Regional Collaboration in Värmland

By Anders Olsson and Håkan Spjuth

How collaboration between universities and the society may be achieved is not self-evident. In Värmland, some factors contributing to a highly prioritized and shared responsibility for regional development have been identified. Today, close collaboration between regional agencies, the university and prioritized cluster organizations has evolved.

Are universities important for regional development? Can they support regional development in the private and public sectors? Do their strategies encourage collaboration from both academic and regional development perspectives? These questions are discussed at the regional, national and European levels, both within and outside the academic sector. Even if there are no clear-cut answers, these questions are becoming increasingly important. The Swedish region of Värmland has been struggling with these questions over recent years.

A history of collaboration

Even from its beginning as a university college in the 1970s, Karlstad University has had an important role in regional development. Karlstad University College was based on a tradition of teacher training and nursing education, and was intended to provide the region with strategic competence. Over time, research and education has broadened to include other areas, such as humanities and fine arts, social and economic sciences, natural sciences, engineering and technology.

The Vision 2015 plan clearly states that Karlstad University has a role in regional attractiveness and growth. In addition, cluster policies have become an integrated part of regional development strategies of Värmland. During the past decade, cluster organizations such as Compare, Paper Province, Steel & Engineering and Packaging Arena have been invited to participate in the regional development process.

Recent initiatives

An OECD study of Värmland in 2006 clearly indicated not only the importance of Karlstad University in regional development, but also the importance of the region for the development of the university. However, although many well functioning collaborative projects and initiatives were initiated, the need for more structured collaboration and a joint regional governance structure remained. This resulted in recommendations for a regional process to develop more structured collaboration in regional development between Karlstad University, Region Värmland, the cluster organizations and other actors. As a result of this process, several initiatives were launched.

A five-year agreement for research collaboration between Karlstad University and Region Värmland was signed. In the agreement, four research areas of particular interest, related to the priorities of the Regional Development Programme of Värmland, were identified. As part of the collaboration, 10 new professorships were to be co-funded by Region Värmland. The prioritization of research areas and professorships was based on a dialogue between Karlstad University, Region Värmland and the cluster organizations. In addition, Region Värmland provides basic funding for a research centre for regional development (CERUT) at Karlstad University.

Over recent years, a number of test and innovation centres in ICT, steel and pulp and paper have been developed by established cluster organizations in close collaboration with representatives of Karlstad University. Today, these platforms are used by companies, students and researchers from Karlstad University to develop and verify new ideas.

To facilitate meetings between small and medium-sized companies in the cluster organizations and students or researchers at Karlstad University, a cluster room has been established. The room is strategically located close to engineering laboratories at the university and provides facilities for seminars, project meetings and innovation development activities. During the first year, an average of 3 - 4 meetings were arranged every week, involving approximately 260 researchers, 420 students and 230 business representatives.

Karlstad University/Photo: Hans M Karlsson

Karlstad University/Photo: Hans M Karlsson

Positive results, but the process continues

The problems of measuring the effects of such activities are well known. Nevertheless, several studies reach a similar conclusion: collaboration between regional actors has been positive for regional development. In 2010, a follow up of the OECD study was undertaken. According to a group of international experts, a shared regional governance structure had developed and relations between the university and private as well as public actors had improved at the strategic and operational levels.

From a company perspective, an annual survey of member companies in the cluster organizations indicates that collaboration with the university in education and research is considered important. Approximately 80 per cent of the cluster companies collaborate with the university to some extent. To reveal the university perspective, a survey of attitudes among staff and researchers has been conducted. The results indicate that 90 per cent believe that collaboration with society strengthens research and that it is important to disseminate results externally.

Does this mean that regional actors in Värmland can now relax and simply wait for the results? Certainly not! Many improvements can still be made - both within and between actors - but the collaboration platform in Värmland is an important starting point for further development. At a strategic level, a Memorandum of Understanding has been signed by Region Värmland and Karlstad University and there are several ongoing activities intended to strengthen the regional development process further.

  • First, a process has been initiated to develop a new cluster strategy, 'Värmland 2.0', improving long-term strategies for and funding of cluster organizations. There is an ambition to develop a common strategic agenda for the cluster organizations, university and other education providers to undertake research and education. There are also plans to develop open innovation platforms and regional competence for European research programmes.
  • Second, a project has been initiated to support growth by strengthening entrepreneurship, encouraging start-ups and stimulating growth in existing businesses. The project is based on collaboration among all actors providing support to entrepreneurs and businesses, including the university support structure.
  • Third, the strategy for Karlstad University will be further developed during 2012. The ambition is to further develop collaboration with business and society. As part of this strategy, a system for measuring progress will be developed, including broadly defined indicators of collaboration.
  • Fourth, Region Värmland, Karlstad University and the cluster organizations support the transformation and development of the business sector through service innovations. The future potential for this was increased by the recent establishment of a service innovation and research centre at the SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden in Karlstad, partly as a result of the strong development of the CTF (Centre for Service Research) at Karlstad University.

Together, these activities lay the foundation for future development of a regional innovation strategy, a new regional development programme and the operational programme for ERDF (Regional Structural Funds) in 2014–2020.

Remaining challenges

Even if the collaboration in Värmland has developed well over the past decade, there remain several challenges for the future. One of these concerns national funding of the academic system. Today, Swedish research policy prioritizes funding of traditional research, based on scientific publications and citations, while collaboration with society is of no merit to most researchers. This system rewards larger research universities, while small universities such as Karlstad University have difficulty competing for national funding and researchers. There is ongoing discussion about introducing collaboration as an indicator for university evaluation, but focus so far has been on commissioned research and education. This perspective on collaboration is too narrow and we hope that its importance to university education and research will be emphasized in the coming Swedish research and innovation bill.

To influence the national system, regional actors from Värmland have taken an active part in the ongoing national dialogue about a future Swedish innovation strategy. They have also become increasingly involved in international benchmarking and collaborations. Although the concept of smart specialization has not been formally applied in Värmland, regional actors have introduced a number of collaborative activities supporting such a strategy: developing a cluster policy framework, providing cross-regional cluster collaboration through the ERDF-funded SLIM project (System Management for Innovative Platforms and Cluster Organizations in Northern Central Sweden), supporting regional specialization and stimulating cross-sector collaboration. To implement a regional strategy for smart specialization in the future, it is important to continue the development of linkages to decision makers, universities and business sectors at the national and European level.

Back to Nordregio News Issue 2, 2012