The future of regions in Europe hinges on “Smart Specialisation”

Europe by night © NASA

Europe by night © NASA

How can regions be helped in recognizing their advantages and in putting forward their own strategies? Researchers from EPFL have developed a tool that will help them to develop a different kind of economy.

In 1796, Pierre-Hyacinthe Caseaux, a nail-maker living in Morez in the Jura region of France, had the idea of using wire to make a frame for a pair of spectacles. This was a rapidly expanding market: he built a workshop, and other artisans followed him in this activity. Then the state authorities built a school. Soon, Morez became the world capital for the manufacture of spectacles. “That which the master nail-maker and his region had applied intuitively was already an example of ‘smart specialisation’” explains Dominique Foray, who holds the Chair of Economics and Management of Innovation (CEMI) at EPFL. “Today, the Lake Geneva region is an excellent example of what a region can achieve in terms of research and development, in particular in the areas of medical devices and the life sciences. In contrast, Switzerland has some big sectors of the economy that aren’t ‘smart’ at all, notably tourism, which is very weak in R&D and innovation, although its needs in this area are immense”, notes Professor Foray.

Towards the knowledge economy

Professeur Foray has developed the concept of “smart specialisation” within the framework of a working group mandated in 2005 by the European Commission. The objective was to counter the deficit in terms of research and innovation within the EU. His conclusion was that Europe seemed fragmented and lacking in vision, with regions and countries tending to envision their future in a similar way. “Travelling across Europe, we noticed that each region or country wanted to show off its center of technology or innovation – whether bio, nano, info, or eco – but was ignoring their advantages as well as those of neighboring areas, and without a real correlation between public and private research or economic specialisation.” This problem also exists in the United States. While some regions have created world-leading centers of competence, many others have given up: they don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle, and are powerless to prevent a brain drain. The knowledge economy relies on a balance between training, research, and industrial and entrepreneurial strategies.

The FutuRIS Award

Specialisation is not a synonym for monoculture, that could result in an incapacity to move forward. It needs to be connected to other domains that will prevent it from running out of steam: “choosing the densest part of the forest to be able to move from branch to branch”. This highly pragmatic piece of advice allows one to keep all options open.
The concept has become a central element of European strategy for 2020. For its part, the European Commission has put in place a platform of services dedicated to regions that wish to develop and implement their strategy of intelligent specialisation. Intelligent specialisation could even become a condition for the obtention of the crucial structural funds. Professeur Foray’s article La spécialisation intelligente : du concept académique à l’instrument de politique d’innovation européenne, the goal of which is to clarify and develop the concept, won the FutuRIS Award in 2011.