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Smart Specialisation on the move: reflections on six years of implementation and prospects for the future


Six years have passed since Smart Specialisation was incorporated in European Cohesion Policy and became the reference framework for innovation policy in European regions and countries. One year before the beginning of the new Cohesion Policy cycle, it is now the right time to strike a balance in the Smart Specialisation experience and support the design of the upcoming generation of policy strategies with sound evidence on what has worked and what not. At the time of writing, the dreadful COVID-19 pandemic is sweeping the planet, causing severe health, social and economic hardship. Such difficult circumstances triggered the deployment of a wide array of policy initiatives at European Union (EU), national and regional levels to mitigate the COVID-19 economic and social crisis, along with the necessary health measures. Governments have made available a considerable set of initiatives and amount of resources to strengthen the welfare provided by the public, to halt employment and income losses, and to try to mend the scarring of the economic fabric. Rightly, this is where most political and social pressure is being applied at present. However, the way out of the crisis is not just a matter of preventing the destruction of the economic fabric and restoring the pre-existent production capacity. A key for a sustainable post-pandemic recuperation is to discover and launch new and innovative activities that can provide high-quality growth opportunities and tackle the social and environmental challenges of our age. In that respect, the European institutions designed new stimulus packages, which will be supported by an unprecedented financial effort. The main goal is to steer the EU on a development path necessarily focused on environmental sustainability, territorial and social cohesion, with some of the key articulated objectives being the transition to a carbon-neutral economy, harnessing the possibilities of digitalization, fostering technological change in the context of globalization, and also contributing to strengthening European value chains and industrial capacity. Against this background, within the future of place-based industrial and innovation policies, the Smart Specialisation approach can play a central role in supporting innovative activities that help territories discover new opportunities for more sustainable and inclusive economies. A necessary condition for this to happen is to make a critical examination of the Smart Specialisation experience starting from the processes deployed in the territories and using data on the real implementation of the policy. The papers in this special issue identify and analyse five different challenges and opportunities that emerged during the implementation of the Smart Specialisation policy: Policy capacity and institutional factors that affect the governance of policy processes. Prioritization and selectivity of investment decisions. The design of incentive schemes to mobilize entrepreneurial forces. The analytical base in support of policy design. The potential of green growth. This editorial is structured as follows. The next section provides a brief introduction to the genesis of the Smart Specialisation policy. The third section describes the content of the contributions included in the special issue. The fourth section concludes by providing recommendations for the future of the Smart Specialisation policy.