Smart specialisation: Building on Europe's strengths
You may be good at maths, art or sport, but you are probably not great at all three. The same is probably true of the region where you live, where the strengths of local industries rely on a unique combination of resources, knowledge or expertise. As a major provider of research funding, the European Union is seeking to build on these regional and sectoral strengths in order to drive growth and prosperity across the 28-nation bloc.
The approach, known as smart specialisation, is designed to enable European regions to focus on their strengths by targeting research funding at those science and technology areas where local industries, universities and research centres already have an established lead or strong background.
The strategy, part of the Europe 2020 plan for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, helps to avoid the problem of unnecessary duplication of research activities and prevents funding being spread too thinly at the risk of limiting its impact in any one area.
Significantly, it also contributes to cooperation between businesses, public entities and knowledge institutions within a region and between regions – benefiting, as a whole, European citizens, the European economy and Europe’s competitive advantage internationally.
From 2014 to 2020, EU regional and investment funds will include a new strategic approach to economic development through smart specialisation, focused on developing a vision, identifying competitive advantage, setting strategic priorities and making use of smart policies to maximise the knowledge-based development potential of any region, strong or weak, high-tech or low-tech.
Many regions and industries across Europe have already gained considerably from approaches similar to the new smart specialisation strategy, building on regional strengths and combining different funding sources for increased impact.
The University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in the United Kingdom is a prime example of how the approach pays off. Established as a GBP 15 million (nearly EUR 18 million) collaboration between the University of Sheffield and aerospace giant Boeing, with support from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the UK government, the AMRC has since gone on to establish a cluster of industry-focused manufacturing R&D centres and supporting facilities.
These include Nuclear AMRC, focused on developing nuclear and other energy technologies, the AMRC Training Centre for advanced apprenticeship training and higher-level skills for high-value manufacturing, and NAMTEC, which provides a technical support programme to the UK manufacturing supply chain.
“AMRC builds on Sheffield’s centuries-long history of metalworking expertise and innovation. Since its earliest days, the University of Sheffield has been a world leader in metallurgy and engineering research, working closely with local industry to develop new manufacturing technologies and techniques,” says Tim Chapman, communications manager, University of Sheffield AMRC.
He adds: “The AMRC with Boeing works alongside companies to identify, research and resolve advanced manufacturing problems for aerospace and other high-value manufacturing sectors. All research at the AMRC with Boeing is determined by members and industrial partners, ensuring that the work focuses on commercial requirements and provides sustainable value.”
Smart benefits, from footwear to cars
The collaboration-enhancing benefits of smart specialisation are equally apparent in the results of another EU-funded project that brought together more than 60 partners in 14 European countries, all of them leading players in the European footwear industry or with significant contributions to make to the sector.
With funding of more than EUR 20 million – more than half of it provided under the European Commission’s Sixth Framework Programme – the CEC-MADE-SHOE project (‘Custom, environment, and comfort made shoe’) helped to reinvent the European footwear industry, allowing it to become less traditional and more innovative.
By developing new manufacturing processes, evaluating new business models and researching new materials, the project contributed to such innovations as biodegradable shoes, seamless footwear, smart shoes that have the ability to adapt to environmental conditions and advanced manufacturing technologies for customised products.
Many companies continue to reap benefits from the outcome of the project, having gone on to receive funding under the ERDF.
In Portugal, research results were further exploited by the national shoe cluster (gathering shoe companies, production technology producers and research organizations), taking advantages of its characteristics of high flexibility and short response time to build unique competitive advantages.
This was supported by COMPETE, an integrated set of funding instruments that use structural funds to co-finance projects and activities covering the entire innovation cycle, including research, innovation, demonstration, pilot lines and internationalisation. Results were also transferred to other industries facing similar challenges (like textile, metalworking, furniture, etc.), boosting the sectorial and geographical coverage and economic and social impact of research investments made at European level.
Similarly, the EURO SHOE initiative (‘Development of the processes and implementation of the management tools for the extended user oriented shoe enterprise’) also had a major impact on shoe manufacturing in Europe.
“EURO SHOE developed a new concept of shoe production based on customisation: that is, going from what the customer desires to the customer getting the final product in a few hours,” the project team notes.
The EU-funded project aimed to design, develop and implement methods, tools, machines, logistics and software for footwear-makers to be able to mass produce individually customised shoes.
It achieved that and much more, including contributing to the development of an urban mini-factory and research centre in Vigevano, Italy, where project results were validated and demonstrated.
Also in this case, European (research projects), national (infrastructures and running costs) and private (complementary machinery, software, etc.) funds and resources were combined to build a unique pilot line, supporting a large number of stakeholders. Based on the success of these projects and many others, the European Commission is focusing on smart specialisation as an effective strategy to distribute research funding and to ensure a better coverage of the entire innovation cycle.