Over the last decade innovation policies within Europe have been heavily shaped by the design and implementation of smart specialisation strategies (S3). These territorial strategies seek to prioritise investments in research and innovation through participatory processes that draw together the knowledge and ideas of firms, universities, governments, and other actors. While they are organised primarily at the regional level, they necessarily connect to strategies and policies being developed at other territorial levels. Indeed, multilevel governance is an essential feature of any strategic approach to innovation because of the interactions between decisions made and actions taken by actors at different territorial scales.

The Interreg Europe Cohes3ion includes partners from 8 European regions and was launched in 2019 with the aim of improving how the multilevel governance dimension is integrated into S3. To mark the end of the first phase of the project, which was based on exchanges of experiences across the regions and exercises to map the current processes and mechanisms for multilevel governance, a webinar was held on 24th March on the theme of ‘making multilevel governance work’. Miren Salazar from lead partner Beaz Bizkaia provided an overview of the project, followed by a panel discussion with Miren Larrea and James Wilson (Orkestra), Kevin Morgan (Cardiff University), Martina Pertoldi (European Commission Joint Research Centre) and Henning Kroll (Fraunhofer ISI).

The discussion started with the presentation of five policy recommendations derived from the project’s shared learning process. The first recommendation is to define the roles of each participant in the multilevel implementation of S3 before that implementation starts. This might seem self-evident, but in practice roles are often not clearly defined and stagnation can follow implementation efforts where roles are fuzzy. The second and third recommendations are invitations to create dialogue spaces. These are not physical spaces, but rather procedures for dialogue that open the possibility for participants to learn together and negotiate each step of implementation based on that learning. These procedures do not necessarily need to be formal, and indeed informal dialogue can often be the most efficient way to keep learning and negotiation going. When creating these spaces governments at the regional level have a central role. On the one hand they can work to integrate subregional governments in S3 processes within their region, and on the other they can negotiate with national governments to connect national resources with local implementation processes.

The fourth recommendation is to empower policy agents operating at multiple levels and help them to connect with the territorial actors within their levels that are relevant for S3. For instance, SMEs can best be accessed at local levels, but local governments and public administration bodies do not always have the competences and capabilities to play this role. This requires a clear definition of who the relevant actors for smart specialization are and which is the policy level that can best integrate them. Finally, the need to have shared monitoring and evaluation tools that can provide commonly understood strategic intelligence about the process is argued to be relevant for every S3 framed in the Cohes3ion project.

The rich discussion among the panel that followed focused on the need to shift from hierarchical relationships to network relationships if multilevel governance is to be effectively integrated into S3. However, this is not a straightforward shift. While it may be easier to envisage a more balanced relationship in the sphere of knowledge-sharing and idea-generation, which are the engine-room of smart specialisation strategies, the need for critical mass of both finance and capabilities tends to re-enforce a hierarchical approach in the ultimate decision-making processes. A key therefore is to develop mechanisms and spaces that can bridge these two processes and engender the trust and mutual understanding required for balanced governance relationships.

The role of cities was also discussed. Urban contexts concentrate an increasing density of population and contain innovation ecosystems that make possible to ‘touch’ real social practices and problems. Cities therefore offer great laboratories to address bigger challenges. Moreover, they are especially vulnerable to sustainability challenges. This underlines the role that urban innovation strategies can play in facilitating urban sustainable transition, especially when linked effectively to regional and national S3 through strong multilevel governance. Indeed, the evolution of S3 to S4 (Sustainable Smart Specialization Strategies) will depend in no small part on the ability to connect urban strategies and processes with regional and national strategies.

The second phase of the Cohes3ion project will be underway soon, with each of the 8 regions developing and implementing a Regional Action Plan to build on the learnings of this first phase and experiment changes in their own multilevel governance structures for S3. This will be the real test in terms of making multilevel governance work in practice in very different contexts, and we hope to welcome all partners to the Basque Country next year to discuss and learn from these experiences.

miren estensoro

Miren Estensoro

Miren Estensoro is a Researcher at Orkestra-Basque Institute of Competitiveness and a lecturer at Deusto Business School. She holds a PhD in Economics from the University of the Basque Country. Her research area is mainly local economic development, territorial governance and multi-level coordination of competitiveness policies.

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miren larrea

Miren Larrea

Miren Larrea is Senior Researcher at Orkestra. She began her professional career as a research assistant at the University of Deusto, where she wrote her doctoral thesis on the local production systems of the Basque Country. After a decade dedicated to teaching and research, she worked for six years at a local development agency, where she combined her experience as a regional development professional with her work as a university researcher.

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james wilson

James Wilson

James Wilson is Research Director at Orkestra-Basque Institute of Competitiveness and teaching faculty at Deusto Business School.

His research interests are in policy-relevant analysis of territorial competitiveness and socio-economic development processes.