The EU ‘Smart Specialisation Platform’ will help European regions to focus on what they do best for the maximum competitive advantage and return on EU funds.
EU regions expect the European Commission to help them identify their best assets and develop them. All regions are due to launch smart specialisation strategies, elaborated with the private sector, that focus on a limited number of priorities with growth potential. In June 2011, the Commission launched a Smart Specialisation Platform, hosted by the Joint Research Centre, to help them on their way.
The idea behind smart specialisation is simple. The most advanced regions invest in enabling technologies, such as nanotechnology, while the less advanced innovate in their application to particular sectors, such as nanotechnology in wine quality control. The concept suggests it makes more sense to focus EU resources on a few areas where you can really excel, rather than spreading them thinly across many fields. It also avoids duplicate investments when cross-border co-operation is possible.
At a workshop organised by the European Association of Development, it became evident that for some regions, primarily from old Member States, smart specialisation is already the norm. But for regions from new Member States, it is unfamiliar and their representatives say it may be hard to convince stakeholders to drop a much broader approach to development.
As of late 2011, the Smart Specialisation Platform becomes more concrete, with working groups devoted to particular themes. The Commission has proposed one such group dedicated to developing better indicators for smart specialisation and another one to understanding how a region can identify its natural assets. Regions can put forward their own proposals too. Eco-innovation could be one. Frontrunner regions are Lower Austria, on eco-buildings, and Cantabria, on renewable energy.
Regions will have to develop strategies that are in line with Europe’s 2020 goals on jobs and growth. In draft legislative proposals on cohesion policy for 2014-20, the Commission sets out a minimum budget for several EU priorities. For example, in more developed and transition regions, at least 80% of European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) money will be allocated to energy efficiency, renewables, innovation and improving the competitiveness of SMEs. In less developed regions it will be only 50%, to reflect their broader development needs.
Beyond these up-front allocations, Member States are asked to develop Partnerships Contracts with the Commission that set out investment priorities. Achieving these will win countries extra funds. Smart specialisation strategies will help Member States decide how to spend their pre-allocated funds and what to include in their Partnership Contracts. They may be region-specific but they will benefit Europe as a whole.