Smart specialization strategies—insights gained from a unique European policy experiment on innovation and industrial policy design

Foray, Dominique (EPFL, Lausanne, Switzerland) ; Eichler, Martin (BAK-Economics, Basel, Switzerland) ; Keller, Michael (School of Engineering and Architecture (HEIA-FR), HES-SO // University of Applied Sciences Western Switzerland)

This paper aims to develop a coherent vision and detailed methodology of the policy approach that is evoked by the term “smart specialisation strategy” (S3), and to explore and elaborate the requirements and implications in terms of design and implementation that are consistent with that policy concept. As such, the paper addresses the issue of designing an innovation policy whose goal is the creation and development of networks of innovators in order to generate some desired structural changes within the framework of a regional economy. Regional innovation policies in Europe have been marked over the past few years by the emergence of a new approach—smart specialization strategies (S3s). Based on a fairly general formulation (Foray et al. 2009), European regions have embarked on the design and implementation of their own S3s.Footnote1 The results of this policy are still only partial and imperfect and it is in any case too soon to attempt a final assessment of them. However, what is certain is that we have already acquired an enormous amount of knowledge! By adopting an “action research” posture and collaborating closely with the regional authorities in order to observe the processes underway, we have learned a tremendous number of lessons from these “natural experiments” and progressed in our reflection concerning S3 concepts and practices. We have also made more progress generally regarding the relevant concepts of industrial policy that should be adopted today, not only in the area of regional policies but also, for example, that of mission-oriented policies dedicated to the resolution of grand societal challenges. In this introduction, we would like to specifically focus on two essential contributions: Firstly, the new industrial policies—including the S3 approach—combine in many cases a planning logic and an entrepreneurial discovery logic.Footnote2 The planning logic is often indispensable. It seems to us rather pointless to try to conceal it since the objective of these policies is to establish strategic priorities (for the development of a region or the resolution of a grand challenge) and there is nothing there that should shock an economist. And all the more so as the strategic priority with regard to smart specialization is not a sector as such but its transformation. The economist may be shocked on the other hand if the planner considers himself to be omniscient and ignores the existence of uncertainty—particularly the uncertainty concerning the way in which the plan may unfold and the probabilities of success of each selected project. Hence the second logic, that of entrepreneurial discovery : the unfolding of the plan is not known ex ante but is discovered gradually by the actors themselves. This combination of logics, one creating a framework from the top and the other stimulating decentralized entrepreneurial discovery within this framework, is crucial. These logics are complementary and not contradictory, as is too frequently believed. This is a first underlying conceptual principle of the new industrial policies. Secondly, another essential contribution is that offered by the concept of transformative activity. This concept reflects the appropriate level of granularity at which the S3 must materialize, once the area of strategic priority has been identified. This level of granularity is neither that of the sector (S3 is not a sectoral policy) nor that of the individual project (since at its very core, S3 is about creating relational density, synergies and complementarities between projects and activities). The appropriate level is therefore that of a set of related projects and activities, covering a multitude of problems to be resolved (research, innovation, infrastructure, training) and all oriented towards the same transformation priority. This intermediate level of granularity is a second underlying conceptual principle of the new industrial policies. It invites us to acknowledge the strategic complementarity between projects. This implies that there is great advantage to be gained in adopting all these projects simultaneously, resulting in even stronger transformative activity. While the identification of a strategic priority is the result of the planning logic, it is during the construction and development of the transformative activity that the logic of entrepreneurial discovery dominates. In Sections 1 and 2, we will recall the fundamentals of the approach. The details of the process of S3 design and implementation are described in Sections 3 and 4. The final section concludes the paper by placing the S3 approach into the broader perspective on industrial policy.

Article Type:
Ingénierie et Architecture
Aucun institut
21 p.
Published in:
Review of Evolutionary Political Economy
Numeration (vol. no.):
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 Record created 2020-12-01, last modified 2020-12-07

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