Higher Education Institutions (HEI) are key actors in territorial innovation ecosystems. They fulfil critical roles through their education and training activities, their research activities, and their engagement with other actors around the challenges facing their territories. They are therefore pivotal to the development of territorial strategies, such as the Smart Specialisation Strategies (S3) that have been designed and implemented across Europe over the last decade.

The ongoing S3 experiment therefore presents a great opportunity to explore the roles being played by HEIs and to understand the challenges that they are facing to increase impact in their territories. To that end we have analysed 11 European case studies developed between 2017 and 2021 under the Higher Education for Smart Specialisation (HESS) project, an initiative jointly managed by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) and the Directorate General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture (DG EAC).

The regions and countries analysed are characterised by different levels of economic development, and also presented substantial differences in the nature of their S3 governance processes and HEI systems, the priorities that they are pursuing within their S3, and their innovation policy mixes. While this heterogeneity in the cases made it difficult to draw concrete transversal lessons, we identified 15 categories of innovative practices for HEI contributions to regional innovation ecosystems. These can be grouped in four dimensions.

1. Governance of S3 and HEI system: HEIs can involve themselves in the governance of the S3 process and the governance of the wider HEI system. The form and degree in which they involve themselves affects their capacity to engage in the S3 process and contribute to the regional innovation ecosystem. Across the cases, a range of innovative practices were found in four areas:
• Leadership of HEIs in the design and implementation of S3
• Participation of HEIs in S3 governance bodies
• S3 stakeholder representation in HEI governing bodies
• HEI institutional capacity, coordination, and multilevel governance

Navarre, for instance, stands out as a region in which HEIs participate in S3 working groups and decision-making bodies, and thematic Chairs have been established within universities to link HEIs to specific S3 priorities.

2. Engagement of HEIs roles in innovation systems: The role of HEIs extends beyond involvement in S3 governance to include innovative practices that support S3 implementation through the different roles that HEIs play on a day-to-day basis in regional innovation systems. Here, a further four categories of innovative practices were identified:
• HE engagement with business
• Connecting SMEs and entrepreneurs to S3
• HEIs engagement with intermediate institutions, such as cluster management organisations
• Mechanisms for embedding HEIs in the innovation ecosystem

Technopoles in Lower Austria are a great example of how to enable closer connections between university research groups and companies, while in the Northern Netherlands the company-led Dairy Campus in Leeuwarden and potato starch research activities in Groningen demonstrate the value for companies of investing in building relationships with HEIs as a route to becoming embedded in the innovation ecosystem.

3. Skills development and training: The contribution of this core function of HEIs to innovation ecosystems was strongly reflected in all the case studies. Specifically, innovative practices were found related to:
• An explicit focus on human capital built into S3
• Specific initiatives to meet companies’ skills needs
• Industrial doctorate programmes
• Linking HEIs and VET systems

An example that stands out here is HEIs from the Northern Netherlands, committed to foster an “innovation workplace”, with universities developing learning activities that expose students to activated learning in knowledge application contexts, connecting them to living labs and infrastructures contributing to S3 priorities.

4. Connecting HEIs and S3 externally to learn from and with others: This final dimension captures innovative practices related to the cross-border, inter-regional or international connectivity of HEIs, facilitating processes of learning with and from others. It includes practices related to:
• Cross-border initiatives and international collaboration
• Leveraging the HESS case-study process for learning
• EU funded programmes and instruments

Cross-border initiatives, for example, can play an important role in the evolution from narrower university-university collaborations towards broader collaborations across research and innovation ecosystems. This practice features strongly in the Navarre region, which has joined several cross-border initiatives including the Competitiv’eko initiative, and in North Central Bulgaria, where HEIs are part of a number of networks and associations that bring together partners from the Danube Region.

Alongside the range of innovative practices showcased, the cases also highlight significant diversity in terms of how funding is leveraged to support the role of HEIs in innovation ecosystems. EU funding is in some cases heavily oriented towards HEIs and in other cases less so, while complementary national and regional funding initiatives to engage HEIs appear to be important. Moreover, while HEIs in less developed regions HEIs often assume an even greater role in the animation of innovation dynamics through access to relevant funding streams, they are also confronted with bigger challenges. Indeed, HEIs must overcome various internal and external limitations to become effective recipients of funding that can generate knowledge, skills, and linkages relevant for the territorial strategy. In more developed territories, on the other hand, while funding was also important, other more sophisticated practices like co-funding and HEIs participating in the design of funding streams come into play.

Our full findings can be found in this JRC Technical Report, which includes many more examples of innovative practices and a summary table presented as a source of inspiration and learning for regions working to strengthen the role of HEIs in their innovation ecosystems.


Eskarne Arregui

Eskarne Arregui Pabollet

Eskarne Arregui Pabollet has worked as a scientific project officer in the Knowledge for Finance, Innovation and Growth Unit of the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission. She has contributed to the implementation of the Smart Specialisation Strategies providing support and policy advice to EU Member States and regions to build capacity for increased impact of European Structural and Investments Funds (ESIF) for research and innovation. She has a background in Economics and holds a Master’s Degree of Public Policy by the London School of Economics and Political Science. Prior to joining the Commission, she worked as international area coordinator in the Excellence Initiatives of the University of Bordeaux and the Basque Country and a health research institute, as well as a senior innovation consultant in Brussels and Spain.

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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.

patricia canto

Patricia Canto

Patricia Canto is a researcher at Orkestra-Basque Institute of Competitiveness. She holds a PhD in Social Sciences (University of Deusto); an MPhil in Development Studies (IDS-University of Sussex); an MA in International Relations (University of Sussex) and a BA in International Relations from the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM).

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