EU Science Hub

Place-based innovation for sustainability


The new Commission has made “sustainable development”, together with the digital agenda, the core element of its overall growth strategy for the present decade. From a global perspective the European Green Deal (European Commission 2020a,b) represents on the one hand the EU’s contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – Europe’s Moonshot mission of the 21st Century – and on the other hand the EU’s “smart specialization strategy” – Europe’s attempt to develop at world level a leading position in sustainable development. The Paris Convention provides from this perspective the overall European framework for national, regional and local city commitments with the EC designing and organizing the accompanying financial and regulatory incentive schemes (such as the climate pact, the Green Deal investment plan and the Just Transition fund, the necessary reforms in the European semester, etc.). Viewing the European Green Deal as a combination between a European 21st Century “Moonshot mission” and an internal, “smart specialization strategy” raises though also many, new challenges as to the respective governance responsibilities of the different actors. In this short paper, we present some first reflections on the way insights from science, technology and innovation studies on the one hand and regional studies on the other could help in the design of “green deal” policies at European, national and regional/urban level and pulled together provide an intellectual framework for multi-level governance. Such “science for policy” reflections can serve as basis for more in depth discussions between EU policy makers as well as research scholars in the academic community. In a first section, we first review some of the arguments as to why the European Green Deal represents today primarily an innovation-led development strategy for Europe. We describe how historically the new EGD strategy represents a re-arranging of priorities, making sustainable development as the overriding strategic priority: the opportunity for Europe to position itself globally and locally as green specialisation area through innovation. Second and more specifically at the governance level, the new EGD strategy raises several crucial multi-level governance challenges. Players who were not really at the centre of the European integration process such as regions; or totally absent, such as cities and communities are now likely to play a crucial role. We claim that an effective innovation-driven policy with a directionality requires a proper division of tasks between the EC, national and regional/local governance levels. Third, we focus on how to detect and overcome possible trade-offs involved in prioritizing such a green development strategy compared to the more traditional objective of smart growth as put forward in the previous EU strategies. Through a more explicit recognition and analysis of these trade-offs, we believe a better framework can be sketched for the real, new growth opportunities linked to the Green Deal. In the second section of the paper, we discuss in more detail each of the relevant challenges and trade-offs facing different types of regions in their movements towards the goals of the Green Deal and the issues which will need to be explicitly considered in the appropriate design of regional policy schemes. Second, we address the particular role cities might play in this process. Contrary to many other regions in the world, Europe’s population is heavily urbanized with cities accounting for the majority of carbon production and consumption-related emissions. This observation provides again greater opportunities for targeted interventions aimed at enhancing sustainability. For the Green Deal to be embraced locally throughout Europe it will be essential to engage all cities and regions across the EU. We argue that the accumulated experience of smart specialization strategies is very valuable in this context, but that these will need to take the next step embracing transformative innovation for systemic transitions, reaping the opportunities and alleviate the threats of the global ecological and digital transitions. We make some concrete proposals, what we call “learning modules” on how this could be done. In a third section, we address the need for a continuous “science for policy” approach, particularly in case of a radically new strategic policy framework such as the European Green Deal. The implementation and design of the European Green Deal would benefit, we argue from a Science for Policy Platform on Place-based innovation for Sustainability. This platform could both support local actors and channel findings on local innovation barriers or early trade-off alerts to the EU and national policy making.