Dedicated Smart Specialisation network for innovation in the circular economy transition
Summary of the case
Slovenia’s Strategic Research and Innovation Partnership (SRIP) - Circular Economy is a cross-sectoral strategic cluster-type organisation, born in 2016, out of the country’s Smart Specialisation Entrepreneurial Discovery Process (EDP). Located in the city of Maribor, in the ‘less developed’ Eastern Slovenia region, SRIP – Circular Economy is now one of the five SRIPs making up the implementation architecture of Slovenia’s Smart Specialisation Strategy (S3). It brings together State actors, large companies and SMEs, knowledge institutions, facilitators, innovation users and NGOs in a quadruple helix approach, dedicated to addressing a major multi-faceted green challenge for society.
The EDP on circular economy in Slovenia was intensified for the development of the SRIP Action Plan and continues into its implementation. The EDP is organised as an inclusive and interactive bottom-up process, in which SRIP members from different environments collectively identify new activities in six circular economy focus areas. The SRIP offers its members a full range of support services including professional assistance in developing circular business models, collaboration in larger research and development projects and internationalisation through networking and cooperation. Key tools developed by the SRIP include the Competence Centre for Circular Economy, focused on human resource development in a future circular business context.
The activities of individual SRIP members have focused on a wide range of relevant ‘circular’ technologies relating to reuse, remanufacturing and secondary raw materials, whilst members have gained new key competences in areas such as Life Cycle Analysis and Cradle to Cradle certification. Many SRIP members have been successful in circular economy related public tenders for different national Ministries, some of which co-financed by ERDF, as well as EU tenders under Interreg and Horizon 2020 programmes. Slovenia’s Government supports internationalisation of SRIP activities, with a view to scale-up and replication. This includes SRIP and SRIP member participation in various key European platforms and multipliers, such as the Thematic Smart Specialisation Platforms (TSSP), Vanguard Initiative and European Institute of Technologies (Climate KIC and Raw Materials KIC).
1. Territorial context and challenge faced
With a total population of just over 2 million, Slovenia is covered by a single Smart Specialisation Strategy (S3), yet the Western and Eastern halves of the country have markedly different characteristics. Whilst Western Slovenia is home to the majority of research institutes and is classified ‘more developed’ in EU Cohesion Policy terms (2014-2020), most of the industrial companies involved in labour-intensive and waste-generating activities, are located in ‘less developed’ Eastern Slovenia.
The European Commission (EC) Environmental Implementation Review 2019 for Slovenia highlights several examples of good practices emerging in the country overall, including one of the EU’s highest shares of environmental tax revenues and significant recent increases in waste recycling rates. The Review also notes that a growing number of Slovenian projects are presented on the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform’s website.
Slovenia has embraced the circular economy concept as a key driver for innovation in its business base and for promotion of territorial cohesion between the Western and Eastern halves of the country. There are, however, numerous challenges to be overcome in achieving the critical mass of innovation needed, including insufficient financing available on the market for SMEs in higher risk innovative fields, important skills and knowledge gaps in SMEs and an under-supportive regulatory environment.
2. Aims and ambition of the initiative
Slovenia’s S3 (branded ‘S4’ in Slovenia – i.e. ‘Slovenia Smart Specialisation Strategy’) already follows a green orientation with one of its three major priority areas ‘Circular’, standing alongside ‘Industry 4.0’ and ‘Digital’. This ‘Circular’ priority area has three niche priorities, ‘sustainable tourism’, ‘sustainable food production’ and the most transversal, ‘Networks towards Circular Economy’, which is implemented through the Strategic Research and Innovation Partnership (SRIP) - Circular Economy.
The SRIP - Circular Economy aims to achieve a sustainable increase in the efficiency and competitiveness of Slovenia’s businesses in the transition to a circular economy. The SRIP is a public-private cluster-type innovation eco-system in its own right. Unlike many cluster organisations, the SRIP is not organised around the needs of a single sector. Instead, its ambitions are distinctly cross-sectoral, with special priority given to the following six focus areas:
SRIP – Circular Economy is one of the nine SRIPs of Slovenia’s S3 implementation architecture, co-financed by the Ministry of Economic Development and Technology (MGRT) and instrumental in facilitating dialogue between the government, local authorities, research institutes, business and other stakeholders. The SRIPs were founded in response to a special Call launched as a collaboration between the three lead Slovenian Ministries responsible for economy, technology, science and EU Cohesion Policy, with respect to each main S3 priority domain. The Call was designed on the basis of an intensive Entrepreneurial Discovery Process (EDP) convened in 2015, involving a series of web based and face-to-face workshops, including events open to general public.
3. Content and implementation of the initiative
Before the S3 in Slovenia and the formation of the SRIPs, entrepreneurial knowledge was fragmented – particularly in a new field like circular economy. Many SMEs lacked appropriate connections to EU-level platforms and other partnerships to help boost the internationalisation so vital to Slovenian economic actors, given the country’s size and location.
Governance of SRIP – Circular Economy: a ‘quadruple helix’ approach
The founders of SRIP - Circular Economy are the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Štajerska (management function), the National Institute of Chemistry and the Faculty of Chemistry and Chemical Technology of the University of Maribor. The SRIP office is located in the city of Maribor, Eastern Slovenia, where it can best serve the interest of companies furthest away from the centre and knowledge institutions.
The SRIP operates on a multi-sectoral cooperation principle, bringing together State actors, large companies and SMEs, knowledge institutions, facilitators, innovation users and NGOs in a ‘quadruple helix’ approach. The SRIP’s activities are 50% co-financed by central Government and member contributions. In addition to the Governing Board, the Programme Council and the Technology Council oversee activities in each of the six focus areas. SRIP membership is open for newcomers and the composition of the governance structures must reflect the membership balance.
Intensification of the Entrepreneurial Discovery Process (EDP) for SRIP Action Plan
The EDP approach undertaken prior to setting up the SRIP – Circular Economy was intensified for the development of the SRIP Action Plan and continues into its implementation. The EDP is organised as an inclusive and interactive bottom-up process, in which SRIP members from different environments (business, academia, NGOs, policy etc.) collectively identify new activities in the six circular economy focus areas, for the SRIP to explore and promote. Such activities may relate, for example, to potential new value chains for research collaboration, to the building of joint capacities in advanced laboratory and computer equipment for demo-pilot projects, or for the development of specific new circular products and services. Governmental policymakers in the partnership assess the outcomes emerging from this interaction and suggest ways in which the identified potentials might be realised.
Services offered by the SRIP – Circular Economy
SRIP – Circular Economy offers its members a full range of support services, including:
professional assistance and training in the transformation to circular business models and the introduction of new technologies, eco-design and digitalisation – including materials passporting and blockchain tracing systems;
brokerage for cooperation in national and international consortia for research and development projects, as well as joint development of high-tech products and innovative services in the field of circular economy;
support for market development, particularly internationalisation, through networking and cooperation in existing and newly formed value chains, plus co-organisation of international events connecting stakeholders from different economic and knowledge sectors relevant to the circular economy.
The SRIP also keeps members continually informed of new developments in the circular economy field in Europe and beyond, including changes in legislation, public tender opportunities etc.
Specific tools to promote the circular economy transition
In recognition of the vital role of skills in the transition to a circular economy, the SRIP established the Human Resources Development Committee shortly after its foundation. Members of the Committee are drawn from representatives of academia and companies in the SRIP membership. The Committee has been responsible for drawing together profiles and content of the key professional competencies required in different spheres of circular business. It has also developed training curricula for building relevant circular skills.
Based on the results of the Committee’s activities, the SRIP subsequently established the Competence Centre for Circular Economy. Some 20 different circular competences for managers, researchers and other employees in companies are made available to SRIP members in the Competence Centre. Relevant training is delivered through the Centre on core topics such Life Cycle Analysis and individual career planning for employees in circular businesses.
Additional tools used by the SRIP include the proactive promotion of Green Public Procurement and the fostering of cooperation between all the SRIPs in Slovenia’s S3 partnership structure – both of which can deliver particular value, given the transversal nature of the circular economy field.
Since its establishment in 2016, the activities of SRIP – Circular Economy have enabled improved collaboration and knowledge transfer between R&D institutions, large companies, SMEs, government bodies and NGOs active in relevant fields, including increased participation in joint research projects. SRIP members have gained new key competences, such as in Life Cycle Analysis and Cradle to Cradle certification, as well as better understanding of circular business models and related career planning.
The activities of individual SRIP members have focused on a wide range of relevant technologies, like new wastewater treatment techniques, hydrogen deployment, reuse of batteries, remanufacturing, new functional products and secondary raw materials – such as, bioplastic and building materials. SRIP members have been successful in various public tenders in circular economy fields for different national Ministries, some of which co-financed by ERDF. There have also been notable successes in EU tenders under programmes such as Interreg Europe and the Danube Transnational Programme, as well as under Horizon 2020. Specific project examples supported by members of the SRIP include:
POLY CIRCULARITY - Waste as a source of secondary raw materials
Partners: Surovina (SME – lead), plus seven other SMEs and one NGO - European Cultural and Technology Centre Maribor (social enterprise)
The demo pilot project aims to develop innovative technologies for chemical and biochemical decomposition of packaging waste (plastic bottles) into high-quality secondary raw materials with added value for independent use (gases, chemicals, oils / fuels, etc.), or incorporation into new products such as biopolymers. It builds on innovative technology resulting from the Horizon 2020 project Resyntex. The project has strong emphasis on increasing public awareness of excessive plastic and textiles consumption, as well as new concepts of plastic/textile waste collection and treatment.
CellCycle - Biomass for development of advanced materials and bio-based products
Partners: Pulp and Paper Institute (lead), plus eighteen other SMEs and academic institutions from both Western and Eastern Slovenia
CellCycle exploits the potential of biomass for development of advanced materials and bio-based products. It aims to move beyond fragmentation to create new value chains based on industrial symbiosis, through cascading utilisation of biomass. The project is essentially a cooperation platform for research teams and SMEs specialising in manufacturing and processing technologies, biotechnologies and nanotechnologies. It contributes to long-term competitiveness in important Slovenian industrial sectors - chemicals, textiles, paper, wood processing, construction, engineering, automotive and energy.
WCYCLE - a new circular business model for City of Maribor
Partners: WCYCLE Institute Maribor (NGO - lead), Municipality of Maribor, Public Holding Company of Maribor, research institutions
WCYCLE was created by five Maribor utilities companies in 2017, with the aim of closing material loops produced in urban areas every day, bringing tangible benefits for public services and citizens. Different WCYCLE sub-projects foresee reuse of brownfield areas, reuse of wastewater in combination with rainwater, reuse of construction waste and innovative reuse of biowaste together with soil from construction works. Two main demonstration projects currently running in the city of Maribor are:
‘Soil 4 food’: using urban biological and mineral waste to produce certified soil, using fermentation and pyrolysis technology, food production and other city needs. The project received acclaim and ERDF support as an EC DG Regio Urban Innovative Action in 2018;
Cindarela: Horizon 2020 project making demonstration buildings and road sections from recycled construction material.
When implemented all WCYCLE activities will contribute to better management of material streams, increased exchange of materials between SMEs and an improved environment for citizens.
The SRIP – Circular Economy has added value to all of these projects, mainly by motivating different members to participate in them initially, providing on-going advice and support during implementation and assisting with the dissemination results, with a view to potential replication and/or new follow-up projects.
All of the SRIPs in Slovenia’s S3 implementation partnership benefit from dedicated central Government measures supporting piloting, demonstration and internationalisation of SRIP activities. In addition, the Government has signed partnership/cooperation agreements with various key European platforms and multipliers, including:
Smart Specialisation Thematic Platforms (SSTP) - SRIP partners are members of different interregional partnerships under Industrial Modernisation, Energy and Agri-Food Platforms, with pilot projects and action plans being designed;
Vanguard Initiative – pilot projects on Bioeconomy and Efficient and Sustainable Manufacturing;
European Institute of Technologies (Climate KIC and Raw Materials KIC) to foster transfer, through deep demonstration, to circular economy.
Some of the results from previous Horizon 2020 and Interreg Europe projects, involving SRIP members, are now facilitating spill-over to larger communities of SMEs and other stakeholders in Slovenia and elsewhere. Some members of SRIP – Circular Economy are already successfully established in international value chains and networks through export activity, representing an additional market-based value for the SRIP.
"Setting up a SRIP on Circular Economy, back in 2016, was an experimental move encouraged by the work of pioneer scholars, researchers, NGOs and propulsive enterprises. Now, circular economy features in the Action Plans of all nine SRIPs under the Smart Specialisation Strategy, because of growing demand from the market for circular approaches."
Marko Hren – Smart Specialisation Coordinator, Smart Specialisation Coordination Division, Government Office for Development and European Cohesion Policy