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Cross-border regional innovation policies

Cross-border regional innovation policies are policies that are defined according to “functional areas”, crossing over boundaries of administrative regions.

Written by Claire Nauwelaers

Reviewed by David Walburn


The concept

Step in the RIS process

What can be expected?

How to implement it?

A quote


Experts' comments


The concept

Cross-border regional innovation policies are policies that are defined according to “functional areas”, crossing over boundaries of administrative regions. It is widely acknowledged that proximity plays an important role when innovation is seen as an interactive process: development of innovation relies on trust, facilitated by face-to-face exchanges and geographic, socio-cultural and cognitive proximity. This proximity is seldom confined into administrative borders: for actors located in a region, the relevant resources and partners for innovation, bringing the benefits of proximity, may well be located in bordering regions, within or outside the country. Hence policies have to adapt to this reality: they have to be designed and implemented at the « right » spatial scale and facilitate - or at least not hinder – favorable interactions for innovation, even if these go beyond their jurisdiction.


Step in the RIS3 process

Designing and implementing cross-border regional innovation policies cover all six steps of the design of RIS3: at each step, actors from the different regions in the cross-border area need to align their plans, resources and actions:

  1. Analysing the innovation potential;
  2. Setting out the RIS3 process and governance;
  3. Developing a shared vision;
  4. Identifying the priorities;
  5. Defining an action plan with a coherent policy mix;
  6. Monitoring and evaluating.


What can be expected?

Cross-border innovation offers two types of potential opportunities:

  1. Combining the advantages of proximity and diversity: the combination of different factor endowments, industrial and research traditions, skills sets, connections to international networks, etc., in regions and countries on different sides of the border, provides an extended range of opportunities for innovation. Such a wider pool of actors, still working in proximity, enhances the chances to build relevant synergies for innovation, and to create “new combinations” of ideas and assets with commercial value. These new combinations can lead to the identification of new diversification paths for the regional economies, thus helping to address a frequent regional development problem, that of lock in. Many regions face inertia and vested interests from incumbent actors, which makes changes of regional trajectories difficult. Combining actors and resources over the border can foster changes and unlock new regional potential.  
  2. Creating higher and more attractive critical masses: the joining up of actions and resources of complementary innovation actors over the border can create critical masses around innovative combinations of expertise. The expansion of innovation networks and clusters over national or regional borders augment their size and their outreach. Cross-border strategic initiatives in innovation enhance the visibility and attractiveness of the whole area for talent, companies, capital and investors. In addition, collaborative innovation partnerships crossing borders opens the possibility to access more diversified public funding sources.


How to implement it?

Identify the functional region for innovation

Cross-border regional innovation policies should be implemented in areas corresponding to functional regions: functional regions for innovation are regions which show a high density of internal interactions in innovation-related activities. Examples are the Öresund between Denmark and Sweden, the Top Technology Region-ELAt between Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands and Centrope at the border between Austria, Hungary, the Czech and the Slovak Republic.

Not all cross-border areas qualify as functional regions for innovation: there is a need to check whether complementarity of expertise and assets are present and can be exploited in view of mutual benefit, whether sufficient critical mass around innovative activities is present (or can be developed); and whether existing collaboration barriers are low or can be overcome. The following conditions need to be present on either sides of the border:

  • Productive specialisation: industrial structures and knowledge bases need to show a sufficient degree of complementarity, or “related variety” (i.e. they need to share a common knowledge and skills base);
  • Business innovation: development paths need to based on innovation and not on exploitation of costs differentials, business innovation practices need to be open to external cooperation, and show a high degree of absorptive capacity;
  • Knowledge infrastructure: an advanced set-up of research organisations, educational bodies and transfer agencies need to be present in the area; they need to show a high degree of orientation towards the needs of the economy and be adaptable to the different institutional contexts over the border;
  • System interactions: a high level of cross-border knowledge flows and interactions needs to be present, most notably in the private sector, reflecting the cross-border innovation potential;
  • Accessibility: physical barriers to knowledge, people, goods and services flows within the area should be low; external accessibility to the cross-border area should be high;
  • Socio-cultural context: there needs to be a sufficient degree of socio-cultural proximity, including language proximity, within the area;
  • Institutional context: it should be possible to overcome regulatory, administrative and institutional barriers created by the border. Differences in institutional contexts for innovation policies (e.g. extent of decentralization of powers) should not constitute strong obstacles for cross-border cooperation.

Define a strategy and a governance framework

A suitable governance framework for cross-border regional innovation policies needs to be implemented. This involves cooperation between actors on either sides of the border on the following:

  • Defining joint strategic orientations: this involves an effort to identify and define a vision and joint interest in developing the cross-border area, within a “positive sum game” framework (by joigning forces, all sides recognize they will gain advantages);
  • Aligning innovation policies: the goals and priorities set to innovation policies over the borders need to be made compatible and complementary;
  • Defining bridging organisations: cross-border governance structures need to be set up to manage the mutual exchanges and the cooperation, and provide joint fora to define priorities and actions (e.g. European Grouping of Territorial Co-operation, or cross-border committees);
  • Identifying and establishing financial incentives: public funding sources for cross-border innovation structures, programmes and projects (such as Interreg) need to be made available and their effectiveness checked in the context of the strategy and vision for the cross-border area.

Develop and implement cross-border policy instruments

Cross-border policy instruments can be established to support innovation across administrative borders. These range from limited voluntary exchanges of experience towards genuine joint instruments involving joint commitment of funds. It is important to check their effectiveness and assess the mutual benefit gained from such initiatives and programmes. Private financing (or co-financing) of initiatives and policies is a vital condition for their effectiveness.

A variety of instruments can support cross-border innovation:

  • Joint study programs and exchange of students and teachers in Higher Education establishments;
  • Joint talent attraction initiatives;
  • Cross-border public research funding programmes;
  • Cross-border cooperative research funding programmes;
  • Cross-border innovation vouchers;
  • Joint technology transfer infrastructure;
  • Joint competence centres;
  • Cross-border technology parks or incubators;
  • Cross-border soft support to innovative start-ups;
  • Cross-border venture capital schemes;
  • Cross-border clusters or poles promotion;
  • Joint branding of cross-border area as knowledge region.


A quote

An investment on one side of the border is better than no investment at all” - Quote from the mayors of Lulea (Sweden) and Oulu (Finland): the two regions form the Bothnian Arc functional region, which is an attempt to overcome the drawbacks of peripherality by developing a high-tech hub in the North.



  • Lundquist, K-J. and M. Trippl (2013), “Distance, proximity and types of cross-border innovation systems: a conceptual analysis”, Regional Studies, 47(3), 450-460.
  • OECD (2013), Regions and Innovation Policy : collaborating across Borders, OECD Publishing, Paris. This study is accompanied with 6 case studies on the following cross-border regions: Ireland and Northern Ireland, the Bothnian Arc, Top Technology Region Eindhoven-Leuven-Aachen triangle, Helsinki - Tallinn", Hedmark – Dalarna and Öresund.
  • Perkmann, M. (2003), Cross-border regions in Europe. Significance and drivers of regional cross-border co-operation, European Urban and Regional Studies 10(2): 153-171.
  • Trippl, M. (2009), "Developing cross-border regional innovation systems: key factors and challenges", Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, 101(2): 150-160.


Mrs Claire Nauwelaers


Independent expert in Science, Technology and Innovation policy, Advisor to the OECD and the European Commission

Claire NAUWELAERS is an independent Policy Analyst and Governmental Adviser, specialised in research and innovation policy, working in an international environment. She has 30 years of experience in this field and a wide network of contacts with experts, academics and policy-makers. Until 2011 she was working on innovation as a policy analyst in the Regional Development Policy Division at OECD. Previously, she was Research Director at UNU-MERIT, the University of Maastricht and United Nations University, in charge of the research team: “Governance of Science, Technology and Innovation». She started her career as researcher within two academic teams (the Interdisciplinary Centre in Regional Development, and the Interdisciplinary Centre Law-Economics) at the University of Louvain in Belgium, where she was in charge of research projects dealing with economic development and innovation.

Her main areas of research and expertise revolve around the analysis and policy advice about the functioning of research and innovation systems, notably at the regional level. She is working on policy development, analysis and evaluation in the areas of Research, Technological Development and Innovation in response to needs from the European Commission, national and regional authorities. She is currently one of the leading experts in Europe on Smart Specialisation Strategies. She is member of Scientific Steering Committees of several Research Networks, part of policy review teams, and is regularly invited as expert in High-Level Expert groups for the European Commission or Member States. She has published numerous books and articles on policy aspects of research, technology and innovation.



Experts' comments

This is a comprehensive, practical and well-argued paper. There is little useful to add by way of comment. The benefits of pursuing economic development programmes across political boundaries are made clear, and there is excellent guidance on implementation.

The topics of many other papers in the KNOW-HUB encycolopedia are of course highly relevant to developing effective cross-border activity. This extends to issues of leadership, consensus-building, governance, commercialisation of research, financial engineering, cluster development and working with disparate regional organisations, including universities.

The positive tone of the paper should not, however, obscure the position that successful cross border programmes are often difficult to achieve, even though the idea of ensuring complementarity and mutual benefit between politically distinct parts of the same functional region is an attractive concept, both politically and from a practitioner point of view. Political leaders may be over-enthusiastic, raising expectations which eventually lead to disappointment. There is also the possibility that committed practitioners may push things further than the politics will accept. Avoiding factors such exploiting cost differentials will never be easy, especially in circumstances where the bulk of investment goes to one political entity. However, it should also be borne in mind that exploiting cost differentials may in fact improve the life chances of people living in disadvantaged regions, and so perhaps should not be ruled out of the picture.


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.