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Unlocking the potential of eco-innovation in the regions

05/09/2011

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Richard Tuffs is Director of the European Regions Research and Innovation Network (ERRIN) which assists and connects up regional representatives to eco-innovate.

With over 90 members and in its 10th anniversary year, ERRIN has the critical mass and experience to make a difference to eco-innovation at the regional level. Its work is centred on three ‘Ps’: raising its members’ profiles, helping them to launch joint projects and access EU funds – and influencing EU research and innovation policy from a regional perspective. ERRIN’s members are mainly regional representation offices in Brussels who work closely with their regional contacts such as regional governments and regional development agencies.

What exactly does ERRIN do on eco-innovation?

One of our big projects is helping set up a European eco-innovation platform as part of the Ecolink+ project, which is part of the EU Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme (CIP). This platform will bring together Europe’s top 100 eco-innovating small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

ERRIN’s strength lies in awareness raising and through the Ecolink+ project we are organising two stakeholder events, the first in Birmingham and the second to be held in Aragon where eco-innovative SMEs from ERRIN member regions can present their activities and seek partnerships with companies in other regions and thus support the internationalisation of innovative SMEs. These events raise awareness of the eco-innovation sector and the role of regional policy makers in supporting this growth area.

What else can regional policymakers do to promote eco-innovation?

One very concrete aspect relates to funding. In our Innovation Funding Working Group for example, which is one of 12 ERRIN working groups we host, we organised a seminar where we looked at innovation voucher schemes.

The people we invited were above all regional decision makers based in Brussels. These are our main target group. They feed back information to colleagues and SMEs in the regions.

Innovation voucher schemes have been set up because there was perceived to be a lack of access for SMEs to academic research. Vouchers not only provide funding for research but encourage more contact between universities and research centres and SMEs. Depending on the region, vouchers vary in value but the principle is that SMEs hand in to a university department in return for a concrete research task. In most regions these vouchers are paid out of public funds. Sometimes they can be combined with European structural funds. Their big advantage is a low administrative cost.

How do you help your members raise their profile?

We organise learning platforms where members can exchange best practice and meet one another. For example, in June 2011 we organised a meeting on clusters, techno-poles and centres of competitiveness which involved European Commission speakers and four regional case studies.

More and more often we are also a first port of call when the Commission wants to contact regional stakeholders for their views on a particular policy – the future of the Framework Programme for research for example. At our seminar on this topic in April we invited 35 speakers and had 150 participants who were able to get involved in detailed examination of the future policy through eight workshops. This seminar helped ERRIN develop its position for the consultation on the future research and innovation programme now named Horizon 2020.

Overall, our role is above all one of bringing people together. We are a network of people. You can talk about the technological aspects of eco- innovation but in the end it is people that pass the message on and also motivate other people to engage. They have to want to eco-innovate, to learn from each other and to promote their region. We also try to maintain contacts with the business world.

Is there competition as well as co-operation between regions?

Competition is there, of course, but it’s also a question of which direction you take with your regional strategy: you don’t have to be one of the ten most innovative to start as an eco-innovation region.

Two key elements as we see it are prioritisation and long-term planning. You need to pool resources to focus on a few technological areas. This is the essence of the Commission’s ‘smart specialisation’ strategy. The idea is that in regional innovation policy there is an exploratory process to find a few areas of technological potential. Indeed, current ideas on smart specialisation are promoting a more entrepreneurial bottom-up process which needs to involve a wide range of regional actors including SMEs. Smart specialisation should therefore be built on what already exists in the region and the strengths of local SMEs.

What is the regions’ role in eco-innovation versus national and local level?

The regions sit between the local level – with its immediate contact with local businesses – and the national level, with very indirect contact. They are well-placed to intermediate, close enough to the ground to know their actors, but with the bigger picture view and budget. They form a critical mass to define an eco-innovation strategy, make international links and help build networks and partnerships that can help local SMEs engage in European projects, benchmark themselves and learn from the best.

For each of our 12 working groups we organise regular programme development seminars where we reach out to the regions themselves, inviting representatives from government, business and academia to map out future strategies and projects. Our Climate and Energy Working Group is one of the most popular and has organised several seminars during Sustainable Energy Week and Green Week which highlight regional best practice in key domains.