S3 in the Western Balkans: What Difficulties to Expect and How to Overcome Them

Western Balkan countries (WBC) are currently embarking on their process of drafting smart specialisation strategies (research and innovation strategies for smart specialisation or RIS3). This process includes the so-called entrepreneurial discovery process (EDP) which is basically a participatory process of setting priorities in regional development and innovation policy, and particularly in using EU funds more strategically.

In the EDP, actors from the quadruple helix (companies, government, academia, civil society) should somehow come together and identify knowledge domains in which their regional or national economy is well positioned. Moverover, actors are supposed to develop actions to strengthen economic activities building on these knowledge domains, and to do so in an evidence-based way by using quantitative and qualitative data.

Because of this participatory EDP, the smart specialisation approach is a departure from previous innovation strategies that were often designed top-down by government agencies. Instead, smart specialisation is based on the idea that to stimulate tangible change in the complex system of a regional or national economy, it is not enough for just one actor (such as government) to define strategic priorities. Instead, a coalition of actors has to agree on a commonly shared vision and on joint action by defining priorities and distributing tasks accordingly.

In the EU, the submission of RIS3 has effectively become a requirement for regions or countries under the umbrella of EU Cohesion Policy since 2014. For WBC, pursuing a national or regional smart specialisation process is not obligatory but highly recommended because of the strategic vision it helps create. This is why WBC are currently preparing or starting their EDPs. While Serbia and Montenegro are kicking off their EDPs, other WBC are preparing to do so.
Judging from the example of EU regions and countries in pursuing their EDPs but also from prior participative public-private policy-making processes such as cluster policy, WBC will most likely encounter some typical problems they will have to overcome:

  • First of all, pursuing a participative EDP and subsequently implementing the resulting RIS3 together requires trust among stakeholders, both public and private ones. This is a fundamental problem when engaging private companies because they may compete against each other and thus be reluctant to share information on their competitive strengths and weaknesses. Public actors facilitating the EDP have a critical role to play in building trust. The goal should not be to encourage competing companies to share sensitive information amongst each other. Rather, the goal should be to raise companies' awareness for fields of common interest. A RIS3 should not impede competition which is an essential driver of productivity growth but facilitate cooperation on some clearly delimited fields of shared interest all companies - even competing ones - can jointly benefit from. This idea is not new. Indeed, this idea was a central element of Porter's cluster definition, referring to companies that compete and cooperate at the same time.
  • Second, trust among actors cannot be built from one day to the next. Building trust requires continuous interaction. At the same time, regional development and innovation policy are fields that do not lend themselves to quick and easy success. The outcomes even of the most successful strategies will often be long-term and may require permanent monitoring and policy learning. Since economic development is a matter of complex social processes, the results of interventions cannot be foreseen with certainty. Therefore, strategies will have to be checked and adapted regularly. All of these reasons suggest that to achieve its full potential, the EDP should not be regarded as a one-off event but rather as a permanent process. Engaging stakeholders in a permanent dialogue process and possibly opening the process to new actors joining at some point in time is another key task of public actors facilitating and organising the process.
  • Third, a RIS3 can be a powerful tool to integrate priorities emanating from various policy areas into an overarching, cross-cutting document and thus to align policies designed by different ministries or agencies. This opportunity should not be wasted. A RIS3 should not simply be yet another document on the shelf. Instead, a RIS3 should be relevant by incorporating a shared vision compatible with a wide range of stakeholders' priorities. Achieving a high degree of alignment and thus ownership significantly increases the prospects for successful RIS3 implementation. Here again, facilitators have a critical role to play in identifying the relevant pre-existing strategies and in securing ownership of the EDP by stakeholders whose strategies and priorities are relevant for regional development and innovation policy.
  • Fourth, a RIS3 necessarily has to be context-specific. As the very name of smart "specialisation" suggests, every region or nation should develop a strategy on how to best seize opportunities arising from its own strengths and assets in terms of knowledge domains. A copy-and-paste approach to strategy design is unlikely to result in such a context-specific strategy and reduces the potential to seize growth opportunities in the relevant regional or national economy. Again, a well-designed EDP can contribute to ensuring context-sensitivity, but two aspects are worth heeding: A well-designed EDP requires carefully elaborated data on the regional or national economy, both quantitative and qualitative. Analyzing value-added and employment in economic sectors is not sufficient because a RIS3 should not focus on sectors or industries but on knowledge domains that will often cross sectoral lines. Explorative qualitative methods such as focus groups and expert or stakeholder interviews are highly recommended. The other aspect to heed is that context-sensitivity of the EDP requires including the "right" stakeholders. Deciding on whom to include is a highly complicated and sensitive task. Achieving statistical representativeness across the whole regional or national economy is close to impossible. Neither is statistical representativeness the goal of the EDP. Rather, the EDP should include stakeholders who have something relevant to say about how to promote their regional or national economy along promising innovative trajectories, and who are interested in contributing to the implementation of the RIS3. Apart from established and well-known companies, intermediaries and businesspeople, including "newcomers" such as young entrepreneurs or students should be considered because they may contribute "out of the box" thinking. Assembling such a group is a highly complicated task for those public actors facilitating and organising the process, and requires in-depth relational knowledge and experience in the regional or national economy.

From the few points mentioned above, it is evident that organising a well-designed EDP is the core of smart specialisation, and it is arguably the most difficult task in the whole process. Among EU countries and regions that have developed RIS3, there is a wide range of experiences on how to organise an EDP in a more of less successful way. WBC have the chance to benefit from this experience and to use their future RIS3 as strategic roadmaps to develop their economies on the basis of their peculiar strenghts and assets.

Maximilian Benner

Geographical focus
  • WBC
Scientifc field / Thematic focus
  • Cross-thematic/Interdisciplinary
  • General

Entry created by Maximilian Benner on April 13, 2018
Modified on April 13, 2018