University – Industry Connectivity within Thematic Smart Specialisation Partnerships

How to create sustainable growth across Europe through transnational university – industry partnerships enabling new value chains

Fatime Barbara Hegyi
European Commission, Joint Research Center

Age Mariussen
University of Vaasa

Ruslan Rakhmatullin
European Commission, Joint Research Center

Background and Objectives
Smart Specialisation is promoted through a European Union policy for sustainable growth through place-based development. The process of Smart Specialisation (S3) has encouraged regional policymakers across Europe to engage in experimental learning, which led to a novel approach to implementation focusing on combining regional innovation eco-systems with transnational networks, referred to as thematic Smart Specialisation partnerships. As of November 2018, the three thematic S3 platforms for Agri-food, Energy and Industrial Modernisation account for 28 thematic S3 partnership working in close cooperation with quadruple helix partners, such as regional and national governments, clusters, firms, universities, and NGOs combining smart place-based strategies with transnational innovation networks. This bottom up component in this process has resulted in a wide variety of partnerships, thus has created new forms of industry-university partnerships at regional and transnational levels. Consequently, these emerging networks include regions, which are very different in terms of innovation ecosystems, but never the less connected through a shared thematic focus, which has resulted in a rich variety of organizational solutions and approaches.
The thematic S3 practice depicts diverse forms of institutionalized university – industry connectivity across regions. In case of regions with advanced industrial structures combined with developed innovation eco-systems, a deep rooted university-industry connectivity can be observed, where leading universities are well connected to firms and universities within the region and in other regions too. These universities are well positioned in markets and value chains. However, while a significant number of European regions and countries may have advanced industries, they still lack science and research components in their innovation eco-systems. In these cases, university-industry connectivity is weak or non-existent. As a result, many of their core industries continue competing against locations offering radically lower costs, particularly in Asia and Africa.
Starting in 2015, as the evaluations of the first phase of Smart Specialization came on the table, this problem was revealed. In 2016, three specific challenges in using transnational learning to assist smart vertical regional strategies were identified :
• Challenge 1: How to develop a stronger place-based regional innovation eco-system through improved internal connectivity between industry and universities
• Challenge 2: How to grow a larger, stronger and more dynamic regional innovation eco-system by opening it up and connecting it to macro-regional and European universities and industries.
• Challenge 3: How to create economic growth through innovation expanding across borders, in ways which enable new entrepreneurial discovery processes creating new European industries and clusters.
Thus, the aims of the interregional collaborations via the thematic S3 platforms are multi-fold. They represent joint transnational network of knowledge and expertise and work together to develop and enhance European value chains in specific areas linked to participating regions’ S3 priority areas. The areas in which they collaborate, they aim to exploit complementing research and innovation capabilities, while building up necessary capacities and overcoming interregional fragmentation and lack of critical mass across the EU. Also, their work is expected to improve the existing business environment by identifying barriers to innovation, new investment or skills. Thus, the thematic S3 partnerships connect regional knowledge spaces with the aim to realise joint investment projects.