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Research and Innovation Strategies for Smart Specialisation (RIS3): The steps

In order to help regional stakeholders and penholders to design their RIS3, DG Regio and experts are advising them to follow a 6-step path based on the analysis of the strengths of their assets and potential.

Written by Christian Saublens

Reviewed by David Walburn


The concept

How to implement it?

Step in the RIS process

What can be expected?

A quote


Experts' comments


The concept

The 6 recommended steps are:

  1. Analysis of the regional context and potential for innovation
  2. Governance: Ensuring participation and ownership
  3. Elaboration of an overall vision for the future of the region
  4. Identification of priorities
  5. Definition of coherent policy mix, roadmaps and action plan
  6. Integration of monitoring and evaluation mechanisms

The rationale of each step is:

Step 1 - Analysis of the regional context and potential for innovation: Differentiation is at the very heart of RIS3. The key to successful differentiation is to understand what is the competitive advantage of a region: its unique, localized knowledge base and to support new innovations which are closer or adjacent to it.

Step 2 - Governance: Ensuring participation and ownership: At the beginning of a RIS3 design process, it is necessary to define the scope and expected goal, with a view to ensuring participation of the key actors and securing ownership of the approaches defined in the strategy. Potential actors relevant to the RIS3 process span from public authorities to universities and other knowledge-based institutions, investors and enterprises, civil society actors, and external experts who can contribute to the benchmarking and peer review processes.

Step 3 - Elaboration of an overall vision for the future of the region: This step is the development of a shared and compelling vision on the economic development potential of the region and the main direction for its international positioning. It is a highly political step. The main quality of a vision is its mobilising power: it should attract regional stakeholders around a common bold project, a dream, which many feel they can contribute to and benefit from.

Step 4 - Identification of priorities: Smart specialisation involves making smart choices . In fact, smart specialisation is all about facilitating that choice, selecting the right priorities and channeling resources towards those investments that have the potentially highest impact on the regional economy. Priorities in RIS3 need to: (i) define concrete and achievable objectives. These objectives should be based on present and future competitive advantage and potential for excellence, as derived from the analysis of regional potential for innovation-driven differentiation; (ii) In addition to technological, sectoral or cross-sectoral priority areas, horizontal priorities need to be defined. These could involve the diffusion and/or application of Key Enabling Technologies, aspects related to social innovation, or the financing of the growth of newly established companies, which is often a bottleneck in many regions that have prioritised the creation of new technology-based firms but fail to see these firms grow and create jobs.

Step 5 - Definition of coherent policy mix, roadmaps and action plan: Experience with Regional Innovation Strategies throughout Europe has shown that it is good practice to combine the adoption of strategies with an agreement on an Action Plan and even the simultaneous launch of pilot projects. This planning process involves both the incorporation of existing programmes and instruments, on the basis of evidence on their effectiveness and relevance for the prioritised areas, and inclusion of new instruments, justified according to their contribution to the overall strategy goals.

Step 6 - Integration of monitoring and evaluation mechanisms: Monitoring differs from evaluation in two main respects. Monitoring aims to verify that activities are planned, funds are correctly used and spent on delivering planned outputs and that result indicators evolve in the desired direction. Evaluation, however, aims to assess effects of the actions undertaken (i.e. their contribution to the observed changes as measured by the result indicators) and to understand why and how the effects are being achieved. It should also take account of unintended results and analyse the mechanisms leading to the results. Monitoring is normally carried out by actors responsible for implementation, while evaluation should be carried out by independent experts, guided closely by those responsible for the policy. Monitoring and evaluation complement each other. Monitoring provides part of the empirical basis for evaluation, while evaluation may raise the need for improved monitoring indicators.


How to implement it?

To appoint a charismatic leader to steer the process and to be a catalyst of all the stakeholders energy. Identify the weaknesses of previous similar exercises. To use the self-assessment wheel (see below) to monitor progress in the design of the RIS3. Ask advice from peers or external experts. DG region can provide them.


Step in the RIS process



What can be expected?

  • A well-designed evidence and place-based strategy
  • A ownership of the strategy by all interested stakeholders
  • An alignment of priorities with the regional assets
  • A focus on a few priorities
  • A well-thought evaluation and impact assessment system


A quote

"A RIS³ is about tough choices to avoid fragmentation and duplication." -  Mikel Landabaso, Head of Unit, DG Regio



Guide to Research and Innovation Strategies for Smart Specialisations (RIS3)


Mr Christian Saublens


Christian Saublens has more than 30 years of working experience in European trade organizations. Since 1992 he is the Executive Manager of EURADA, the European Association of Development Agencies, a network of 145 organisations. Christian has been involved in the organization of numerous conferences and meetings dealing with all matters related to regional development. He wrote several papers and working documents on business support schemes for SMEs. He played an important role for the dissemination in European regions of concepts such as benchmarking, business angels, investment readiness, proof of concept, clusters, open innovation, financial engineering, crowdfunding, … Several times Christian has been appointed as an expert by the European Commission and the Committee of the Regions.



Experts' comments

The preparation of a strategy is usually the starting point for any intermediary organisation working in economic development. The reasons for this are clear from this paper. It would make no sense to devise any programme of activity without setting it in a coherent context. Without a strategy it would be impossible to answer the question “why are you doing this?”.

In recent years innovation has been increasingly seen as vital to regional economic growth, and so the notion of designing regional strategies to boost innovation has increased in popularity, a trend encouraged by the European Commission.

There is little to argue about here. Everyone would be pleased to see the successful implementation of regional innovation strategies across Europe. However, there are dangers in this process which development agencies would do well to try to avoid.

As will be clear from the contents of the main body of this paper, a regional innovation strategy has the potential to be a weighty document, full of research to support its recommendations, with considerable detail on programmes to be implemented over the period of the strategy and the sophisticated methodology to be used to evaluate success or otherwise of the strategy. There is a danger that producing a magnificent strategy becomes an end in itself, rather than getting on with the implementation which can directly improve the lives of people living in the region. This loss of focus can happen very easily. First the regional policy-makers work to produce a strategy which enhances its credibility because of its high quality. Then this draft strategy has to be circulated to key stakeholders for consultation before there this agreement on the strategy and programmes can start to be devised and implemented. This process has been known to take over a year, and there is a danger that some of the assumptions made at the start of the process may have changed in that time. Too many regional strategies have in effect provided a boost to the design and print companies responsible for converting them into glossy public documents which have then gathered dust on office shelves.

There is rarely a real need for so much time and effort to go into the production of a regional strategy. The staff of a development agency and other regional stakeholders should already have a very good idea of the problems and the priorities for action in their region, and together ought to be able to produce broad strategic objectives in a relatively short period of time. Also, there is not always a need to produce an overarching strategy for the region. Certain priorities will be immediately apparent, as may also be the general objectives of the strategy. Action programmes do not need to wait for further work on the strategy to be completed, but could be put in hand straight away.

Erring on the side of brevity and simplicity in development strategies also has the benefit of making it easy to communicate the contents to a wide range of stakeholders, and also to the citizens of the region at large. It is extremely helpful for a development agency to have what it is trying to do, widely known and understood. This can help not only in implementing the strategy, but also in building political support.  A charismatic leader for the strategy as recommended in the notes would work much more effectively in such a context.

In tough economic times it is important for development agencies to be seen to be doing things rather than spending time strategizing.

Much emphasis is now placed on the monitoring and evaluation process for economic development programmes, and we see that this area is no exception as the 6th of DG Regio’s recommended 6 steps for devising a strategy  shows. It is clearly important that there is effective monitoring and evaluation of programmes using public money, but regional intermediary organisations should beware of relying on them too heavily as a measure of their performance.

Many consultancy firms have established good businesses evaluating the outcomes of economic development programmes, and there is much expertise available about how this should be done and presented. However, it should also be remembered that at a simpler level, economic development programmes are about improving the lives of people and helping them to improve their economic and business prospects, whether they are entrepreneurs in high tech start-up businesses, or in a one-person micro business in a craft sector.  People on the receiving end of economic development interventions know from experience if they are working, and if they are, are likely to give their support to the programmes and make their success widely known. Without this personal endorsement, no end of sophisticated analysis by experts will give credibility to the work of development agencies, especially in the political arena which can be so important. 

Concerning evaluation, there is a salutary lesson for development organisations in the fate of regional development agencies in England. In 2009 the then government commissioned the firm of PriceWaterhouseCoopers to carry out a review of the contribution made by the RDAs. It reported that for every £1 of public expenditure through the RDAs, there was a net added value of £4 to regional economies.  Despite this positive evaluation, one of the first acts of the incoming government in 2010 was to abolish the RDAs.  Whatever the evaluation had said, there was very little support for RDAs, little appreciation or knowledge of their work, and, most importantly, none of the sectors which they were supposed to be supporting spoke up for them. PriceWaterhouseCoopers of course continued to secure large amounts of business from the incoming government.


Mr David Walburn

After a career in business David Walburn joined Greater London Enterprise in 1986 where he was responsible for venture capital and other small business support, before becoming Chief Executive of the organisation. He was the Chair of the London Business Angels Network and played a key role in the setting up of the European Business Angels Network. He has worked with the UK government and the European Commission on developing public policy initiatives to improve the financing of small and medium-sized enterprises. He was the Chair of Capital Enterprise, the umbrella body for organisations supporting micro business development in London, until 2012.

For the last ten years he has been a Visiting Professor at London South Bank University where he headed the Local Economy Policy Unit and was the managing editor of the journal Local Economy.

He has served as President of EURADA, and been a member of a number of advisory bodies of the European Commission.  He has been an active member of the International Economic Development Council in Washington DC and has a wide range of international contacts with economic development organisations.

He continues to write and lecture on small business finance and regional economic development.