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Smart Specialisation Strategies for Learning Regions

Is transnational learning across regions possible, and how to best foster that? This was the leading question of a seminar organized in Brussels in April by Smartspec, a research project with a consortium of academics, experts and regional policy-makers.

Regions in Europe are putting up Smart Specialisation Strategies (S3) following the new EU agenda for regional development and innovation that was inspired by the concept launched in 2009. This concept suggests that smart specialisation is the spontaneous outcome of entrepreneurial discovery, combination of different knowledge sources, spillovers in the form of new entry and agglomeration of firms, and the subsequent structural change (Foray 2014). However, when this does not take place spontaneously (especially in peripheral regions), policies need to foster that through policies. This is why the EU has made the S3 an integral part of its regional policy.

Yet, as many regional governments are busy putting up their smart specialisation strategies, and start to make them work, the EU created a S3 platform with a series of peer reviews across regions with the expectation that there will be transnational learning. Hence the question is, under what conditions this cross-regional learning takes place? What can regions learn from each other’s smart specialisation strategies.

In her opening remarks Clair Nauwelaers indicates that there seems to be a learning paradox across Europe: Developed regions with strong knowledge seem to be the ones learning most from others, whereas less developed regions which could benefit the most from external knowledge, seem to be those learning less. What can be done? What are the processes and issues at stake for enhancing learning where is needed? Some policy-makers in the seminar indicate that it is very important for any region to get access to specific knowledge that is relevant for the policy-makers. For this reason, the learning processes must be organized around some specific topics. There are some interesting cross-regional initiatives in this regard. The Interreg IV has created a useful repository of good practices in regions. This database can strengthen cross-regional networks of policy-makers, helping to enhance trust and community building, while providing specialised knowledge on some themes. In a similar vein some countries like Spain have created their own nationally-based cross-regional platforms for regular meetings between regional policy-makers around some specific themes of smart specialisation, which are relevant for the particular challenges in the regions in that country.

In his opening remarks Adrian Healy underlined also that transnational learning is not a goal in itself, but the means for promoting policy change that solves real socio-economic problems and fosters the unexploited innovation potential in the regions. This leads to another item discussed in the seminar, namely, the need to understand who are the learners, and how do they learn. In my intervention I distinguished between different groups of learners (hands-on civil servants, organizational stakeholders, societal stakeholders, and external expert evaluators), showing the result of some previous findings that different learners learn different things. This lead to further comments about the importance of understanding that learning is situated, meaning that it is strongly linked to the context in which it takes place. Several practical cases showed that evidence and new knowledge is not enough. Only when this new knowledge fits the political agenda at the highest political level (Parliament, Prime Minister, Minister of economic affairs) learning and policy change might happen.

The experiences from OECD and EU Commission with peer review exercises were particularly relevant when discussing policy learning. The well-known OECD innovation country reviews have shown that the ownership in the reviewed country is absolutely crucial for the successful impact and learning in the country in question. The 19 ERAC peer reviews facilitated by the European Commission are also extremely relevant experiences of transnational peer review. Managing expectations during the review process is very important, as some actors might expect radical change while others expect politically acceptable and manageable changes. Furthermore there is a fine balance between conducting holistic or targeted peer reviews. The former is the starting point, however the later might be most relevant, as it provides more focused items for the actual impact and policy change. Peer reviewers must be able to understand who will use the findings of the peer review report, and make sure that they are the relevant stakeholders to use the findings. A rapid turnover of civil servants in some national and regional contexts is a challenge for achieving that.

One last very relevant intervention underlined the fact that Europe has already substantial knowledge-base about regional innovation policies and innovation policy instrument mixes. This comes from previous exercises and platforms (recursive benchmarks, ERA watch, RIS, the Open Method of Coordination, etc, and now from the Smart Specialisation Platform). There is as well substantial connectivity across regional policy-makers, with extended networks build up during the past two decades. Yet, there seems to be somehow limited transnational policy learning. This indicates that the barriers for learning might be problems of insufficient organizational capacity in the regions, specially the less developed ones, more particularly the availability of resources (time, money, manpower). But also that there might also be barriers related to motivation and engagement. This leads me to think that, in cases of low motivation, the conditionality of EU regional economic support might be a necessary condition for securing regional governments’ involvement and engagement in policy learning and change.

Reference:

Foray, Dominique (2014): “From Smart Specialisation to Smart Specialisation Policy” in European Journal of Innovation Management  17 (4): 492-507

Smartspec is a research Project funded by the European Union FP7.

Photo credit: Spring in Virum (my own)

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