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26.05.2014 |The role of citizen engagement in the Innovation process: Interview with Richard Tuffs, ERRIN Director

Our pre-conference interview series begins with Richard Tuffs, the Director of the European Regions Research and Innovation Network. ERRIN is a Brussels-based platform with a membership of over 90 regions which helps develop regional capacities in research and innovation. Ahead of the WIRE2014 Conference in Athens, Richard Tuffs discussed about the regional dimension of innovation and stressed the role of citizen engagement in the innovation process.

Why is the Regional dimension of the European Research and Innovation Agenda becoming increasingly important?

The regional dimension of innovation is becoming important for two key reasons. Firstly, there is now more emphasis and understanding of the systemic view of innovation. Innovation takes place within a context supported by a wide number of stakeholders including a public who will actually buy and use the innovation. Without citizen engagement the ‘innovation’ is an ‘idea’ on the shelf.

Secondly, the systemic view of innovation acknowledges that innovation can be supported by an effective innovation ecosystem where the triple helix actors: industry, research and regional or local governance align thinking and strategies to support innovative activity in the region. This place-based view of innovation has now been strengthened by the support for synergies between European Structural and Investment Funds and Horizon 2020 and other European funding instruments.

There are significant differences between national innovation policies in EU countries. What Europe can do to close the Innovation Divide among Regions? 

Less developed regions will be receiving over €180 billion between 2014-2020. This funding can be used to invest in research and innovation and support for small businesses. This funding, if it is combined with opportunities under Horizon 2020, will enable less developed regions to start to move up the innovation ladder and start to close the gap. This funding can be combined with three new opportunities under Horizon 2020: twinning and teaming actions as well as ERA chairs. These funding opportunities will help strengthen the scientific excellence and innovation capacities of institutions that have not yet reached their full potential.

Teaming aims at the creation of centres of excellence in Member States and regions that are not performing well in research and innovation. It will focus on the preparatory phase for setting up or upgrading and modernising an institution, facilitated by a teaming process with a leading counterpart elsewhere in Europe.Twinning aims at strengthening a defined field of research in an emerging institution through links with at least two other internationally-leading institutions. Twinning will be supported through measures such as staff exchanges, expert visits, short-term on-site or virtual training, workshops; conference attendance; organisation of joint summer school type activities dissemination and outreach activities.

Finally, ERA Chairs will offer funding to attract outstanding academics to institutions with a clear potential for research excellence. Regions that are able to use these opportunities combined with Structural Funds and Horizon 2020 will be able to close the innovation divide.

What are the most important issues Member States and Regions need to get right now to maximise the transformative potential of Smart Specialisation?

Smart Specialisation is a relatively new process and the more that regions engage in the process of developing and implementing Smart Specialisation strategies the more they become aware of the complexities of the process. There are two key areas that need to be done well. The first is the ‘internal’ dimension which involves investment in time and effort in the entrepreneurial discovery process to develop the strategy involving a wide range of partners and developing a joined up approach where the structural funds, business and research community start a constructive dialogue. Getting this process right will help develop a robust strategy.

However, this strategy needs to be benchmarked and compared to strategies in other regions. This is the second challenge – the ‘external dimension’. Regions need to be increasingly able to identify their competitive advantages and how they compare with potentially rival regions. There is a new benchmarking tool on the Smart Specialisation Platform to give some help for regions to find regions similar to themselves in Europe. However, it is not just a question of comparing but also finding regions with similar specialisations where there are opportunities to join together to develop strong value chains. Regions are becoming aware of these opportunities and the Vanguard Initiative started by the Flanders region  and now supported by around 18 regions is a good example of regions working together to strengthen their own industrial policy and advanced manufacturing sectors and encourage collaboration between regions.

What are the lessons learnt and challenges for Regions when implementing RIS3 strategies?

Most regions have drawn up their RIS3 strategies and now the implementation phase is about to begin. The key lesson to be learned or current challenge is how to get the policy mix right to implement the RIS3 strategy and how to make sure that the region can optimize the synergies between the Structural Funds and Horizon 2020. This will mean that partners involved in developing the RIS3 strategy will be called upon to implement it. This will mean some rethinking in some regions where in the past regional strategies were  developed and all too often left in the drawer or lacked key partners to implement the strategies. This means that future strategies will not only be a more public-private partnership but also a place and people partnership. As stated above, innovation is now much more about involving citizens in the process of innovation (see for example smart cities) and using this innovation to develop a much more focused approach of science and technology with and for society.

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