23 Oct 2014

This is a guest post by Paul Benneworth. He is a Senior Research Associate at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS) at the University of Twente, the Netherlands, and Lead Editor of the Early Career Papers Section of Regional Studies, Regional Science journal.

I’ve just returned from a short working visit to the INGENIO research centre in Valencia, Spain, where I’ve been doing some work on university research exploitation.  One of the researchers there, Mabel Sanchez Barrioluengo, has got a paper forthcoming in Regional Studies, Regional Science, our open access journal.

Mabel came through our mentored Early Career Route (where our latest call for papers has just sadly closed), and if it’s permitted to tip another journal, has a very interesting paper on university engagement missions just published in Research Policy.

The INGENIO research centre is specialised in research and innovation policy, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that RSRS now have a paper from one of their Ph.D. students.  Innovation has certainly been a strong theme amongst the papers we have published in our first year.

This reflects the growing interest in the regional studies community – policy, researchers and practice – in regional innovation activities, processes and policies in the last decade.  If it was radical for the RSA 2005 conference in Aalborg to claim that the future of the European Structural Funds was in supporting innovation not just infrastructure, by 2014, that vision has become reality with the Commission’s two main policy areas of Research and Cohesion dominated to the point of obsessiveness by innovation activities.  Two papers recently published in RSRS address this topic.

The first is from Rhiannon Pugh, now at Lancaster University, who has published a paper reporting on one of the regions at the cradle of the ‘regional innovation revolution’, Wales.  Those with long memories will recall the Regional Technology Plan policy where 11 pilot regions drew up plans to encourage universities, firms and government to work better together.

Now every region in Europe must have a smart specialisation strategy, the latest iteration of the RTPs, prior to accessing any regional funds.  And Rhiannon reports that in a region like Wales, that’s been drawing up these strategies for over two decades, there can be a temptation to simply decant these old strategies into the new conceptual bottles, with Welsh policy-makers arguably relabeling their ‘clusters plan’ as a smart specialisation strategy.

The other paper in that brace is by Stephen Miller, at Strathclyde University’s European Policies Research Centre.  He explores the extent to which a newly planned innovation centre (the TIC) in Glasgow can help to stimulate innovation-based regional development by filling gaps in the regional innovation system.

The Strathclyde region has been going through a rather difficult period of deindustrialisation and a rather more faltering transition into the knowledge economy.  The TIC has sought to develop smart specialisation within the RIS by building linkages between actors, encouraging specialisation and offering strategic capability to innovating firms in specialist sectors. He opens up the possibility that the emergence of smart specialisation creates the opportunities for new kinds of support institution that can help promote specialisation as well as connectivity and interactivity between institutions.

We’ve got other papers focused on innovation in the pipeline, including Mabel’s, as well as another paper looking at the emergence of an innovative industry in an old industrial region in China.  But one of the things I have been surprised by to date is that we have not had any papers submitted in the field of social innovation.

There’s no single definition of social innovation, but it involves new ways of meeting social needs more efficiently and better attuned to communities’ needs.  And it has a clear regional dimension: because so many of the ideas start off with local, small scale experiments to provide resilience for excluded communities, regional authorities across Europe have been looking towards social innovation as a way of dealing with growing inequality and social tensions.

It’s an up-and-coming theme within the European Commission and across member states, with an array of think tanks and platforms emerging to try to better understand how social innovation operates and how policy can better support these citizens’ initiatives.  Indeed one of the reasons I was in INGENIO this week was to work on a small Eu-SPRI Forum project we have put together looking at the future of social innovation.

I’d love it if we were able to publish a paper on social innovation in the pages of RSRS, particularly from an early career researcher who has an exciting contribution to make.  The next call for papers will close on the 15th February, and I am hoping that someone out there will respond to our call, and help bring this interesting phenomenon clearly to the attention of our readership!