Innovation funded by European cohesion policy: smart specialization strategies
A considerable share of European cohesion policy concerns funds available to finance research and innovation activities. Already in the previous 2014-2020 programming period, the funds available to European countries for research and innovation were the second most important, after those for infrastructure and transport. The current programming period, 2021-2027, still allocates a large part of resources to finance innovation in European regions. The emphasis on this type of policy rests on two pillars. First of all, the generation and diffusion of knowledge are the engine of economic growth, both in the manufacturing sector and in the service sector. In today's economic systems, which are often referred to as "knowledge economies" by no coincidence, the continuous application of innovation is the necessary condition for sustaining productivity growth, for maintaining high levels of international competitiveness, and for creating qualified and well paid. Secondly, research and innovation activities can benefit enormously from the support of public policies, especially in less advanced territories.
Smart specialization strategies
Innovation activities and research are financed by the European Structural Funds and implemented in all European regions through so-called smart specialization strategies. The latter are policies that the member states, but above all the regions, draw up in order to select the sectors and technological trajectories towards which to channel funds from the EU to support innovation. These strategies invest the regions with responsibility for planning and managing policies. Smart specialization strategies represent an opportunity for introspection of regional innovation systems, which involves all the various players, from regional governments to employers' associations and trade unions, universities and research centers operating in the area. At the end of a consultation phase which takes place at the beginning of each programming period, the regions define and send their respective strategies to the European Commission which must approve them. This approval is one of the enabling conditions for having access to the structural sources on research and innovation, i.e. a necessary and unavoidable condition. In these strategic documents, the regional administrations select the intervention priorities in terms of sectors of specialization and identify which technological and innovative trajectories can be applied to make these sectors more innovative and competitive. An example may clarify the mechanism. A region that considers the production of household appliances to be strategic can identify the development of home automation as the lever for increasing the technological content of production. The funds from the European Union can therefore be directed to finance specific projects for the development of innovative applications in home automation and their application to household appliances. For example, joint research projects between companies and universities and specific training activities could be imagined. In this case, the ultimate goal is to make the household appliance industry more innovative and therefore more competitive.
Not just high tech
The smart specialization strategy therefore allows regions to direct funds from cohesion policies towards research and innovation activities that apply in a smart way to industrial sectors that are strategic for the region itself. These tools therefore have a transformative objective in the sense of increasing the technological and innovative content of the regional production system. Evidently, each region will be able, and will have to, design an intelligent specialization strategy which reflects on the one hand the regional specificities in terms of industrial sectors, and on the other hand which considers the opportunities that the territory offers to make these sectors make the leap technology that allows them to innovate. This tool, by its nature flexible and adaptable to the characteristics of the territories, has the merit of adapting to any configuration of industrial specialization, both in hi-tech sectors and in so-called low-tech sectors. If imagining the application of innovations to hi-tech sectors is somewhat obvious, the great merit of this type of policy is that of imagining and encouraging (as well as financing) the application of new technological solutions to all sectors, those that do not operate at the technological frontier, such as agriculture and certain types of Made in Italy manufacturing, or in the tourism sector. In this sense, the cohesion policy funds earmarked for innovation and research also offer a great opportunity to the regions of the South.