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KETs as driver for smart specialisation

Key Enabling Technologies (KETs) are key drivers for progress, economic growth, competitiveness and employment in Europe. Today KETs are embedded at the core of innovative, advanced products. An electric car, for example, is a combination of advanced materials for batteries, microelectronics, components for power electronics, photonics, for low consumption lighting, industrial biotechnologies for low friction tyres. It also shows advanced manufacturing systems are used to produce electrical vehicles at a competitive cost. Additionally, KETs are of systemic relevance and feed many different value chains in heterogeneous ways. Due to this KETs are very important in the context of smart specialisation.

Written by Daniel Kipp

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 Commission defines KETs as ‘knowledge intensive and associated with high R&D intensity, rapid innovation cycles, high capital expenditure and highly-skilled employment. They enable process, goods and service innovation throughout the economy and are of systemic relevance. They are multidisciplinary cutting across many technology areas with a trend towards convergence and integration. KETs can assist technology leaders in other fields to capitalise on their research efforts.’[1]

Within the Commission Staff Working Document ‘Current situation of key enabling technologies in Europe’ based on current research, economic analyses of market trends and their contribution to solving societal challenges six most important KETs for Europe have been identified: nanotechnology, micro-/nanoelectronics, industrial biotechnology, photonics, advanced materials and advanced manufacturing systems.

Furthermore, several EU Member States have analyzed their key enabling high technologies on their own. In addition to the six KETs of the Commission, Germany, United Kingdom and France identified the following technologies: microsystems technology, optical technologies, electronics, high value services etc..[2] Due to dynamic developments in many technologies the list of KETs has to be checked regularly and updated if necessary.

How to implement it?

In July 2010 the European Commission launched a High Level Expert Group (HLG) on KETs assigned with the task of elaborating measures and a coherent European strategy. The final report of the HLG was presented in June 2011. An important conclusion was that the European Union is a global leader in KETs development. The major problem is however that the EU is not capitalizing on its knowledge base: The EU’s major weakness lies in translating its knowledge base into goods and services. Moreover, KETs-related manufacturing is decreasing. The HLG termed this gap between basic knowledge generation and its subsequent commercialization into goods and services as the ‘Valley of Death’. [3]

The Commission has identified KETs as a priority within its Europe 2020 strategy and its flagship initiatives and proposes a European strategy for KETs built upon three pillars: technological research, product demonstration and competitive manufacturing activities. The funding of KETs is included in the proposals for the new generation of EU financial programmes (Cohesion Policy, Horizon 2020…). However, the EU cannot tackle these challenges alone. KETs deployment activities require a holistic approach.[4] In order to realise this holistic approach it is necessary to closely align the Commission’s activities with efforts on national and regional level.


Step in the RIS process

To stimulate and use KETs all six steps of a RIS process are relevant - beginning from the analysis up to the definition of concrete measures and the monitoring of their impact. Anyway, step 5 (Definition of coherent policy mix, roadmaps and action plan) will be most important.Within this step the following measures and approaches on the regional level should be considered:

  • Strengthening the regional knowledge base concerning KETs.
  • Raising awareness by sensitising SMEs for KETs - Bringing KETs to the regional production and innovation systems and penetration of regional value chains and clusters with research results from KETs.
  • Technological upgrade of existing industries in a region, involving the development of specific applications of KETs.
  • Networking – realising synergistic impact of KETs by bringing together regional stakeholders (R&D, companies …).
  • Exploiting KETs as drivers for cross-sectoral and cross-cluster innovation.
  • To ensure KET’s financing - R&D&I in KETs is very capital-intensive. To stimulate projects the provision of financial resources is of vital importance. Therefore, a combination of various financial instruments is necessary (see ‘financial engineering’).
  • Allocation of skilled workforce - A major problem of KETs is the shortage of sufficiently skilled labour and entrepreneurs capable of handling the multi-disciplinary nature of KETs. Therefore, concerted measures are necessary.
  • Foresight - identification of new social and technical challenges and trends – development of (technological) solutions using KETs.
  • Setting up a monitoring mechanism on KETs to modernise a region (along with the efforts of the European Commission).
  • Stimulation and management support for cooperation projects within value chains and clusters regarding KETs.
  • Identification of additional KETs with special relevance for a region (e. g. simulation technologies in the Weser-Ems region).

KETs have been highlighted by the Commission in the proposal for the new Cohesion Policy as one of the investment priorities of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) as relevant investment for smart growth of regions.[5]


What can be expected?

  • KETs as driver for cross-sectoral and cross-cluster innovation.
  • KETs can help to translate research results into commercialised manufactured goods and services.
  • KETs as element of the Cohesion Policy 2014-2020.
  • KETs as driver for smart specialisation!


A quote

"Europe's innovation depends on the development and growth of Key Enabling Technologies. We need to focus our policies better and align them to create more synergies between our instruments to boost Europe's capabilities in the area of KETs. I am convinced KET's follow-through applications will allow Europe to create more jobs and growth. The commitment of private stakeholders to investing in Europe will also be vital for success."[6] -  Antonio Tajani, European Commission Vice-President




Mr Daniel Kipp


Dr. Daniel Kipp studied economic geography at the University of Osnabruck and wrote his PhD concerning regional innovation support strategies for small and medium-sized enterprises.

For more than ten years he is working as a consultant for MCON Dieter Meyer Consulting GmbH in Oldenburg / Germany. His activities thematically mainly focus on the consulting of public institutions concerning the implementation of economic development processes, improvement of policy instruments and funding opportunities. Furthermore, another thematic area of Daniel Kipp’s work is the support of SMEs in innovation processes.

His research interests lie in particular in the effectiveness of regional innovation systems and in the design of new financial instruments.



Experts' comments

The identification of Key Enabling Technologies is clearly helpful in understanding the dynamics of innovation in a modern economy[7], but the crucial question for economic developers is whether the insights which the idea provides can be converted into effective programmes of intervention. It is one thing for high officials and politicians to call for greater exploitation of KETs in the EU, but it is quite another for intermediary organisations to undertake measures to actually make this happen.

We are told that the European Commission has launched a High Level Expert Group on KETs, and that KETs are a priority in the Europe 2020 strategy. We are also told that one of the EU’s major weaknesses is its failure to exploit KETs as effectively as other economies such as the USA. This latter point has been recognised for decades, but so far no effective means have been found to address the imbalance.

Economic developers need to keep their feet on the ground and not be tempted by the rhetoric into programmes which may be impractical or inappropriate for their regions.

Daniel Kipp points out that “the EU cannot tackle these challenges alone”.  Indeed, its role is necessarily very limited.  Almost all the competences in this area of policy rest with Member States, and the European Commission can do little more than exhort Member States into action. We have seen how ineffective this can be in relation to the Lisbon Agenda, and the progress so far of Europe 2020, even when it is the leaders of Member States who have embraced these programmes in what seems, in hindsight, to have been rather empty political posturing. Whatever is said at the European level, Member States generally seem to follow their own policy agenda back home.

Moving away from the macro, strategic Europe-wide level, there are useful things which can be done at the regional level if economic development priorities are viewed through the prism of KETs. Daniel Kipp sets out some excellent examples in his exposition of KEPs in the RIS process. These would fit well into any regional strategy involving a wide range of stakeholders able to impact of the performance of relevant companies. Depending on the sector profile of a regional economy, attempts to boost KETs could add a novel edge to the familiar mix of policy interventions. This is unlikely to transform the profile of the European economy with its deep-seated problems of not keeping pace with the Americans in the innovation stakes, but it could make some useful improvements at the margins in Europe’s regions. This makes the effort worthwhile. Worth recalling is that Member States have targeted to spend 3% of their GDP on R&D activities without success due to the fact that private investment in this field is lagging behind the USA. Why would it be different for KETs?


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.


[1] SEC (2009) 1257, p. 2

[2] SEC (2009) 1257, p. 8

[3] Final report of the High-Level Group on Key Enabling Technologies.

[4] COM (2012) 341, p.6-7

[5] S3 Platform: Guide to Research and Innovation Strategies for Smart Specialisation (RIS 3), p.86.

[6] COM IP/11/796

[7]The role of KETs is also useful to economic historians