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Theoretical basis for regional strategy development

Written by Mikel Navarro, Mari Jose Aranguren and James Wilson (Orkestra-Basque Institute of Competitiveness and Deusto Business School)

Reviewed by David Walburn


The concept


Expert's comments


The concept

Research and Innovation Smart Specialisation Strategies (RIS3) are not entirely new. For instance, the European Commission already promoted RIS (Regional Innovation Strategy) and RISI (Regional Information Society Initiatives) in the 1990s. However, these previous attempts failed to meet expectations for lacking both a sound theoretical framework and previous policy learning about how to implement such strategies. Although many lessons might be drawn for RIS3 from analysing these previous experiences (see Landabaso, 2011), here we will focus on the theoretical basis supporting regional innovation strategy development more generally.

There are two key questions that all strategies should pose: “what” should be done and “how”. The main theoretical framework from which past analysts attempted to respond to the first question (to the “what” of the strategy) was the Innovation System approach (Lundvall, 1992; Nelson, 1993; Braczyk et al., 1998; Asheim and Gertler, 2005). This school of thought was concerned mainly with the territorial structures for generating and implementing knowledge and their potential systemic failures. Accordingly, they tended to prioritise horizontal policies (correcting the weaknesses detected in the system, i.e. insufficient R&D, lack of co-operation between agents, etc.).  Moreover, most of the thinking coming from this research showed a bias towards a narrow conception of innovation (based on R&D) and an inward-looking focus (neglecting external influences and connectivity of the innovation system).

With regard to the “how”, past literature was able to differentiate the concepts of government and governance. Furthermore, concepts such as the “triple helix” (Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff, 2000) and “clusters” (Porter, 1998; Marshall, 1919; Pyke et al., 1990), which acknowledge the necessity of going  beyond the government and including also universities and business in the governance of the system, have become popular. Indeed, with regards how to do territorial strategy there is much to be learned from looking at the cluster policies that characterise the existing policy landscape in most places. Like RIS3, clusters were adopted very rapidly by policy-makers and have required the development of ‘theory in practice’ with regards their functioning and empirical grounding as valuable competitiveness policies (Aranguren and Wilson, 2013). What is more, cluster policies share many basic characteristics with RIS3: both seek to facilitate forms of cooperation among firms and a range of other agents that are developing related/complementary economic activities; both are systemic policies that require new forms of governance and leadership in articulating effective decision-making processes (Sudgen et al. 2006; Navarro et al., 2013).

What are the singularities presented by the RIS3 literature in comparison with these previous approaches from a theoretical point of view?

First of all, some authors have started to reflect on the specificities of strategy when it is applied to regions (see Navarro et al., 2013). In that sense they offer an overall framework for the analysis of innovation based regional strategies that was absent until now. Complementarily, a RIS3 guide has been elaborated, with the collaboration of renowned scholars and practitioners (Foray et al., 2012), to fix clear steps for the design, implementation and assessment of these kinds of strategies.

Secondly, with regards an agenda for the economic transformation of regions, while traditional debates were between supporters of ‘specialisation’ (as embodied by Marshall, Arrow and Romer) and ‘diversification’ (as embodied by Jacobs), the literature on RIS3 has taken a position in favour of “specialised diversification”. In this, it follows the path opened by Frenken et al., (2007) and Asheim et al. (2006) concerning the advantages of related variety.

Thirdly, though not rejecting the need for horizontal priorities and policies, the RIS3 literature holds that territories must set and focus on thematic or vertical priorities. This marks a clear change of course from the tendencies that had previously prevailed in territorial strategies, which favoured horizontal priorities (i.e. identifying functions or aspects of the innovation system in which work was needed), and coincides with a revitalisation of debates around the importance of industrial policy. However the RIS3 literature maintains that these thematic priorities should not be set at sectoral level, but rather for ‘activities’. These arise, according to Foray (2013), from crossing industries with new opportunities coming from technologies (especially, from the so-called Key Enabling Technologies: bio, nano and the like) and markets (for instance, ageing). To give an example, it is not so much about fostering plastics, but about crossing and orienting plastics towards the health system (see the Cikautxo case in Orkestra, 2013: 80). Priorities should be chosen according to the relative strengths and weaknesses, and the characteristics of the territory. In that sense, RIS3 can be seen as a place-based policy, since the production assets and knowledge base in which the territory has a comparative advantage must be taken into account as the basis for such specialisation (McCann & Ortega-Argilés, 2011).

This emphasis on vertical priorities and place-based policies differentiates the RIS3 approach from those that focus on improving basic institutions (regulations and social services) and infrastructures, and which are spatially blind and, to some extent, ignorant of context (for example, Gill, 2010, or World Bank, 2008).

Finally, RIS3 literature holds that strategic choices must be the result of an entrepreneurial discovery process. Certainly, previous approaches, such us the triple helix and clusters, had advocated similarly that priorities should not be shaped only by governments, with the help of advisors and consultants. In this regard, one of the steps forward has been that RIS3 literature speaks of a quadruple helix, rather than triple helix. In this regard, along with a broader goals (in addition to economic competitiveness, also social and environmental sustainability) and a broader understanding about the concept of innovation (not only product and process innovation based on R&D, but also not technological and social innovation), RIS3 advocates including market and civil society actors in the process of entrepreneurial discovery.



  •  Aranguren, M.J. and Wilson, J. (2013). What can experience with clusters teach us about fostering regional smart specialisation?. Ekonomiaz, 83 (2): 127-145.
  • Asheim, B. T. and Gertler M. S. (2005). The Geography of Innovation. Regional Innovation Systems. In Fagerberg, J., Mowery, D.C., and Nelson, R. R. (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Innovation, Nueva York, Oxford University Press (pp. 291-317).
  • Asheim, B., Boschma, R.A., Cooke, P., Dahlstrand-Lindholm, A., Laredo P. and Piccauga, A. (2006), Constructing regional advantage. Principles, perspectives, policies. DG Research, European Commission.
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  • Etzkowitz, H. and Leydesdorff, L. (2000). The dynamics of innovation: from National Systems and ‘Mode 2’ to a Triple Helix of university-industry-government relations. Research Policy 29: 109-123.
  • Foray, D. (2013). The economic fundamentals of smart specialisation. Ekonomiaz 83: 55-82.
  • Foray, D., Goddard, J., Goenaga, X., Landabaso, M., McCann, P., Morgan, K., Nauwelaers, C. and Ortega-Argilés, R. (2012). Guide to Research and Innovation Strategies for Smart Specialisations (RIS 3), European Commission.
  • Frenken, K., van Oort, F.G. and Verburg, T. (2007) Related variety, unrelated variety and regional economic growth. Regional Studies 41 (5): 685–97.
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Expert's comments

This paper presents a detailed review of the literature on the nature and structures which are relevant to initiatives of the European Commission in the area of economic development and innovation, looking at RIS3 in the context of what has gone before. This is useful for practitioners in so far as it is always important to understand where the objectives of public policy fit in the way that strategies and programmes have been developed.

I have already written much in these commentaries about the dangers of the theory becoming divorced from the real world as it is experienced by economic development practitioners and the milieu in which they work. To be fair, the authors of this paper are aware of this danger, but once one gets among the language of their analysis and the jargon used, the connectivity with common practice seems weakened. This is a really important issue when we need to communicate effectively with people such as politicians about these matters, and for whom concepts such as triple or even quadruple helixes are probably meaningless.

There is a further point to make about regional strategy development as it applies to the EU, though this is not a criticism of the main paper. We need to remember that most of the competences related to economic development in the EU rest with Member States. This is particularly so outside the area of regional policy. The Lisbon Agenda and Europe 2020 were both developed to apply to the economy of the Union as a whole. There has developed a language and a way of thinking which does not sufficiently acknowledge this reality. Finding an effective way of really engaging national governments in EU economic development strategies, rather than pursuing their own domestic priorities, has so far largely eluded the Commission. We need to give more explicit attention to this problem.


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.