Delivering Smart Specialisation investments through industrial clusters

Submitted by Lucia Seel on 14 February 2020

In this editorial, Ulla Engelmann, Head of "Advanced Technologies, Clusters and Social Economy" Unit at the European Commission's Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (DG GROW), reflects on the contribution of clusters within the Smart Specialisation policy process, notably highlighting their potential role to foster regional economic transformation.

Clusters are essential for the successful implementation of smart specialisation strategies; out of 121 billion Euro of innovation-related investments in the current programming period, 2.32 billion Euro of investments from the European Structural and Investment Fund are earmarked by Member States for cluster support and business network. The Council conclusions of May 2019 on an EU Industrial Policy Strategy expressed support to European cluster policy initiatives as an important tool for promoting regional industrial modernisation, encouraging smart specialisation and strengthening cross-sectoral collaboration to facilitate structural change and the development of emerging industries.

Being strongly rooted in the local context, clusters act as magnets for all relevant actors: public authorities, SMEs, industry, cities, but also universities and competence centres. Within a smart specialisation strategy, the potential to develop and support local initiatives using technology and innovation-tools for social cohesion and local prosperity should be emphasised.  Clusters of social and ecological innovation are ideal vehicles to align local SMEs, social enterprises, citizens’ initiatives, local-regional governments and research to help digital and sustainable transition.

An insightful example of how clusters can foster regional economic transformation was the pilot project carried out by the European Observatory for Clusters and Industrial Change with 10 regions in industrial transition, defining a comprehensive strategy to identify funding opportunities and connect with other regions in regional and cluster partnerships. This pilot tested new approaches to industrial transition and provided evidence to strengthen post-2020 policies and programmes. For the next programming period 2021-2027, the envisaged flagship measures will be the Joint Cluster Initiatives under the COSME pillar in the draft Single Market Programme, with focus on placed on facilitating industrial transformation, supporting SMEs' uptake of innovation and value chain collaboration including through continuation funding and channelling direct support to SMEs via cluster organisations.

A comprehensive overview on how clusters can boost business competitiveness has been recently developed in the 2019 European panorama of clusters and industrial change, showing that economic activities in about 2900 specialised clusters account for about 19% of European jobs and 22% of European wages.

Last but not least, the European Cluster Conference (9-11 November 2020) organised in Berlin in cooperation with the German Presidency of the Council of the EU, will be a great opportunity to discuss recent and future priorities for cluster policies and developments to support sustainable industry development, interregional cooperation and building connections between Europe’s value chains, clusters and ecosystems.

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