Entrepreneurial Universities and Regional Innovation: Matching Smart Specialisation Strategies to Regional Needs?

Entrepreneurial Universities and Regional Innovation: Matching Smart Specialisation Strategies to Regional Needs?

Liliana Fonseca (University of Aveiro, Portugal) and Maria Salomaa (University of Lincoln, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-0174-0.ch014


Universities are expected to play a leading role in the smart specialisation strategy process, However, a gap between discourse and practice is marking the RIS3-related regional development programmes, which can be extended to the involvement of universities in the process. A mismatch can be speculated between the expectations towards universities' roles in RIS3 implementation and actual practice, and its repercussions on a regional innovation ecosystem. This chapter addresses the extent to which the role played by universities in a region's innovation and entrepreneurial practice aligns with the smart specialisation strategic outline. As an in-depth case-study of the University of Aveiro (Portugal), it draws on both quantitative and qualitative data, with an analysis of RIS3 approved projects in the Portuguese NUTS II Centro region, and interviews with key actors within the university and the regional administration. Through this, it weighs the contribution of entrepreneurial universities to the RIS3 goals, drawing lessons for public policy and discussing the future of RIS3.
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Universities are expected to contribute to the development of their regions, not just through their teaching and research missions, but increasingly through a “third mission” of dynamic engagement with external, and mainly regional partners (Charles, Kitagawa, & Uyarra, 2014; Chatterton & Goddard, 2000). In turn, the promotion of interaction between the university and other regional institutional actors through diverse engagement mechanisms is believed to stimulate innovation processes (Uyarra, 2010). Adapting to the strain of these growing expectations, and in search of alternative funding sources, universities have assumed a more entrepreneurial approach in their regional engagement. This is exemplified by their involvement in the development of incubators and science parks, and by their increasing pursuit of contract research, consultancy services and partnerships (Jongbloed, Enders, & Salerno, 2008). The importance of these relationships has been progressively underlined and encouraged in the political discourse, more evidently within EU’s most recent Cohesion Policy, which in its incorporation of the smart specialisation concept has linked structural funds (SF) and ERDF particularly to research and innovation initiatives (Goddard, Kempton, & Vallance, 2013).

Universities are also considered crucial institutions in the regional development dynamics associated with smart specialisation, and particularly the research and innovation smart specialisation strategies (RIS3). The basic underlying argument is that development potential inherent to the knowledge generation, diffusion and dissemination capacity of academia is instrumental in a regional development policy context inspired by the smart specialisation concept (Begg, 2016). In other words, universities are expected to play a leading role in strategy implementation, relying on what is unique in a given region, namely the R&D and innovation domains in which that region can hope to excel (Foray, David, & Hall, 2009).

There is, however, evidence that a gap between discourse and practice is marking the RIS3-related regional development programmes (e.g. Iacobucci, 2012; Kroll, 2017), particularly evident in less-developed regions (LDRs), and which can be extended to the involvement of universities in the process. Universities themselves manage different forms of incorporation of the RIS3 processes, which are very much dependent on territorial context, historical legacy (Breznitz & Feldman, 2012) and overall entrepreneurial architecture (Salomaa, 2019). As can often be the case of universities in peripheral regions, even entrepreneurial ones, if there is a divergence between the universities’ activities and the needs of the surrounding local innovation ecosystem (Charles, 2016), it is likely entrepreneurial spillovers will remain minimal (Brown, 2016) and RIS3 processes fail to further them. Accordingly, one can speculate about a mismatch between the expectations towards the role of universities in RIS3 implementation and actual practice, and its repercussions on a regional innovation ecosystem.

This chapter reflects on an entrepreneurial university’s potential to contribute towards regional development through its involvement in the RIS3 process and resulting projects funded through SF. Empirically, it presents an in-depth case study of a university – the University of Aveiro – in a particular regional context – the less-developed Centro NUTS II region of Portugal –, aiming to address the relation between the regional government authority, the RIS3 process and the university in responding to regional needs and in fomenting the innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem. The study strives to contribute to the debate on the implementation issues of regional policies driven by smart specialisation, focusing particularly on the role of academia.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Less-Developed Regions: An economic categorisation of the European Union’s cohesion framework. In the period 2014-2020, less-developed regions were considered those that had a GDP less than 75% of the EU average. They would thus be eligible to receive more funding.

Smart Specialisation Strategies (S3) or Research and Innovation Strategies for Smart Specialisation (RIS3): A strategic approach defined by the EU and implemented in the 2014-2020 framework. It targets support for research and innovation, aiming to supplement previous industrial policies to include more educational and innovation policy approaches. Specifically aimed at the regional level for a more granular, place-based approach to EU cohesion, it is a process of identification, definition and development of regional strengths for enhanced competitiveness. While S3 engenders the involvement of varied regional stakeholders in the strategy process, it highlights the role of higher education institutions as guides in what is ultimately a knowledge-based innovation strategy.

Entrepreneurial Architecture: The routines, norms, structures and channels that influence the behaviour of individuals within a certain strategic mould and enable the flow of knowledge and innovation from the university to society. Vorley and Nelles (2009) have proposed a framework to illustrate the internal mechanisms involved in how entrepreneurial activities are embedded into the core institutional missions of the university. Salomaa (2019) has expanded this conceptualisation of entrepreneurial architecture to include contextual influences.

Entrepreneurial Discovery Process: A bottom-up learning process which frames the interaction and inclusion of varied regional actors (policy, business, academia, social sector) who provide their knowledge and expertise. This helps in the analysis of regional strengths and in the identification and exploration of emerging trends and opportunities to define and shape the regional strategy for heightened competitiveness and development.

Entrepreneurial Ecosystem: The socio-economic environment shaping and fostering local and regional entrepreneurship as an economic development strategy. Within this framework, actors orient their focus to regional development and value-creation. The entrepreneurial ecosystem encompasses key players that are adopting an entrepreneurial mindset (risk and discovery) and developing related activities. It is considered by Santos and Caseiro (2015) as a required element for the implementation of a collective strategy and learning approach based on innovative assets and opportunities, and the result of dynamics between entrepreneurial universities and smart specialisation strategies.

Third Academic Mission or “Third Mission”: Term asserting the additional responsibilities of universities in engaging with society and responding to market demands and developmental needs. Besides the other two core functions of teaching and research, universities are now imbued with a “third mission” of external, and often, regional engagement, through which they aim to create strategic links with other societal agents.

Smart Specialisation: An academic concept that entered the forum of EU policy. It is characterised by a place-based, tailored approach, contrasting the previously criticised “one-size fits all” policies. Smart specialisation also seeks to encompass a broader view of innovation, beyond technology-oriented approaches. It aims toward the identification of regional strengths and strategic areas of intervention. These are identified and defined through a knowledge-based analysis and a regional stakeholder involvement in an entrepreneurial discovery process, supported by monitorisation and constant adaptation as challenges and opportunities emerge.

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