Smart specialisation, the mainstay of the EU innovation policy for the past decade, comes under sharp scrutiny in a new book launched today, 26 September, at the EU Joint Research Centre, in Seville.

Based on the idea that the state supports developing technologies and innovation by nurturing the capabilities and specialisms within regions, smart specialisation has been widely described as the largest industrial policy experiment ever undertaken. Yet its record in reviving lagging regions has been mixed.

The new book is co-edited by industrial strategy experts Professor Phil Tomlinson and Dr Felicia Fai from the University of Bath along with Dr Carlo Corradini (University of Birmingham), Dr Mariachiara Barzotto (University of Newcastle) and Dr Sandrine Labory (University of Ferrara). It uncovers success stories from across Europe, while highlighting inherent problems in the policy framework. It also makes key recommendations on how European innovation policy can be adapted to boost lagging regions.

“The aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis has made the last decade particularly challenging for Europe with stagnant growth, weak productivity and widening regional divides. As Brexit unfolds, we are living through the implications of increasing public discontent. Ensuring industrial strategy is effectively enabling regions to flourish is more important than ever,” said Professor Phil Tomlinson, Deputy Director of the Centre for Governance, Regulation and Industrial Strategy.

“The ability of smart specialisation to transform the prospects of lagging regions has been seriously questioned. In part, this is because it can unduly favour more dynamic and leading regions. These regions are blessed with stronger technological capabilities and business networks, and as such are best placed to generate new and exciting innovation projects that are ripe for state funding,” added co-author Dr Felicia Fai.

Sally Hardy, CEO Regional Studies Association added: “This book is the result of a Regional Studies Association Policy Expo Grant to Professor Phil Tomlinson. It brings together several years of research in a policy facing manner. It’s extremely pleasing that the book is already gaining traction at the European Commission."

The authors make five recommendations to take forward more successful smart specialisation strategies for lagging regions:

  • Build upon place-specific assets. Policymakers need to avoid trying to replicate policies that may have worked well in quite different places.

  • Enhance the Regional Innovation Eco-system. This requires policies that strengthen local institutions and regional anchors, such as public research centres and higher education institutes, and build strong network links with business.

  • Invest in technological upgrading and make technologies such as 4G and 5G mobile telephony more widely accessible. Facilitate crossovers between manufacturing and services and knowledge transfer mechanisms.

  • Strengthen extra-regional collaboration. EU policymakers could make more of building collaborative links between leading and lagging regions so the latter can benefit from technology and knowledge sharing.

  • Embrace social innovation and the Foundation Economy, in other words, the essential goods and services of everyday life which are the main economic activity in many lagging regions. Current innovation policy tends to focus upon a narrow set of advanced technology sectors, which largely reside in leading regions.

Revitalising Lagging Regions: Smart Specialisation and Industry 4.0’ (Taylor and Francis) is published in association with the Regional Studies Association.