Brussels, 01 Sep 2004
Three of Europe's most successful and innovative regions identified the 'creative' pull of top-ranking universities, an entrepreneurial university culture, long term public investment and dynamic science parks as key to their success at an ESOF 2004 session on 'creating European science-based innovative regions' on 25 August.
The three regions represented were the Øresund region of Southern Sweden and Eastern Denmark, Oxford in the UK and Helsinki in Finland.
'There is no simple linear path from knowledge transfer or technology transfer capability to generation of output. Innovation is a chaotic process,' said Fiona Reid from the Saïd Business School in Oxford. However, she added that universities must lead the way for a successful change to an innovative and entrepreneurial culture. 'Universities are the innovation drivers,' she said.
In the three regions it was the universities' decision to collaborate among themselves that played a major part in their success.
The Øresund region, for example, is a cluster of 14 universities in Denmark and Sweden with a network of 800 universities worldwide. The collaboration came about with the realisation that as a small region, Øresund had a better chance of attracting big projects if all the regional players worked together.
'Collaboration and not competition is what made us successful,' explained Linda Nielsen, chair of Øresund University. This relatively new 'region', which counts 140,000 students, 10,000 researchers, five science parks, four defined clusters (ICT, environment, food and medical biotech), and which is developing three emerging clusters (logistics, design and events economy), ranks fifth in Europe in scientific output per capita.
'Now that the region has been developed,' said Dr Nielsen, 'the next challenge is to develop national innovation structures in Denmark and Sweden. Eventually we hope to develop transnational innovation structures for an efficient knowledge and technology transfer. At present, with so many players who all use different tools, the landscape is too difficult to navigate.'
In the case of Oxford, two universities got together to develop what has become the most successful technology transfer office in the UK. Together they amass 3,700 researchers, 5,000 doctoral students and 40 Nobel prize winners, and employ 5,000 people in 44 university spin-outs.
The transformation into one of the most innovative and entrepreneurial regions in Europe started in the 1990s when the high tech sector in the region grew by 40 per cent a year. Dr Reid attributes this success to a change in culture and ambition, to the development of an adequate infrastructure and to continued university and government support over ten years.
'The creation of mechanisms to sustain innovation at all levels, good internal communication and good external networks all played a role in our success,' said Dr Reid. 'What we require now is management and marketing expertise and investment.'
Eero Holstila from the Helsinki Region Centre of Excellence identified the Finnish government's investment in research and development (R&D) over 20 years, even in times of economic recession, as the key factor in the success of the his region. Close behind came the attractiveness of universities, a dynamic profile in the arts, a strong business community, and a highly educated local population.
The Helsinki case is slightly different from the other two in that it was at its peak from 1995 to 2001. At that time, explained Dr Holstila, ICT was the driver of the economy. When the sector stopped growing, the Helsinki region was faced with the challenge of identifying what the future key sectors would be.
'The Helsinki Centre of Expertise programme has, therefore, identified six new core fields of expertise which will be funded by the Helsinki region,' said Dr Holstila. These sectors are: active materials and microsystems; digital media, content production, and learning services; gene technology and molecular biology; logistics; medical and well-being technologies and software products.
Turning to the subject of science parks - natural by-products of successful and innovative universities - the three speakers agreed that they represent a powerful tool of regional development.
Organised and managed by specialised professionals, science parks aim to increase the wealth of their community by promoting a culture of innovation and competitiveness. This is achieved by stimulating and managing the flow of knowledge and technology amongst universities, R&D institutions, companies and markets.
'Science parks,' explained Luis Sanz from the International Association of Science Parks (IASP), 'are about business, not about science.
'If you consider that 90 per cent of employees of science parks have got university degrees, you soon realise that they are a key constitutive element of a science region, especially in a knowledge economy,' added Mr Sanz.
Peter Löwe from DG Enterprise warned, however, that innovation does not necessarily lead to high a GDP. 'If you take the case of Sweden and Italy for example, you will see that both countries have equally high GDPs but that in terms of innovation Sweden is far ahead. 'Science for the sake of science is not what Europe needs,' he added.
Mr Löwe also warned that public and private R&D are not as intertwined as they could be across Europe. 'Public research spending is concentrated in capital cities but this is not necessarily where the business community is concentrated. It seems, therefore, that public expenditure compensates for the lack of private funding. This must change. Public spending in R&D should create a synergy with private investment, not compensate.'
The European Commission, Mr Löwe informed the audience, is therefore studying what is the optimum way to invest in science and looking into innovation governance as well as the benefits of a sectoral approach for its future European innovation policy.