Universities as the motors of regional development

Two major trends have given a positive new direction to the way in which regions build their strengths in research and innovation: the rise of transversal technologies and sustainable development.

A recent report by the European University Association about the role of universities in innovation ecosystems shows how different regions specialise through the smart combination of similar technologies and similar sets of challenges.

The field of digital technologies, referred to as artificial intelligence, is a particularly good example of how transversal technologies give a new twist to the application of knowledge. Artificial intelligence is widely applicable across sectors; it can be used in various areas such as mass surveillance, trading on stock exchanges and medical diagnosis.

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While the technologies are similar, the application depends on the challenges in the region. For example, an industrial region would specialise in applying these technologies to the ‘internet of things’, where manufacturing processes are guided by intense data collection and flows of data between different machines.

Other regions might have identified new uses of big data to promote public health and invest in technology for better clinical trials, or to better understand local health challenges.

Likewise, advanced materials, with their wide range of different applications, are used to meet many diverse local challenges. This way, the regions do not necessarily specialise in a specific technology, but in the application of the technology to a specific challenge.

Similar challenges and common objectives

The challenges themselves are also becoming more transversal across European regions. This is, to a large extent, because the challenges of developed societies are somewhat similar, such as ageing populations, increased mobility, and economic competitiveness.

Moreover, the rapidly growing awareness about sustainable development and the alignment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is bringing common objectives and understanding about the nature of the challenges.

It has also given local authorities and universities a common framework for further aligning priorities, for example, with regard to mitigating climate change through renewable energy or protecting maritime biodiversity in coastal regions.

It is in the combination of transversal technologies and the SDGs that regions can develop strategies for specialisation: the application of new technologies and commonly recognised challenges.

While this might sound like a familiar recipe for specialisation, the new element is that transversal technologies and the Sustainable Development Goals both present a simpler and more holistic framework as a foundation for alignment within the local ecosystem and between different ecosystems.

Universities can play a leading role here due to their systemic competences as large players within the ecosystem that can develop the knowledge to identify the challenges and propose technical and social solutions.

Fostering regional competitiveness

In the European Union, the ‘Research and Innovation Strategies for Smart Specialisation’ plan – known as RIS3 or Smart Specialisation Strategies – facilitates this by capturing existing or emerging regional research and innovation strengths in energy, agri-food or industrial modernisation (from advanced manufacturing and artificial intelligence to social economy and sports).

The current seven-year policy framework (2014-21) aims to apply research outcomes to innovation, with the objective of fostering regional competitiveness.

Building on the proven effectiveness of developing smart specialisation as a useful tool to use EU Structural Funds for regional innovation, it is expected that the next seven-year programme, which is currently under debate in Brussels, will foster the provision of skills for innovation.

Initially seen by regional governments as minor actors at the service of smart specialisation, universities across Europe have progressively increased their engagement in the definition and implementation of these strategies.

Universities have evolved from being, simplistically speaking, ‘skills providers’ to ‘drivers of change’ by enhancing connections between their university education and research missions and the economic and social objectives of their region. Moreover, university programmes are increasingly providing education and skills for the development of an entrepreneurial mindset in university students.

EU Smart Specialisation Strategies are good instruments for long-term planning and for building resilient partnerships between regional governments, social actors, businesses and education and research institutions. Universities and regional governments across Europe have provided evidence of their effectiveness, also in the development of sustainable EU innovation ecosystems.

Inter-regional collaboration

The new Smart Specialisation Strategies are expected to have an ever-greater impact on the European innovation ecosystems.

While avoiding overlap, synergies between Structural Funds for research and innovation and other instruments in the EU Framework Programme Horizon Europe, such as the European Innovation Ecosystems and the European Innovation Council, will be fostered. They will also be linked to the new EU industrial policy currently under development.

In addition, the overall portfolio of funds for innovation will include opportunities for inter-regional collaboration.

Universities together with business partners are the motors of regional development. By fostering the link between education, research and innovation, the regions will benefit in the long term, and thus so will Europe.

Lidia Borrell-Damian is director of research and innovation at the European University Association (EUA). Thomas Jørgensen is senior policy coordinator at the EUA. The association represents more than 800 universities and higher education associations in 48 countries across Europe.