Skip to main content

A new approach to regional innovation in the European Union

Cardiff University research helped operationalise the EU Smart Specialisation programme, the largest regional innovation programme in the world.

Conventional regional policy has been chiefly concerned with distributing economic activity between regions. Professor Kevin Morgan’s work (alongside former Cardiff University academic, Professor Philip Cooke) on regional innovation policy, however, helped to shift the policy focus to include innovation within each region. A new approach aiming to promote indigenous development from within weak regions rather than simply attracting branch plants from stronger regions.

The research stressed the role of inter-organisational networks in knowledge exchange and the developmental value of intangible assets like trust, voice, social capital and governance.

Shaping European Commission guidance

Building on the Cardiff University team’s existing research and longstanding collaboration with the European Commission since the 1990s, Professor Morgan led a research consortium funded by the European Commission to operationalise and support the Smart Specialisation Strategy (S3, also referred to as RIS3).

Smart Specialisation was a scheme to support innovation and development, especially in less developed regions, as part of the EU’s European Regional Development Fund 2014-2020. Its aim was to enable each region to identify and develop its own competitive advantages.

The research compiled case studies from over a dozen regions to identify common issues for regional innovation across all regions. Professor Morgan focused on the governance of Smart Specialisation projects. Key findings included:

  • the significance of governance in the development and implementation of S3, noting the roles taken by different organisations and their interaction, both in the design and implementation of strategies and in the development of entrepreneurial discovery processes
  • the particular challenges faced by Member States and regions with less-developed research and innovation systems to design and maximise the impact of their S3 plans
  • the weak link between S3 and social innovation
  • the need for improved metrics, evaluation and monitoring of S3 plans, including the potential offered by well-developed peer review assessment procedures
  • the identification of institutional and systemic bottlenecks for S3 at national and regional levels
  • the need to strike a balance between continuity and novelty and between intra-regional and extra-regional learning

Professor Morgan’s findings were used to frame the governance principles for the implementation of the S3 programme.

States and capitals of the European Union pinned with golden pins on a cork globe.

Reforming and developing regional innovation

The Smart Specialisation project provided the first empirical findings in Europe on the practical experience of the S3 programme and the challenges that less developed regions face. This includes forging innovation networks between academia and industry, developing inclusive governance arrangements, and embracing the concept of social innovation.

These findings, especially concerning the significance of innovation networks and inclusive and iterative governance arrangements, were used by the European Commission and regional European governments to inform regional policy thinking and guidance.

The research influenced a new strategic approach to regional development in two specific regions: the Basque Country, through PCTI Euskadi 2020, and Wales, through the Welsh Government’s Foundational Economy (2019) strategy.

Professor Morgan’s research has also been used to develop the future of Research and Innovation policy for the next Framework period, 2021-2027.

(Professor Morgan’s) work was instrumental in the design and implementation of the RIS3 Program, which today concerns every single region in the EU and channels approximately 40 billion euros in European Cohesion policy aid.
Dr Mikel Landabaso Alvarez Director of the EC Joint Research Centre for Growth and Innovation

Meet the team

Key contacts

Selected publications