Smart Specialisation

Blog by Joanne Ennis, Yorkshire Universities

The concept of Smart Specialisation, which originated in the United States, recognises the importance of business in generating growth within an increasingly globalised economy and as a strategy that should be replicated in public policy on innovation. It was adopted by the European Union (EU) as a precondition for accessing innovation funding through European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF). The intent was to ensure local areas focused on their real strengths, rather than trying to emulate successful sectors elsewhere without the supporting infrastructure to make it work. This principle was endorsed in the government’s Smart Specialisation Strategy for England, published in April 2015. 

What is Smart Specialisation? 
Smart Specialisation is an approach to economic development which targets investment for research and innovation towards local priority sectors and strengths. It emphasises the need for business, universities and research centres, government and wider groups representing civil society to work together developing evidence-based policy and practice on innovation-led economic development. This enables regions to maximise their potential and their ability to attract funding as well as delivering better value for money. Underpinned by evidence and data, Smart Specialisation offers regions the chance to build on their comparative advantages in skills or industry, and the opportunity to work in collaboration with other localities to drive productivity and innovation. 

Smart Specialisation Hub
To support the development and implementation of Smart Specialisation strategies across England, the Smart Specialisation Hub (S3H) was established in 2015 in partnership by the Knowledge Transfer Network and the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) with funding from government, Innovate UK and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

Providing an advisory function, the S3H supports the effective design, delivery and alignment of EU, national and local Research and Innovation (R&I) policies. As well as facilitating local collaborations that drive and deliver specialisations the S3H aims to increase understanding of the innovation landscape, avoiding duplication between regions and helping LEPs and others to create more robust strategies and find new opportunities for business collaboration in the UK and abroad.

S3H is currently developing an observatory function of innovation assets and strengths, which aims to eventually cover all 39 Local Enterprise Partnerships in England.

Why is it important for universities? 
Universities have a key economic, social and cultural role to play within their localities, driving economic growth and prosperity through research and innovation and their contribution to higher level skills. Alongside the generation and absorption of knowledge, universities are also uniquely placed to facilitate collaboration between innovation actors and act as critical colleagues and leaders in the innovation space. Through bringing together all the elements of the knowledge triangle – research, education and innovation – and spanning boundaries, higher education institutions have immense potential to drive the local and national research and commercialisation agenda. 

As innovative institutions, universities are able to bring to bear essential attributes and activities, use their translational skills to embed growth into innovation, and act as a source of open information spreading knowledge and awareness, and working with society in their regions.

In return for active participation in local innovation strategy development, universities stand to benefit in a range of ways, including:

  • Increasing the value of the local economy: evidence-driven prioritisation of strong and growing sectors boosts a region’s economic diversity and resilience. The benefits of this can be felt by throughout the locality, and the region’s universities are no exception;
  • An opportunity to actively influence strategy, at local and ultimately national level, and help to define and deliver the priority sectors of the future;
  • The potential opportunity to diversify funding sources and take part in complementary projects;
  • And the chance to influence other universities and external actors, forging new collaborations through a mutually understood framework and acting as leaders and connection-points across regions.

The referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU may yet have implications for structural and other funds; however, the trend towards devolution seems likely to continue, which means, it will be increasingly important for localities and for universities as key stakeholders within them, to be able to clearly articulate their strengths through Smart Specialisation in a competitive funding landscape. For universities this will include continuing to work closely with LEPs, local authorities, business and civil society groups to ensure that place-based research and innovation is at the heart of regional economic development strategy.        


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