Place-based innovation for sustainability

Publication article | | Philip McCann, Luc Soete,

This report is the outcome of the Expert Group “Linking smart specialisation and mission-oriented policy for sustainable development”. We are particularly grateful to comments received from invited colleague experts as well as representatives of the European Commission present at the Workshop on Place-based innovation-led transformation for sustainability on 4 March 2020 at the Institute for European Studies, VUB in Brussels. Views and opinions expressed are our own.


In 2019, the European Commission introduced sustainability and European values at the centre of its long-term policy agenda. The European Green Deal sets out the direction for the EU to become climate-neutral by 2050. The UN Sustainable Development Goals will orient policy efforts and reforms in the years to come, in Europe and beyond. This is an innovation-driven policy agenda for new systemic solutions and employment creation reaping the opportunities from the ecological and digital transitions. The challenge now facing the EU is to implement it.

The JRC is the science service of the Commission. We provide science for policy supporting public policy makers at all levels in the EU. JRC Directorate B, led by Mikel Landabaso, develops scientific evidence for innovation and growth policy relevant for all Commission priorities. Unit B3, under the leadership of Alessandro Rainoldi, focuses on territorial development. How can regions, cities and communities engage in the EU policy agenda in a bottom-up approach to create jobs and value added for its citizens? How can scientific evidence ensure continuous policy learning, detecting the effects of EU policies across Europe, and enabling policies to be refined for the benefit of society? For a successful implementation of the European Green Deal, these questions are more relevant and timely than ever.

To construct the academic and conceptual base for these questions, JRC turned to two internationally recognized experts in innovation and place-based policy, Professor Philip McCann and Professor Luc Soete to explore how science for policy can support the implementation of the European Green Deal and the new EU policy for sustainable development. Their report presents their reflections, backed up by a consultation with a broader academic community gathering expertise in both innovation policy and regional development policy.

The report highlights the historical opportunity for the EU, with a policy agenda placing sustainability in the front seat. The authors take inspiration from two experimental innovation policies in the EU: the smart specialisation policy, implemented through the European Regional Development Funds, and the mission-oriented policy, implemented through the upcoming Horizon Europe programme for research and innovation. As the authors, eloquently phrase it: the European Green Deal is at the same time the EU´s Moonshot mission and its global smart specialisation strategy. However, they stress that this travel will not be without adventures. A place-based innovation policy for sustainability will require a solid multi-level governance and a policy flexibility to address possible trade-offs early on. Smart specialisation strategies have built the foundations but would now need to marry bottom-up leadership with the new directionality of sustainability and inclusiveness. The authors formulate this as the move from S3 to S4+.

The scene is set. A scientific debate is open. But also a science for policy reflection on how to go from theory to practice. This will no doubt be an inspiring and relevant journey in the coming months, in which the JRC is well-placed to contribute.

Place-based innovation for sustainability.pdf
publication image
Place-based innovation for sustainability-image.jpg