The next six months are an important period for policy makers, the university sector and many other stakeholders engaged in Research and Innovation Smart Specialisation Strategies (RIS3). With the ongoing preparations for the EU’s 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework, the European Workshop on Smart Specialisation (RIS3), entitled “Universities as Regional Lead Institutions”, took place on 13 November 2018. It provided an opportunity to take stock of past achievements and identify emerging priorities for building successful European innovation ecosystems in the post-2020 period.
The event was jointly organised by EUA, Universities Austria (UNIKO), and the Conference of Italian University Rectors (CRUI), in close collaboration with the EUA Expert Group on RIS3. It took place at University of Graz in Austria. The workshop was part of the events of the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the EU.
Many high-level speakers from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy, as well as from the Committee of the Regions, joined university leaders and national and regional public authorities at the event to discuss the strategic roles that universities play in RIS3 and in their innovation ecosystems. They addressed the impact of universities on their innovation ecosystems, entrepreneurial education and training, the interaction between research and innovation strategies, the monitoring of RIS3 and the need in post-2020 policies for regional research and innovation.
The workshop participants emphasised that universities, in fulfilling their education and research missions, are lead institutions in their regions. Together with business partners they are the motors of regional development. They also confirmed that Smart Specialisation strategies are good instruments for long-term planning and partnerships, which are key issues in the development of innovation ecosystems.
The provision of skills for innovation, beyond technological undertakings, was presented as a central focus in the agenda of the European Structural and Investment Funds for the next EU Financial Framework. EUA Vice-President, Martine Rahier, highlighted the essential role of students in the entrepreneurial discovery process. It was claimed that the entrepreneurial spirit is not exclusive to the business sector, but to people, organisations and universities that take responsibility for shaping their innovation ecosystems. Universities across Europe are increasingly involved in entrepreneurship education. They are well aware that this means not only supporting project development and start-ups but also creating an entrepreneurial mindset in their student and staff, which is an essential asset for regional transformation and development.
Universities, to provide entrepreneurial education and training, need to enhance their leading role in their regions. “As people are losing trust in many traditional institutions, universities can be seen as trusted and independent ‘knowledge brokers’”, said Professor Philip McCann from Sheffield University alluding to the third mission of universities, meaning societal engagement and innovation.
The Graz workshop gave visibility to good practice examples from regional lead institutions and universities from the Balearic Islands up to Finland, and from the UK to Poland. These examples showed that universities are playing a pivotal role in RIS3 as they are actively involved in this strategy not only as knowledge providers to sustain firms‘ innovation projects, but also in the design and implementation of the strategy. Universities are also playing an important role in facilitating the connections between different stakeholders both within and between regions.
The workshop concluded with requests from the Committee of the Regions for increased stakeholder’s interactions and by the European Commission for an effective combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches. The recommendations of the 9th Week of Innovative Regions in Europe (WIRE), which took place in Innsbruck, Austria in July, were validated by the audience. The outcomes of these discussions will inform the EUA policy recommendations in the area of regional innovation in the coming months.