ECO-INNOVERA is a major European network with the objective of boosting eco-innovation through cooperation in research. One of its objectives is to understand how systemic eco-innovation can be accelerated and taken up by industry, and especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
The participants in ECO-INNOVERA are agencies from 20 European countries that organise research programmes. They wanted to improve research project selection processes, so that key environmental, social and economic considerations are designed-in from the outset. If this is done effectively, it will mean that projects will be more directly relevant and transferable to industry because they will be tailored to real needs.
ECO-INNOVERA participants have therefore pooled their resources and published two calls for proposals for research projects. The first call closed in September 2011, and the second closed in July 2013. At the time of writing, projects from the second call were still to be selected. The first call was coordinated by Jean-Marc Mérillot, eco-innovation expert with the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME, Agence de l'Environnement et de la Maîtrise de l'Energie). In this interview, he discusses the results of the first call, and the lessons learned in terms of how project selection processes can influence efforts to develop eco-innovation.
Broadly, what are ECO-INNOVERA's objectives?
Jean-Marc Mérillot: Eco-innovera focuses on transnational research at European level, helping mainly SMEs and research organisations to work together in proposing or building new solutions. There is a need for what we call systemic innovation. A lot of research programmes dealing with environmental technologies consider themes like waste management and water management, but are highly focused on end-of-pipe solutions [editor's note: in other words, solutions that solve a particular problem without considering the wider context]. With ECO-INNOVERA, we are moving towards integrated resource management, to clean technologies and services and to new, very systemic, innovation.
How have you approached the ECO-INNOVERA calls for proposals?
Jean-Marc Mérillot: We started very early in the project on the first call, in order to have experience from the first call to prepare the second call, and also to have our first research results by the end of ECO-INNOVERA.
As all the organisations participating in ECO-INNOVERA were familiar with working with the European Commission and on the EU Seventh Framework Programme, we decided to follow this European framework, but added very specific criteria. However, we introduced ex-ante assessment criteria on environmental, social and economic impacts: this is very specific to ECO-INNOVERA.
In the first call, one theme was "paradigm change". When we looked at what we received from research organisations and enterprises, it seemed to us that this concept is useful for academic researchers but not for enterprise. So for the second call we decided to focus on new business models, because it is much easier for an enterprise to make proposals on this. In the first call, we also focused on new clean technologies and waste management or resource management.
What were the results of the first call and how did those inform the second call?
Jean-Marc Mérillot: There are two kinds of results. The first is of course the projects we selected. The second result has been to shed new light on the way we manage research programmes.
We received and reviewed 17 proposals and finally decided to fund six projects. The submission stage of the call was straightforward, but when we looked at the quality of the proposals, we finally arrived at eight or nine projects which were considered scientifically good proposals. Of the six funded projects, two deal with the first theme of paradigm change, one deals with cleantech, and three deal with waste management. These projects represent more than €7 million of research spending, with our contribution being a little more than €4 million.
[Editor's note: information about the projects selected is available at]
What was for us interesting in this process was to see how the ex-ante assessment criteria - social, economic and environmental - were considered by applicants and by reviewers. Ranking the proposals, taking into account these assessment criteria, was not easy and we had to learn. We asked the reviewers of the proposals to mark each proposal on each criteria from 0 to 5 (very good proposals). Then we looked at the differences in the marks for the same criteria and found that people can make different assessments, though they are working within the same evaluation framework, in particular for social impacts. That is of course part of the discussion of the scientific committee, to look at these differences in assessments and then to propose a consensus. There were differences, for example, in the way that social sciences people and technology people assessed the projects.
This is something we must look very carefully at because these issues in selection of projects tend to produce more conventional research projects, rather than highly innovative projects. As part of ECO-INNOVERA's overall conclusions, at the final conference, we will make suggestions on this point - about how the process of project selection can be improved, leading to more innovative projects.
The first call was a one-step call, meaning that proposers were required to submit their final proposals. For the second call we followed a two-step process. We asked for initial proposals in the first stage, which could then be developed into a final submission. It's a way to have a first discussion of a proposal, and to consider if there is really a systemic innovation behind it, and to also make recommendations to fine-tune the proposal. It is also a way to allow for consideration of the environmental, social and economic impacts of a proposal, and to raise specific issues that can be worked on within the resulting project. There is still a lot to work on to achieve really systemic eco-innovative projects. Eco-Innovera continues doing so.