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What S3 means for European Regions, different forms of smart specialisation

Smart Specialization is the prioritizing that takes place, at a territorial level, in economic activities, scientific areas and technological domains that are potentially competitive and generators of new market opportunities in a global context versus the prioritizing that other territories carry out (Del Castillo et al. 2012).

Written by Jaime del Castillo and Jonatan Paton


The concept

How to implement it?

Step in the RIS process

What can be expected?

A quote



The concept

The concept of smart specialization comes from reflection generated around the structural "gap" between Europe and the USA, as result of a lower economic and technological specialization and less ability to prioritize and to dedicate consistent efforts at the regional level (Pontikakis et al. 2009).

Smart specialization is still a developing concept, initiated mainly by authors that currently advise the Commission itself (Foray 2009 and McCann and Ortega-Argilés 2011). The concept is composed by three main elements:

Source: Del Castillo et al. 2013

The combination of these three elements leads to a mechanism from which regions may increase wealth and create jobs through specialized diversification processes. But also implies a range of potential applications when considering different regional profiles.


How to implement it?

The importance gained by smart specialization concept has resulted in a translation into to the new approaches of European regional policy in the context of Europe 2020, being established as one of the conditionalities for accessing the ERDF in the next programming period 2014 -2020 (EC 2011) through the elaboration of the Regional Smart Specialisation Strategies (RIS3).

The RIS3 processes proposed by the Commission are not new but an updated and improved rethinking of the methodology used in the previous Regional Innovation Strategies (RIS). In fact, they seek for overcoming some barriers and limitations encountered in the past (Landabaso 2011). RIS3 maintain the traditional strategic definition approach but including the features of the smart specialization model:

Source: compiled from Del Castillo et al. (2012)

In the RIS3 Guide published by IPTS (2012), some regional profiles classifications are mentioned as well as an indicative set of policies and measures related to them[1]. Although this issue remains undefined in the field, it is clear that, from the three elements stated before and according to the new logic of the Cohesion Policy, the RIS3 should play a pivotal role between regional policy and those of other institutional levels.

RIS3 strategies should incorporate actions to increase the participation of the regions in European programs such as Horizon 2020 and COSME ("upstream"), as well to generate the absorptive capacity of the results created at the European level ("downstream"). In other words, the RIS3 must be an interface between the funds allocated at a regional level and the rest of the European funds.


Source: Del Castillo et al. 2013

In practice, a RIS3 process is about how to generate the methodological foundations to facilitate a good analysis of regional competitiveness, to identify entrepreneurial discovery initiatives, to reach consensus about actions and instruments to support these initiatives, and to establish commitments among all agents involved. And these principles are common for any regions going through a smart specialization process independently of its relative position in terms of economic structure and innovation capacity.

What differs from one region to another is the approach tackling the issue of structural diversification, and more specifically, the way used to identify and support entrepreneurial discoveries in their RIS3. European Commission point out four paths to structural diversification (EC 2010):

  • REDESIGNING actions ("retooling" or modernization of an existing activity) would be based on the support of the improvement of the environmental assets that act directly upon the competitiveness of such activity.
  • The actions oriented to the DIVERSIFICATION BY SYNERGIES ("emerging") generate business by combining R & D and innovation and related business activities.
  • The actions of ACTIVITY EXTENSION ("Extending" or transition from an activity to another new one) consist on the access to a new niche by exploiting economies of scope.
  • The actions of RADICAL FOUNDATION ("cross-sectoral" or exploitation of related variety generators of radical innovations) that are seen as new combinations of sectors / technology domains that help generate innovative ideas for new products and services.


Step in the RIS process



What can be expected?

The search for regional smart specialization can be positive to build a competitive advantage that positions the region on a path of creating wealth and employment in the context of globalization. However, there are a number of risks that can turn opportunities into threats:

Source: compiled from Paton and Barroeta 2012

Finally, smart specialisation is not a list of technologies/sectors where the region represents an advantage, but a process of discovery subject to a cycle of life that varies in time according to the regional capabilities and the varying environmental trends.

All regions, apart from their dominant sectors and their technological/innovation capability, are potential hosts of creative combination of technologies and/or sectors where the generation of new business opportunities, employment and wealth is possible: entrepreneurial discovery does not respond to a unique pattern, nor sectorial nor technological. Therefore a RIS3 must be capable of establishing the mechanisms to identify/discover those innovations, turning them into concrete initiatives.

The Administration must act as a facilitator of the conditions that generate and systematize the entrepreneurial discoveries and as limitator of the imperfections of the system (in those regions with less favorable conditions).


A quote

A good model of territorial development must be based on a strategic process and governance capable of securing competitive and competitive advantages from the territory's assets (tangible and intangible) in a global context. Besides it must be completed with the reinvention through new economic activities that changes the regional economy across successive "waves of innovation".



  • Del Castillo, J., Barroeta, B. y Paton, J. (2012) “Smart Specialisation Strategies RIS3: A quick guide”. INFYDE Working Papers, Year 2, Vol.1
  • Del Castillo, J. Paton, J. t Barroeta, B. (2013a) «Territorial Governance in the context of RIS3 Smart Specialisation Strategy»
  • Del Castillo, J. Paton, J. t Barroeta, B. (2013b) «Smart Specialisation and entrepreneurial discovery: theoury and reality behind the concept»
  • European Commission (2010) «Regional Policy Contributing to smart growth in Europe 2020”.COM(2010) 553 final
  • European Commission (2011b) “Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on Specific provisions concerning the ERDF and the Investment for growth and jobs goal” (EC) No 1080/2006
  • Foray, D (2009) “Understanding Smart Specialisation” en Pontikakis et al. (2009) “The question of R&D Specialisation: perspectives and policy
  • IPTS (2012) “Guide to research and innovation strategies for smart specialisation RIS3
  • Landabaso, M. (2011) “Strategic guidance for the new EU Cohesion Policy 2014-2020 in the research and innovation field”. Meeting on Smart Specialisation in Andalucia. Seville.
  • McCan, P. y Ortega-Argilés, R. (2011) “Smart Specialisation, regional growth and applications to EU Cohesion policy”. Economic Geography working paper 2011.
  • Paton, J. y Barroeta, B. (2012) “RIS3 policy typology: the optimun policy mix for a regional smart specialisation
  • Pontikakis, Kyriakou y Van Bavel (2009) “The question of R&D Specialisation: perspectives and policy implications


Mr Jaime del Castillo

 President of INFYDE (since 1987) and Professor of Applied Economy. University of the Basque Country (since 1992)

As Infyde is one of the partners of the LEED programme, Jaime del Castillo has collaborated with LEED in many different projects. 

He has an extensive experience working in the fields of Innovation and Technological Development definition and design of policies of promotion of innovation and technology transfer, the establishment of co-operation networks and assessment in the creation, management and animation of technology parks. He has specialised in the definition and setting up strategies of territorial development in regions and areas with development problems.

Jaime has a wide knowledge of procedures and instruments of European regional development policy in general and the European structural support in particular.

On several occasions he has worked for the EU, OECD, BID, CEPAL and for regional and local governments in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Morocco, and Bulgaria.


Mr Jonatan Paton

Jonatan Paton has a degree in Economics for the University of Basque Country. He is specialised in various subjects highlighting quantitative economy (statistics and econometrics), microeconomics, geographic economy and economics of innovation and technical change. He is finalizing its PhD in Applied Economic with the thesis entitle “Clusters: Key elements of regional development”.

He has also studied in London School of Economics during 2007 and 2008 in fields related to strategic management and entrepreneurship and globalisation. In 2008 he has obtained a Diploma in the framework of MOC (Microeconomic of Competitiveness) programme organised by Orkestra (Basque Institute for Competitiveness) and Harvard University.

He is author and co-author of many publications of international reference in economics of innovation, competitiveness policy and cluster policy. He has participated as a speaker in many international conferences focused on innovation and competitiveness policy.

Jonatan Paton has worked in Infyde as a consultant and researcher for more than 6 years in the following fields: Regional Innovation and Competitiveness Strategies, Quantitative Impact Analysis, Evaluation and monitoring, Cluster Policy and Cluster Initiatives and EU projects definition and development. He has wide experience in all these fields at regional and national level (Spain and other European Countries). Previously Jonatan Paton has worked in University of Basque Country Department of Economic Analysis Foundations II as a research assistant in the fields of macroeconomics and labour markets.

At national level he has participated in projects mainly related to Competitiveness and cluster policies (Spanish Ministry of Industry, Energy and Tourism) and in a context of direct work with companies, especially through innovation clusters (Cluster of Innovation in Tourism of the Balearic Islands, clusters launched within the programme Tenerife Innova in the Canary Islands, identification and impact of clusters in Castilla y Leon, evaluation of AEIs programme of Spanish Ministry of Industry, etc). Besides, in Infyde he has collaborated with APTE Association of Science and Technology Parks of Spain, in the design of its strategic plan, impact assessment of the Parks in Spain, feasibility studies and definition of the parks strategy and evaluation of results from different technology parks.

Finally, he has acquired a wide experience in implementation of business assessment activities and ad hoc advice to increase business competitiveness. At European level he has worked in the framework of European Programmes (FP7, CIP) and DG Regio (participation in Interregs) mainly identification and preparing proposals for specific calls in these programming areas.


[1] Pages 48, 54 to 57 of RIS3 Guide from IPTS

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What S3 means for European Regions, different forms of smart specialisation by Jaime del Castillo and Jonatan Paton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.