A Guide to Smart Specialization

You don’t hear about it much here in the US, but smart specialization strategies have been a hot topic in European economic development circles for some time.  Smart specialization strategies, or S3, are an approach designed to help economically challenged regions identify priority areas for research and innovation investments.  The S3 process is designed to help regions identify their comparative innovation advantages via what is referred to as the “entrepreneurial discovery process.”  Regions then focus investments on specific core activities—as opposed to sectors or clusters.  The ultimate goal is to target investments into “specialized” regional competencies (e.g. design, marketing, distribution) as opposed to spreading investments too thinly across multiple areas (e.g. R&D, workforce training, higher education) or industry sectors.

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In my mind, there is too much EU bureaucratic jargon in the smart specialization literature. But, if you can plow though the acronyms and EU-speak, there are some worthy nuggets of learning in the S3 model. That’s why the EU’s new Implementing Smart Specialization Strategies:  A Handbook is worth a look.  This handbook explains the S3 model and offers real life examples of how it works in practice.   For US readers, I think the S3 model offers some useful insights in a few areas where we also face challenges.  These include:

  • Identifying regional priorities for innovation-focused investments
  • Setting up governance systems that engage multiple economic and workforce development partners
  • Measuring impact and progress via effective metrics
  • Working across borders in a multinational context

While it’s unlikely that we’ll bring the entire S3 model here to the US, it contains many useful insights that can and should be applied to our work.