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Epanet, a multi-actor network to support knowledge-base of a region that does not have its own university

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Epanet, the Research and Innovation Programme of South Ostrobothnia, aims to develop a new kind of research culture and co-operation between universities, research institutes, enterprises and local organisations. The focus of activities is on the science based research and development work with private firms and public service producers, enhancing of the further university-level studies in region and popularisation of the research results. University Network Epanet has revealed to be an organisational innovation in contemporary academic world. It enlarges R&D functions in a region that has no traditional university by establishing a  network of applied research work in the region, activating innovation culture by more challenging research projects and allowing the local community of researchers and development agents to enlarge their functions.

The first programme agreement on Epanet was signed in spring 2001 by five universities (University of Helsinki, Sibelius Academy, University of Tampere, Tampere University of Technology, University of Vaasa), Seinäjoki University of Applied Sciences (then Polytechnic), Regional Council of South Ostrobothnia, Employment and Economic Development Centre of South Ostrobothnia, South Ostrobothnia Health Care District, City of Seinäjoki, Provincial Government of West Finland and University Association of South Ostrobothnia. At the starting phases of the work structural funds of the European Union (ERDF and ESF) had decisive role in assuring the resource base. At the beginning of 2004 University Consortium of Seinäjoki was founded to strengthen the co-operation of the universities and to plan new level of university services in research, development and education. In summer 2005 also University of Turku started their first professorship in Seinäjoki. The second programme agreement was signed in 2008. The new signatories that joined in the programme were University of Turku, Foodwest Ltd and Seinäjoki Technology Centre. The signatories represent unique partnership between regional authorities and national academic organisations. The agreement expresses common will of signatories in order to create serious development and research work in the region.

Original goal of Epanet was to found 12 new research groups or professorships. The areas of research were selected in order to best contribute the regional development of South Ostrobothnia. The emphasis was laid in the applied research and development work and in the expanding branches of the region. Nationally new, interdisciplinary, applied subjects were preferred. Finally, five categories of research were chosen: material technology, information technology, economics and business administration, food industry and welfare. Nowadays the core of the network consists of over 20 new, fixed-term research professors (5 years at the first phase), each of whom gathers a group of 3–5 researchers. The teams form a new kind of research community combining several disciplines and universities. Their social and professional networks reach the entire Finnish and international scientific world through the partners.

In university–industry interaction new modes of interaction is needed. Especially there is demand for concepts that are at strategic level, represents ambitiousness and are also available to small and medium size firms. Nowadays only minor group of private firms exploit scientific research in strategic development of business. In global division of labour western economies need more knowledge- and quality oriented development paths. Also public services have faced new demand of ever higher level of quality in services and at the same time limits in financial resources. Rethinking and wider international knowledge is needed. Challenge for new policy is bigger outside of the metropolitan regions like in semi-rural and rural communities.
Bottom-up policy is possible and rewarding also in development of higher education services. By networking strategy scattered resources can be combined and new level of innovation policy realised. Well prepared and co-operative policy can create enthusiastic atmosphere that cause numerous consequential positive effects. There is need for innovative, flexible and demand-based university level services to ensure the resilience of the regional economies.