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RIS3 and Higher Education

Written by Francesc Solé Parellada

Reviewed by David Walburn


The concept

How to implement it?

Step in the RIS3 process

What can be expected?

A quote


Expert's comments


The concept

The study on how universities contribute to the economic and social development of a region, on how they set up or can change an ecosystem, and ultimately on how the Regional Higher Education System (RHES) become an important player in the innovation, raises a set of questions related to a great variety of disciplines. Among them, it’s important to mention Economics of Technological Change, Regional Economy, Education Economics, Development Economics, and Economics of Knowledge, but also management disciplines such as Entrepreneurship and Innovation. The plurality of theoretical approaches shows the complexity of the question and its transversal nature.

There are two substantive issues to consider when we talk about the contribution of universities to economic and social development. The first one is the amount of people and resources involved, and the second is the specific nature of their activity.

The university in all European regions, regardless of their economic status, has a large number of high qualified staff, and the foremost function of the university is to train people and in fact it trains between 30 and 50 percent of youth population, depending on the region. To meet the training needs of students, universities have a large number of teachers and researchers, remarkable infrastructure assets, and a large number of services. Moreover, the university creates, manages, and disseminates knowledge, thanks to the transfer activities. The knowledge created or developed is the result of reflection and research activities, and at the same time the raw material for teaching. Therefore, the university is an institution responsible for the high level formation of much of the population of a country, and it is also responsible for the creation, processing, dissemination and transfer of much of the knowledge, which is one of the most substantive components of the competitiveness in countries with an economic model that has just been called "Knowledge Economy".


How to implement it?

Reading the guides on the RIS3 and the regional strategic plans, and concerning the design and promotion of the university innovative role, we can conclude that there is no a general model, which can be applied to all systems of higher education, and to all ecosystems. Of course, the basket of policy instruments is varied, consequently the bridge between the knowledge created in universities and innovation is not easy to build and it needs to be designed for each particular region. We do not have closed models and unique formulas, and therefore we need to establish criteria to answer our initial question concerning the creation of the ecosystem.

The observed regional reality clearly shows the difficulty of finding a model to guide us on the contribution of universities to development by simply considering the mechanisms that make knowledge transfer and training the levers of innovation and welfare. We need not solely to establish methodological criteria as it is suggested before, but also to understand the Legal, Economic and Cultural frameworks that determine the "Models of Value Contribution” prevalent in the specific Regional Higher Education Systems in relation to the contribution of universities to the development.

When the regional Legal Framework of a university system includes a specific "Model of Value Contribution" explicitly or implicitly, it is making a practical statement on how the region wants their universities to contribute to the development. Also, when a university decides its “Model of Value Contribution”, it decides how and how much to contribute to the economic and social development.

Some of the criteria to take on account are:

a. The importance of context: The first thing we have to do is to analyze the context in which the university has to play the role. That is, to have a diagnosis to know the maturity of the Regional Innovation System and its Regional Higher Education Systems. Data as R & D relative to GDP, or the number of doctors, or the number of publications per professor, etc. needs to appear on the Strategy and its SWOT.

b. Comparison between models - the synchronic and diachronic trap: The second issue, related to the former, is how useful comparative studies are in other to establish an evolutionary model based on income levels of different regions. The usefulness of this approach lies in the habit of thinking that we can find shortcuts in promoting the contribution of universities to development by copying the elements, especially the incentives, which have already been successfully tested in RHES belonging to other regions, usually with higher incomes per capita. The underlying argument is that there is a road map that is marked by the development, and that it can be shortened by copying and adapting other instruments that have previously tested. However, for the success of this strategy of “copy and adapt” it is necessary to take into account the synchronic and diachronic phenomenon when comparison of roadmaps between systems is made.

c. The different natures of the barriers to overcome: There is an additional precaution when trying to copy or to adapt a RHES model from a different scenario. For copying, the nature of the barriers that the incentive or instrument has helped to overcome must be taken into consideration, and compared to the existing barriers in a particular region, before to take it as a successful model. Usually the barriers are different and so must be the instruments. Also, barriers to certain university functions are not equally overcome with the same instruments applied in a different legal or cultural frameworks, resource level, quality research, etc.

d. The different areas of the contribution of universities to development: When we observe the organizational design of universities, we discover a remarkable range of fields in which the university can contribute to development. Hence, the university may have different roles in the ecosystem.

A useful classification of the different contributions to the development of the university is to group them in a) Conventional contributions; b) Contributions to “support space”, understood as where the university contributes directly to the complexity and richness of the ecosystem; and c) Contributions to economic organization of the territory, that is the connections in the ecosystem. Job placement, contribution to the regional export base, contributing to the improvement of urban space, etc. would be included in group “a)”. Knowledge transfer, spin-offs, patents, science parks, employment, long life learning, etc would be in group “b)”; and regional contribution to global network, contribution to the local networks of the educational system, clusters, etc. would be in group “c)”. The contribution to the social development of the region should be added to these three areas.

Within each group, different instruments should be included in the various fields of RIS3 Innovation Strategy.


Step RIS3 in the process

Of the six steps that marks RIS3 guide:

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

those in which the university has more presence is in the top three, as well as in the fifth and sixth. Experience shows that the university has had an uneven participation depending on the regions. In some regional diagnosis, its presence has been more linear and in others it has been more systemic. Many regions have shown one general SWOT and eventually another one for IT, while others have set up several SWOT related to the different areas of the economic activities and the support spaces for building the final SWOT. Strategies based on the clustering and a systemic vision and ecosystem seem to be the most appropriate to exploit the wide range of possibilities of the university. Finally in step 5 is where the different tools and incentives have to be shown, and in step 6 is the time to test the various pilot programs, and the success or failure of improving the knowledge triangle and the links in the ecosystem. Rectifications according to the results of the strategy are not only possible, but desirable.


What can be expected?

What we can expect as a result of RIS3 depends on the ambition of the each RIS3 strategy. Ambition and rigor will contribute to success in harnessing the potential contribution of RHES. Personally, I think the most important thing that RIS3 brings is the critical analysis of the RHES model, providing value in each region and the corresponding change in the legal and cultural framework linked to the mission of the university. More direct aspects that can be a contribution of the RHES and RIS3 are related to the clustering and internationalisation of the ecosystem by different agents and the improvement or creation of interface organizations with the corresponding funding. Surely the conviction of the need to improve the employability of graduates with a greater professionalization of students will affect the organization of teaching in universities.


A quote

"If the third mission of the university is the contribution of the universities to the economic and social development of its territorial area of influence, we must be wondering what the purpose of the other two missions are."



  • Connecting Universities to Regional RIS3 Growth: A Practical Guide (2013).
  • Berbegal-Mirabent, J.; Lafuente, E.; Sole, F. (2013). The pursuit of knowledge transfer activities: an efficiency analysis of Spanish universities. Journal: Journal of business research, vol. 66.
  • Sole, F.; Berbegal-Mirabent (2012). The third mission of universities: Knowledge generation and dissemination, exploitation, transfer and commitment to society. CYD 2011 report.
  • European Commission (2012) Guide to Research and Innovation Strategies for Smart Specialization (RIS 3 European Commission, Brussels.
  • J. Goddard, D. Robertson and P. Vallance (2012). Universities, Technology and Innovation Centers and Regional Development: A Critical Review. Cambridge Journal of Economics (Special Issue: Universities and the Knowledge Economy).
  • Henry Etzkowitz (2008). The Triple Helix: University-Industry.
  • Innovation in Action by Burton R. Clark (1998). Creating Entrepreneurial Universities: Organizational Pathways of Transformation


Mr Francesc Solé Parellada

 PhD in Industrial Engineering at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC), Bachelor's Degree in Industrial Engineering at the ETSEIB-UPC, Degree in Economic and Business Sciences at the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration of the University of Barcelona. Master in Management of Technology by the UPC. Entrepreneurship Programme MIT.

Dr. Solé Parellada is currently Professor of Business Organization at the UPC, Director of the Unit of Valorization of the UPC (Programa Innova for businesses creation and the promotion of the entrepreneurial culture of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya and the Patent Programme).

He is the Vice President of the Conocimiento y Desarrollo Foundation (CYD), a member of the Scientific Council of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Techniques Industrielles et des Mines of Alès (France), the Council Rector of the School of Public Administration of Catalonia, the Rector Council of Acc10, the Board of the Catalan Association of Regional Science, and the Council scientific of the Hospital Complex of the Parc Taulí. He is also an expert designated by the EU DG Regio for the RIS3.

Dr. Solé Parellada has been Professor in the University of Quebec and a visiting Professor at the University of Aix en Provence. He has received the Narcís Monturiol medal to scientific and technological merit awarded by the Generalitat de Catalunya and awarded by the Medal of merit from the Spanish Ministry of Industry, Commerce and tourism on an individual basis. He has been Vice-Rector of the UPC, Director of the Science Park and Innovation of the UPC, Director of the Program Dona of the UPC and Vice President of the Polytechnic Foundation of Catalonia.

He has written over 300 books and articles on Industrial and Technological Policy, Economics of the Technological Change, Regional Development and Management of Universities.


Expert's comments

This is the third paper in the Wikiproject series dealing with the role of universities in RIS3 strategy, and many of the comments from the previous papers will also apply here. The paper covers similar ground to the others, noting the variation in how universities are set up and run throughout the Member States of the EU and how this complicates the formation of policy which has to reflect this variation and the differences between regions.

This paper makes particular mention of human resource and its importance to the RIS3 process, and it is worth pausing to consider some of the implications of this. The scale and variety of human input required from universities to impact on the regional economy and its research capability is well described in the paper. The assumption might be that if the level of innovation and its impact on RIS3 is to be improved, something would have to change in the way this human resource is deployed. How this might be achieved through the introduction of better practice has been well covered in the accompanying papers, but there is also the question of the quantum of human resource. 

As the paper points out, the Lisbon Agenda, formulated in 2000, called for an increase in research and development spending to 3% of GDP across the EU by 2010. The paper points out that “the reality was far from this goal”. The Commission is now targeting 2020 as the target date. This ambition has usually been described in financial terms – how much money should go into research and development. What is never described in the statement of policy of what such an increase would mean in human terms: the number of qualified researchers that would be required to actually use up the target level of spending. The EU spending on research and development is barely above 2% of GDP at present, with only the Scandinavian Member States reaching the target level. Overall spending would have to increase by 50% to reach the 2020 target, but would this also involve a 50% increase in the numbers of people involved in delivering that level of research? If so, where would they come from? Are universities training up this cohort now? Is lack of human resource for research and development the main drag on EU performance?

Far more attention needs to be given to issues of human resource in RIS3 and other aspects of Europe 2020 which depend on research and development.


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.