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Fontana S., Bisogni F., Renwick R. (2023) “The Future of Regional Smart Specialisation Strategies: Sustainable, Inclusive and Resilient”

Committente: European Committee of the Regions. 
Periodo: 2023
Url: The Future of Regional Smart Specialisation Strategies: Sustainable, Inclusive and Resilient

The Smart Specialisation Strategy (S3) concept was introduced by Foray et al. (2009), as part of the Knowledge for Growth Expert Group composed of growth and innovation economists, appointed in 2005 by Janez Potocnik, former European Commissioner for Science and Research. It also builds on the initiative of DG Regio that started in 1995 on developing Regional Technology Plans and later on Regional Innovation Strategies. The aim was to lend greater impetus to the Lisbon Strategy (2000). The approach emphasises the need for decision and policymakers to recognise innovation fostering technologies and sectors at the local level, focusing on areas of comparative strength while avoiding duplication and fragmentation of efforts (Foray et al., 2009). Smart Specialisation is interlinked with the EU Cohesion Policy, the main investment instrument at European level. The overarching intention is to narrow disparities between Member States and their regions. The economic and financial crisis in 2008 was responsible for an increase in unemployment, poverty and social exclusion, and the Cohesion Policy was conceived as a tool to implement the ‘EU 2020 Strategy’, which was aimed at supporting the transition towards smart, sustainable and inclusive growth across Europe. As a policy approach, the S3 promotes efficient, effective and synergistic use of public resources in support of the innovation capacity of the European territories; to co-create a regional programme together with the local stakeholders. The S3 in the 2014-2020 programming period The General Regulation establishing common provisions on European Structural and Investment Funds (Reg. 1303/2013) identified the implementation of the Smart Specialisation Strategy as an “ex-ante” conditionality to access funding under the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). This first application of the S3 across Europe encountered a diverse innovation landscape. Some regions had pre-existing regional policies for research and innovation, while others did not have any provision in place for developing a regional focused innovation ecosystem. Drawing from predominant EU challenges, specific goals were identified for 20142020: reduction of economic and social disparities promoting growth and jobs; investments in innovation and research; digitalisation; support to small and mediumsized businesses (SMEs); and a transition to a low-carbon economy (Mccann & OrtegaArgilés, 2013). The Smart Specialisation Strategy is based on several building blocks: a policy integration between innovation and other policies; a systemic approach within the framework of cohesion policies based on collaboration and support between 1 stakeholders entities, to achieve a consistent development across EU territories; a bottom-up approach with the actors of the quadruple helix for identifying promising sectors of regional specialisation along with the main challenges and obstacles to innovation; multi-level governance encouraging collaboration across regional and national boundaries and opening up new opportunities while avoiding fragmentation and overlapping. One of the key elements of the S3 is the participatory process for the identification of specialisation areas and development of priorities to support local innovation. This process is called the Entrepreneurial Discovery Process (EDP). The idea behind Smart Specialisation Strategies is that territories collaboratively prioritise research and innovation investments for transforming their economies, through a process of “entrepreneurial discovery”, which is based on an evidence-based and co-creational approach. The process includes knowledge creators such as businesses, universities, government bodies, and other territorial actors. Within the years of its application, the EDP concept has been extended to become a continuous process, open to the largest possible range of stakeholders, and for this reason sometimes it is called the Open Discovery Process (ODP). The S3 in the 2021-2027 programming period The Smart Specialisation approach continues to play a major role for regional development, because of its potential to respond to global challenges in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) and, as recognised by the European Committee of the Region (CoR), for its inherent purpose to build effective partnerships that deliver inclusive innovation as an essential part of the EU’s cohesion policy (European Committee of the Region, 2021). In the current EU programming period 2021-2027, and due to an evolving socioeconomic landscape, specific emerging aspects are requested to be addressed: • Sustainability, with reference to the twin (digital and green) transition. • Resilience, focusing on the main challenges generated by the megatrends such as climate change and associated environmental issues, technological transformation, the crisis of the democratic values, and demographic decline, with reference mainly to the UN SDGs. • Inclusiveness of all societal actors through the promotion of partnerships and collaboration among public sector, industry, academia and, most importantly, civil society for designing a shared vision for the regional programming (e.g., EDP). The Partnerships for Regional Innovation The 2014-2020 S3 design and implementation processes provided valuable and relevant lessons to the current programming period. Specifically, it highlighted the need to align priorities and intervention areas with global challenges and demonstrated the need to tackle existing fragmentation in the EU innovation ecosystem, especially concerning both funding instruments and specific territorial policies. 

As part of the Joint Action Plan of the Commission services under the responsibility of Commissioner Mariya Gabriel and the European Committee of the Region1 the Joint Research Centre (JRC) and the CoR launched in 2022 the Partnerships for Regional Innovation (PRIs) initiative to develop a strategic framework for innovation-driven territorial transformation. The PRIs Pilot Action is framed in the strategy for promoting the generation of deep tech innovation, especially in support of the twin transition, as stated in the EC Communication on the New European Innovation Agenda, with the aim of taking forward flagship projects, as the PRIs, to strengthen the innovation ecosystem at local level and reduce the digital divide between the European territories. In this perspective, the Pilot Action is expected to become a fully-fledged project in summer 2023

The PRIs aim to connect EU priorities with national plans, create linkages across domains and funding instruments, exploit synergies and address challenges to deliver economic, environmental, and social benefits. It aims to strengthen regional impact, with a particular focus on the green and digital transitions, by fostering synergies with other EU policies including the European Green Deal, Horizon Europe, the Cohesion policy, and Next Generation EU (Pontikakis et al., 2022). Within the PRIs framework, the Entrepreneurial Discovery Process becomes a mission-oriented mechanism entitled Challenge-Oriented Innovation Partnerships (CHOIRs). Its aim is to tackle specific challenges (missions) that require the collaboration of all societal groups (Laranja, Perianez-Forte & Reimeris, 2022). The goal is to concentrate Smart Specialisation Strategies onto specific priorities related to the digital and environmental transition. It does this through a systemic and multi-level approach that considers local, regional, and national needs that require alignment of financial instruments and policies. The PRIs Pilot Action, launched in April 2022, includes 74 territories: four Member States, seven cities, 63 regions and six regional networks that are involved in thematic workshops, exchanges of good practices, policy reviews and analytical insight. These activities are tailored to the areas of interest, whilst national, regional and local policy makers, stakeholders and experts are invited to co-create and test innovative tools and governance mechanisms to integrate projects and investment in the selected strategic areas that link territorial opportunities and challenges to EU priorities.

The PRIs implementation is regularly evaluated during plenary meetings that bring together participants to discuss key concepts, experiences, insights and analyses from the working groups. A PRIs monitoring and evaluation approach is also developed to support capacity building in territories. The PRIs represent an ambitious policy strategy, aimed at both solving the issues encountered in the previous S3 and to meet new challenges that go beyond traditional strategies. In this regard, the PRIs pilot, as a flagship project within the new strategy conveyed through the EC Communication on the New European Innovation Agenda, is intertwined with other flagship initiatives such as the Regional Innovation Valleys (RIVs), managed by the CoR and directed towards the identification of regions willing to commit for a better coordination of their research and innovation investments and policies and to take part in inter-regional innovation projects. It is hoped that this strategy could foster a breakthrough in the transformation of the EU innovation landscape.

In light of these development the current study focusses on the following research questions:

• How regional Smart Specialisation Strategies (S3) have been adopted and put into practice locally.

• The extent to which Local and Regional Authorities (LRAs) are satisfied with the S3 process and periodic monitoring via existing tools at national and European level (the S3 platform, RIS scoreboard, JRC/DG REGIO analyses, etc.).

• How the “Entrepreneurial Discovery Process”, the green and digital transition and the resilience building to upcoming future crises and challenges are implemented at local level and how they are linked together.

• How the concept of regional S3 should evolve in the near future, what can be improved and whether new elements should be taken into consideration in order to capture new challenges, policy developments and social trends.

• Whether the process of regional S3 design and evaluation should include some new steps and be carried out more frequently, while involving new players beyond the city or region – i.e., from the European and national level.

• Whether the EU and Member States should provide funding and expertise for creating more permanent structures (e.g., at NUTS2 level) to facilitate this process locally.

• Which policy actions can strengthen the regional innovation ecosystem by building capacity, enhancing inclusiveness, growing resilience and ensuring the effective and synergetic use of EU (and other) funds following an improved S3 process.