Knowledge & Innovation-driven Regional Growth and Smart Specialisation


The three growth dimensions (smart, inclusive, sustainable) put forward by the Europe 2020 Strategy brought about a new holistic and place-based understanding of competitiveness: No longer are knowledge & innovation seen as policy silos but as the lens through which structural economic change becomes visible. Investments should be placed where distinctive regional strengths suggest opportunities to move up in international value chains.

Smart specialisation is a policy concept for priority-setting where a region can benefit from specialising in a particular area of science and technology. Regional development and growth become knowledge- and innovation-driven and thereby stimulate structural change.

Research and innovation strategies for smart specialisation [RIS3] put the concept into practice by defining the most promising areas of a region‘s comparative advantages. The EU Commission calls for RIS3 frameworks on either national or regional level as an "ex-ante conditionality" for the programme period 2014-20 of the European Fund for Regional Development (ERDF). While Horizon 2020 focuses on excellence in science, research and innovation, the EU Structural and Investment Funds, to which ERDF belongs, should become „stairways to excellence“, building capacities in research, technology and innovation with a regional and inter-regional dimension. Research and innovation will be a top ERDF investment priority in most European regions.

RIS3 start from a common vision of a more competitive regional profile – a vision shared by policy makers, by the business sector, but also by the lead institutions of research, technology and creativity, extending  the idea of multilevel governance, and turning stakeholders into active change partners. The creation of synergies between public support mechanisms for R&D and innovation, industrial promotion and human capital and training may help to leverage private investments, boost business opportunities and attract foreign investments.

Austria employs a longer term perspective in working with the Smart Specialisation concept. The federal government encourages its science and research institutions to realise their role as regional Lead Institutions: Universities, science and research centres are indispensible players in a process for knowledge and innovation-driven structural change, as they create regional value in both a civic and economic context. On equal terms with regional policy makers and the leading companies, they should be recognised partners in discovering and developing a region’s smart specialisations. A 2014 EU Expert Report nominates Austria’s lead institutions initiative as a „smart policy scheme“, connecting universities with regional smart specialisation. Meanwhile, the Lead Institutions Initiative has been integrated as ‘objective 6d’ in the Austrian National Development Plan for Public Universities 2019-24, and in the performance agreements with public universities in Austria.

The Austrian Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy had the idea of promoting the Smart Specialisation concept among regional players by offering a short and easy-to-use tool: The RIS3 KEY helps to unlock the idea of smart specialisation by asking just the right questions for self-assessment and by mobilising institutions and regional policy makers to work together.

The RIS3 KEY was developed in the context of the international OECD project on smart specialisation for innovation-driven growth , launched by the renowned Working Group for Innovation and Technology Policy (TIP). Smart Specialisation is also a hot topic on the OECD Innovation Policy Platform (IPP) that provides interactive access to innovation related data, analysis, learning resources and country profiles.

The European Commission’s Smart Specialisation Platform , hosted by the Joint Research Centre (IPTS), Sevilla, offers information, help and expert advice for the RIS3 process.

In 2016, the annual Austrian Research and Technology Report presented a mid-term report on the implementation of the Austrian RTI Strategy including a chapter on Smart Specialisation in Austria. In 2016, a group of national and regional government experts presented a Policy Framework for smart specialisation in Austria seeking to establish a common understanding of the interaction of the national RTI Strategy with regional economic and innovation strategies. This partnership was initiated in the context of the Austrian implementation process of the EU Structural and Investment Funds (STRAT.AT 2020).

On July 18th 2017, the European Commission took stock of regional competitiveness and the implementation of Smart Specialisation with its forward looking Communication on “Strengthening Innovation in Europe’s Regions: Strategies for resilient, inclusive and sustainable growth” (COM 2017 376) and its accompanying Staff Working Document (SDW 2017 264) . Furthermore, in its Pilot Actions, the European Commission promotes Smart Specialisation to boost innovation capacity as well as interregional partnerships to strengthen innovation in Europe’s regions.

In 2018., the Austrian Presidency of the EU Council hosted two conference events related to the Smart Specialisation agenda: The 9th Week of Innovative Regions in Europe (WIRE 2018) in Innsbruck and ‘Smart specialisation (RIS3): European workshop on universities as regional lead institutions’ in Graz.

To document the multiple activities around the concept of Smart Specialisation in Austria, illustrative examples from the Austrian regions are presented below.

Burgenland, Carinthia, Lower Austria, Salzburg, Styria, Tyrol, Upper Austria, Vorarlberg, Vienna

As at the S3 platform of the JRC in Seville , various platforms for thematic Smart Specialisation in Austria have been formed and are listed below (non exhaustingly):

-          Association Industry 4.0 Austria - The Platform for Smart Production

-          Photonics Austria

-          Austrian Energy Agency

-          Artificial Intelligence Austria

-         (the list is to be continued)


Armin Mahr Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research