Dr. Phil Tomlinson is an Associate Professor with the Institute of Policy Research at the University of Bath.

Last week I attended the European Week of Regions and Cities (EWRC) in Brussels. This is an annual event organised by the European Commission, which celebrates European regions and cities, and brings together national, regional and local policy-makers, business leaders, trade unionists and academic experts from across Europe to deliberate and explore ways in which European regions can create new jobs and deliver sustainable and inclusive growth.  The event attracts over 6,000 participants to over 100 workshops and debates, exhibitions and networking opportunities and there is a strong media presence. EWRC is an excellent opportunity to showcase regional success stories and for participants to learn about and exchange good policy practice in relation to regional economic development and social inclusion, regional innovation and community-led local development and also, possibly to develop new cross-border collaborations.

This year I was honoured to be invited by the European Commission (De Regio and DG Joint Research Council) and the Regional Studies Association to chair and speak at a special four-hour session entitled ‘Revitalising Regional Economies through Smart Specialisation and Industry 4.0’. A Smart Specialisation Strategy (3S) is a place-based approach to regional growth and is the major component of the EU’s 2020 Innovation programme (known as Research and Innovation Strategies (RIS3)).

In a nutshell, S3 advocates policy interventions to support regions to build upon their existing assets/capabilities to innovate and generate new regional specialisms to acquire a competitive advantage in the global economy. These ‘new specialisms’ are said to be identified through a process of ‘entrepreneurial discovery’ involving both the public and private sectors. For example, North Staffordshire is building on its long standing ceramics expertise to develop new specialisms in material transformation, using ceramic technologies in a range of other fields from bio-inserts and bone transplants to drug delivery systems and mobile transmitters.

Industry 4.0 refers to the new disruptive technologies in the so-called new (fourth) industrial revolution, such as new modes of automation, digital technologies, artificial intelligence, robotics and the ‘internet of things’. The widespread adoption of such technologies is likely to have enormous implications for the way we work, levels of employment and hence economic growth.

One of the challenges for regional policy is how lagging regions can fully participate in and benefit from both smart specialisation and Industry 4.0. This is particularly demanding for policy since such regions typically start from a low base in terms of entrepreneurial talent, skills and technological competencies. As such it is difficult for them to generate new ideas, adopt new technologies and hence develop new specialisms.  If this challenge is not addressed, then there is a danger that regional imbalances and inequities could extenuate, which runs counter to EU Cohesion policy.

These issues were very much the focus of our special session at the European Week of Regions and Cities (EWRC), which included panellists from the European Commission’s Joint Research Council, De Regio and also Dr Peter Wostner (Government Office for Development and European Cohesion Policy, Slovenia), Dr Sandrine Labory (University of Ferrara), Prof Lisa De Propris (University of Birmingham) and Dr. Anastasiia Konstantynova (Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum). A salient issue in the discussion was the role of EU policy in instigating and supporting extra-regional collaboration between leading and lagging regions so as to facilitate technological upgrading in the latter, and the building of networks and the cross-fertilisation of ideas. Despite policy initiatives such as Horizon 2020 and Interreg, building fruitful extra-regional collaborations is not so easy. This is largely because the incentives for leading and lagging regions to collaborate are asymmetric; leading regions tend to prefer to collaborate with other leading regions.  Along with the CGR&IS’s Dr Felicia Fai and colleagues from the Universities of Newcastle, Birmingham and Ferrara, we currently hold an RSA Expo grant to explore this very issue.

In addition to my own participation at the EWRC, CGR&IS’s Chris Dimos – a PhD student in the School – also took part in the EWRC’s 6th Master-Class on EU Cohesion policy. This is organised and sponsored by the European Commission, DG Regio, the European Committee of Regions and the Regional Studies Association. Places are fully funded and the application process is highly competitive, so Chris did exceptionally well to win a place and represent the University. The Master- Class is an ideal opportunity to connect aspiring researchers with each other and policy-makers, EU officials and senior academics. As part of the Masterclass, Chris presented a new working paper (co-authored with Dr Felicia Fai and myself) explaining the University of Bath’s IAAPs project and the possibility that it might lead to a new dynamic cluster in the South West.

This article was republished with permission. The original article was published on the University of Bath’s website here.

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