart specialisation (RIS3) that embody an evidence-based prioritisation of public investments through a highly participatory approach with stakeholders. Innovation policies have important future consequences for employment, competitiveness and well-being. The project has been supporting public administrations to reconcile their immediate development needs with the longer-term development of their territories.

Three novel measures have been employed to support administrations to navigate through the conundrum of challenges and expectations, and to design appropriate solutions:

  • Participatory methods are used that bring together policymakers and administrators to discuss their strategies, intervention logics and instruments based on similar challenges they are facing. In more than 120 interactive events involving multiple stakeholders, we have brought together local, national and European stakeholders and experts to jointly discuss their development priorities and plans. Our project and platform was conceived as an innovation meant to trigger innovation by focusing on community-building and mutual learning across all sectors.
  • This novel approach has also triggered the launch of new innovation partnerships. Inter-regional collaboration is supported by disseminating information through new and comprehensive open data tools. The team developed a participatory online platform to collect relevant information on all public investment priorities across the EU to support innovative projects. Together with policymakers in regional and national administrations, these data were collected and verified in a partly crowd-sourced way.
  • Good practices that illustrate what is possible given budgetary and administrative constraints are recognised and disseminated. Most administrations working with the project are eager to effectively prioritise actions, yet often lack guiding examples to learn from. The project has become a knowledge hub on innovation policy documents. The team has provided binding feedback to improve more than 180 local development strategies that are linked to an investment in innovation of more than EUR 35 billion through the EU’s cohesion policy.

Political endorsements from the European Parliament, the European Council and the Committee of the Regions have repeatedly confirmed the value of this support for making better EU investments in local development. Also, inside the Commission this work has triggered new joint initiatives and dialogues across several Directorates-General. By streamlining the participatory methods across organisations and enforcing a more transparent justification for public investments, policymaking has been brought closer to citizens and local stakeholders. Positive media coverage underscores how this approach to local development has enhanced collaboration between businesses and the public sector, with significant potential for employment growth.

The Smart Specialisation Platform gathers a high number of registered members from regions (179) and countries (20) and voluntary membership rates continue to grow. Non-EU regions and countries have also become members, despite not being required to formally develop RIS3.

The project continues to have high participation in the interactive workshops organised (so far 120 plus). One of the first services provided was peer-review workshops that helped public administrations in designing innovation strategies. In these participatory events, local, national and European stakeholders were brought together to support strategy development, community-building and mutual learning. Some 60 regions and 15 EU Member States have presented their RIS3 and many more have participated in one or several of these events; some even 6-7 times. The clear majority of participants expressed very high satisfaction, with more than half of them making actual changes to their local processes based on the lessons learnt from the discussions. The community consists of 200 regions and countries from the EU and beyond, reaching out to more than 500 individual policymakers as well as thousands of organisations, experts and scholars. It has been nurtured through more than 20 mutual learning workshops from Lapland to Crete, from the Azores to Romania, focusing on collaborative strategy development catering to more than 75 regions and countries.

The team has also developed guidance material such as widely-used handbooks, policy briefs, working papers and online tools to support practitioners, other European Commission services and to contribute to the academic debate. This includes the RIS3 Guide, a self-assessment wheel, an Implementation Handbook and ‘Smart Stories’, with useful narratives of successful innovation practices (see links at the end). This material has been influential and is visible in many regional strategies and initiatives. The first policy-to-academia conference on participatory innovation strategies was co-organised with the Regional Studies Association in Europe in 2016.

The most frequently used open data tool is the EYE@RIS3, a database on investment priorities for innovation support. Policy practitioners have used this data for benchmarking, to find partners and prepare thematic mappings. Various policy bodies such as the Committee of Regions and the European Parliament Research Service have used our data, as well as Euronews in a piece on economic growth.

As a response to an increasing interest of regions to collaborate, the team – together with several Commission services – has established three thematic smart specialisation platforms, on energy, agro-food and industrial modernisation. The objective of this support is to create new partnerships with multiple stakeholders across borders for joint investments in innovative prototypes. So far, 15 partnerships with more than 75 regions have been formed.

The team has received strong political endorsement by the European Parliament, the European Council and the Committee of the Regions. In a recent resolution, the Parliament’s Committee on Regional Development explicitly acknowledged the work of the team. It highlighted that this project ‘plays a key role in advising regions and setting benchmarks on their innovation strategies, helping lagging regions and enhancing multilevel governance and synergies between regions, by providing information, methodologies, expertise and advice to national and regional policymakers’. The resolution asks the Commission to continue supporting this work.

Upon an initial request by the European Parliament, colleagues linked to the project provided targeted support to improve innovation support in the poorest Greek region, Eastern Macedonia and Thrace. Given the success of this pilot spin-off project, it was later expanded to support less developed regions across Europe, with a particular focus on Romania. An important aspect of these efforts is to improve the accountability of public sector entities to their stakeholders.

The team has supported the European Commission in the negotiation process for the Operational Programmes of the ERDF by reviewing more than 180 policy documents linked to an EU investment of more than EUR 35 billion. A pan-European survey by the German research institute Fraunhofer reports that 60% of regional policymakers indicate that RIS3 has introduced significant adaptations in the stakeholder involvement process (20% speak of a ‘completely new process’); more than 66% stated it had introduced ‘new elements of governance’. This implies that there have been real changes in the governance system, and the team has contributed to this through peer reviews, events, guidance material, online tools and the review and feedback process.

Smart specialisation has also become an important reference framework in other policy domains, such as the digital economy, EU external relations and the role of higher education institutions for regional development.

This project is financed partly through competitive and own institutional funding. The core of competitive funding is constituted by 2–3 year administrative agreements with the Commission Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy. This is co-financed by the institutional budget of the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission. Given the success and outreach of this project, the team and related teams attracted additional funding for several other projects:

  • supporting the use of synergies across EU funding instruments;
  • helping less developed regions with their innovation support;
  • contributing to universities’ role in regional development;
  • using innovation camps to involve stakeholders;
  • preparing EU enlargement countries for harmonising their innovation policymaking with EU practices;
  • assisting city governments in developing integrated development plans.

The portfolio of related projects ensures that funding does not depend on a single project partner and at the same time promotes the participatory approach across policy bodies and domains. Based on demand from government institutions, the team is also carrying out exploratory work on the innovation potential in Latin America and Africa.

The continuous importance of the concept being promoted is also codified in a Communication by the European Commission (May 2017), that sets out actions for future work on collaborative innovation policies bringing together all relevant stakeholders and EU services. Through this expansion of the concept that has been actively promoted for more than six years, it becomes evident that public administrations across the EU have introduced some kind of systemic changes. These are incrementally improving the way innovation policy bodies are governed.

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