The Rapid Diffussion of a New Policy Concept

By Maria Lindqvist

When I first encountered Smart Specialisation, I could never have expected the rapid impact of the concept on European policy. Today, strategies for Smart Specialisation are being implemented in the Nordic countries to varying degrees, mainly in connection with the new EU Structural Funds.

Development of the concept

My first encounter with the concept of Smart Specialisation was in late 2010, when I received the template for writing a case study for the European Regional Innovation Monitor (RIM). One of the headings concerned Smart Specialisation, and the authors were expected to write about the implementation of the concept in relation to regional innovation. I expected this to be just another concept for describing collaborative development activities, in line with clusters, innovation ecosystems, triple helix and open innovation platforms. To some extent, this turned out to be true, but at that time, I could never have expected the extent and the speed at which the concept was implemented in European policy.

In October 2011, I participated in a RIM policy workshop on New Practices in Regional Innovation Policy - towards Regionally Adapted Strategies in Brussels. One of the presentations was based on the thematic paper Policies and Processes of Smart Specialisation: Realising New Opportunities prepared for the RIM project. At the workshop, there were representatives from the academic sector and regional authorities, as well as from DG Enterprise and DG Regio. During the discussion, it became increasingly clear to me that this was not only a new concept for collaboration, but also an important concept in European policy because as it was stated that Smart Specialisation was likely to become a precondition for the new structural funds programme in the period 2014–2020.

To understand the concept better, I read some of the relevant documents. This showed that Smart Specialisation was introduced in an article in 2009 (Foray et al, 2009) by academic experts supporting the work of the Knowledge for Growth (K4G) expert group on Science and Technology (S&T) policy. The surprisingly rapid implementation of the concept was later commented upon by the original authors in an article in 2011 (Foray et al, 2011).

"Smart Specialisation is a policy concept that has enjoyed a short but very exciting life! Elaborated by a group of academic "experts" in 2008, it very quickly made a significant impact on the policy audience, particularly in Europe. Such a success story in such a short period of time is a perfect example of "policy running ahead of theory".

Adapting to regional variation

What is interesting to note is that the concept was developed in a context of S&T policy, and not as a concept for regional development. Therefore, the implement of this initially place-neutral concept into regional policy required some adaptation and further development. This was elaborated upon by other researchers, stressing the importance of variations in regional policy design, and the need for regional embeddedness, relatedness and connectivity (McCann and Ortega-Argilés, 2011).

To support regional policymakers in the process of developing what were defined as Research and Innovation Strategies for Smart Specialisation (RIS3) for implementation of the concept, the S3 Platform in Seville was developed. The Platform has played an important role in developing guidelines and increasing regional knowledge of the concept. Nonetheless, it has been stated that neither the original authors of the concept nor the Platform researchers have all the answers, but that the concept is still successively being developed in collaboration with academics and policymakers.

Implementation in the Nordic countries

Since early 2012, I have had the opportunity to participate in numerous activities concerning the future implementation of Smart Specialisation in Sweden. There has been great interest among regional actors, but also some concern about the requirement to develop RIS3 strategies for the new programme period of the EU Cohesion Policy. At what level must these strategies be developed? Considering the time-consuming process of following the six steps for developing RIS3, as presented by the S3 Platform in Seville, the question has been raised whether this is at all possible for regions within the frame of the new Operational Programmes. Skåne and Västra Götaland, two of the Swedish regions that have come closest to developing such strategies, started their processes even before Smart Specialisation was discussed.

In a meeting of a Nordic working group in March 2012, the concept of Smart Specialisation was presented and discussed. One question was if this was really a new policy stream or just another way to present what is already going on. As a result, a small study on the implementation of Smart Specialisation in the Nordic countries was initiated. The results indicate some variations between the Nordic countries concerning the impact of the concept on national and regional policy.

The EU member states have become more involved in the discussions as part of the preparation for the future European Regional Development Funds (ERDF). In Finland, there seems to be a trend towards increased concentration and specialisation of research and innovation activities, in line with Smart Specialisation, and some Finnish regions have become members of the S3 Platform to support the implementation of the concept. Sweden seems unwilling to adopt the concept formally at the national level and to demand that regions develop RIS3, but for some years, voluntary development of Regional Innovation Strategies (RIS) at the county level has been supported. Nevertheless, several Swedish regions have initiated processes in line with Smart Specialisation and some have taken an active part in the S3 Platform. In Denmark, there seems to be some scepticism regarding the concept at the national as well as regional levels. The argument is that it seems more efficient to support entrepreneurship and innovation in general than to concentrate on specific economic sectors. The non-member states, Iceland and Norway, have also started to approach the concept, even if it is not yet widespread.

However, although the concept is new, many Nordic regions seem to be doing well from a Smart Specialisation perspective. There have been many programmes and initiatives for regional development and innovation with components that may support the future implementation of RIS3. These include:

  • Regional embeddedness – in most regions, analysis of potentials within the regional context has been conducted as an input for various regional strategies, often based on traditional SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats).
  • Co-operative governance – there is a strong tradition of developing regional programmes or strategies for development, clusters or innovation, combining strategic leadership with stakeholder involvement, often from a triple helix perspective.
  • Avoiding lock-in effects – cross-sector and transdisciplinary collaboration has been addressed, specifically in some of the national cluster and innovation programmes.
  • A broadly defined concept of innovation—most Nordic countries have introduced policy measures to support various types of innovation, including user-driven innovations, public sector innovation and green innovation.

Concluding reflections

There is increasing interest in Smart Specialisation in the Nordic countries, particularly among actors responsible for implementation of the new Cohesion Policy at the regional and national levels in the EU member states. However, the review of the Nordic countries indicates that the level of formal implementation is still limited. One argument is that it may be confusing to introduce a new policy concept in addition to Smart Growth, which is already a part of the Europe 2020 strategy and is considered less controversial. Another argument is that the development of RIS3, using the six-step model, takes too much time to be integrated into the new Operational Programmes for the ERDF. A third argument is that many Nordic regions have already implemented many of the elements of Smart Specialisation in their strategies and policy measures.

However, the overall ambitions of Smart Specialisation are positive and there seems to be room to implement further some of the elements suggested to generate more efficient regional and national development and innovation strategies in the Nordic countries. One example concerns the regional capacity for analysis of economic potential in relation to other regions, within or outside the country. Another example concerns the need to provide incentives for increased involvement of small and medium-sized companies (SMEs), entrepreneurs and representatives of the general public (quadruple helix). There is also room for improved dialogue between levels and for participation of SMEs in global value chains and EU research programmes, such as Horizon 2020.

Back to Nordregio News Issue 5, 2012