Interactive RIS3 Guide Interactive RIS3 Guide


Europe is facing major economic challenges that require an ambitious economic policy for the twenty-first century. The EU has set out its vision for Europe's social market economy in the Europe 2020 strategy,[1] which aims at confronting our structural weaknesses through progress in three mutually reinforcing priorities:

• smart growth, based on knowledge and innovation,
• sustainable growth, promoting a more resource efficient, greener and competitive economy,
• inclusive growth, fostering a high employment economy delivering economic, social and territorial cohesion.

Investing more in research, innovation and entrepreneurship is at the heart of Europe 2020 and a crucial part of Europe's response to the economic crisis. So is having a strategic and integrated approach to innovation that maximises European, national and regional research and innovation potential.

As José Manuel Barroso highlighted in his preface to the Europe 2020 strategy, 'Europe needs to get back on track. Then it must stay on track. That is the purpose of Europe 2020. It's about more jobs and better lives. It shows how Europe has the capability to deliver smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, to find the path to create new jobs and to offer a sense of direction to our societies'.[2]

That is why as part of the Europe 2020 strategy, the Commission adopted the 'Innovation Union'[3] flagship initiative. It sets out a comprehensive innovation strategy to enhance Europe's capacity to deliver smart, sustainable and inclusive growth and highlights the concept of smart specialisation as a way to achieve these goals. The 'Digital Agenda for Europe'[4] flagship initiative is also part of Europe 2020 and aims to deliver sustainable economic growth and social benefits from Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). The Digital Agenda for Europe initiative is therefore relevant to all regions and cities, as it focuses on a key element for the design of smart specialisation strategies.

The concept of smart specialisation has also been promoted by the Communication 'Regional Policy contributing to smart growth in Europe 2020'.[5] In this document the Commission encourages the design of national/regional research and innovation strategies for smart specialisation as a means to deliver a more targeted Structural Fund support and a strategic and integrated approach to harness the potential for smart growth and the knowledge economy in all regions.

Smart specialisation has also been strongly advocated by the Synergies Expert Group established by the Commission's Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. It argues that the concept is an important instrument for ensuring synergies between Horizon 2020[6] and the Structural Funds in the interest of capacity building and providing a stairway to excellence.

In the context of Europe 2020, smart specialisation emerges therefore as a key element for place-based innovation policies, and can be defined as presented in Box 1 below. This definition will be further developed in the rest of this guide.

Box 1 – Definition of RIS3

National/regional research and innovation strategies for smart specialisation (RIS3) are
, place-based economic transformation agendas that do five important things:

  1. They focus policy support and investments on key national/regional priorities, challenges and
    needs for knowledge-based development, including ICT-related measures.
  2. They build on each country's/region’s strengths, competitive advantages and potential for
  3. They support technological as well as practice-based innovation and aim to stimulate private
    sector investment.
  4. They get stakeholders fully involved and encourage innovation and experimentation.
  5. They are evidence-based and include sound monitoring and evaluation systems.


The RIS3 approach is relevant to all three priorities of Europe 2020 i.e. smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. First of all, smart specialisation matters for the future of Europe because the development of an economy based on knowledge and innovation remains a fundamental challenge for the EU as a whole. Secondly, smart specialisation is relevant to achieve sustainable growth, as an important innovation effort and considerable investment is required to shift towards a resource-efficient and low carbon economy, offering opportunities in domestic and global markets. Finally, smart specialisation contributes to inclusive growth between and within regions by strengthening territorial cohesion and by managing structural change, creating economic opportunity and investing in skills development, better jobs and social innovation.

This embedded role of smart specialisation in the Europe 2020 policy framework has been highlighted by the Council of the EU in its conclusions on the Innovation Union. The Council underlined 'the concept of 'smart specialisation', with each region building on its own strengths, to guide priority-setting in national and regional innovation strategies, as well as cross-border cooperation where appropriate' and invited the Commission 'to advise Member States on possible improvement of the performance of their national innovation systems and with the implementation of smart specialisation strategies'.[7]

The RIS3 approach is also consistent with the aims and tools of the EU cohesion policy, promoting growth and jobs across EU countries and regions.[8] It suggests a strategy and a global role for every national and regional economy, including both leader and less advanced territories. It embraces a broader concept of innovation, not only investment in research or the manufacturing sector, but also building competitiveness through design and creative industries, social and service innovation, new business models and practice-based innovation. All regions have a role to play in the knowledge economy, provided that they can identify comparative advantages and potential and ambition for excellence in specific sectors or market niches.

The concept of smart specialisation is also consistent with and supports the main reform goals of the proposals for the EU Cohesion Policy 2014-2020, published in October 2011:[9]

• delivering the Europe 2020 objectives of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth,
• reinforcing policy performance and focus on results,
• maximising the impact of EU funding through thematic concentration.

Indeed, smart specialisation has a strategic and central function within the new Cohesion Policy being a key vehicle for ensuring Cohesion Policy's contribution to the Europe 2020 jobs and growth agenda.

Within the new Cohesion Policy, smart specialisation has been proposed as an 'ex-ante conditionality'. This means that every Member States and region have to have such a well-developed strategy in place, before they can receive EU financial support through the Structural Funds for their planned innovation measures. This conditionality applies specifically for two of the 11 thematic objectives of the ERDF:[10]

• strengthening research, technological development and innovation (R&I target),
• enhancing access to and use of quality of ICT (ICT target).

Likewise, the same conditionality applies to theme one ('Fostering knowledge transfer and innovation in agriculture, forestry and rural areas') of the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD).[11]

In this context it is of crucial importance to understand the strong process element of smart specialisation and the eminent role the various innovation stakeholder and entrepreneurs are asked to play within that process in each Member State and Region. Their knowledge and commitment is key to identifying those priority areas and knowledge-based investments that are most likely to deliver growth and jobs in the regions. And it is not only a reinforced stakeholder involvement and strong internal connectivity that counts but smart specialisation is also pointing regions towards more strategic cross-border and trans-regional cooperation to achieve more critical potential and related variety.

Last but not least, the importance of monitoring and evaluation within these strategies should be particularly highlighted, providing the link between smart specialisation and the goal of reinforcing results orientation of the Structural Funds in general. It is not accidentally that the smart specialisation conditionality refers explicitly to the need for RIS3 strategies to include a monitoring and review system.

To choose appropriate results indicators already at the level of the smart specialisation strategy is extremely important for the cohesion policy, as it is the one of the essential keys for ensuring that all stakeholder incentives and behavioural responses are correctly aligned and that the policy can be monitored accordingly and adjusted where necessary, creating a virtuous policy learning cycle.[12] As the Fifth Cohesion Report states, 'the starting point for a result-oriented approach is the ex-ante setting of clear and measurable targets and outcome indicators'.



[2] See previous footnote.





[7] Council Conclusions on Innovation Union for Europe, 3049th Competitiveness Council meeting. Brussels, 26 Nov. 2010.

[8] Article 174 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) – Treaty of Lisbon.

[9] Brussels, 6.10.2011 COM(2011) 615 final 2011/0276 (COD)


[10] Annex IV of the general SF draft regulation, COM (2011) 615.


[12] Barca, F., and McCann, P., 2011, Methodological nNote: Outcome Indicators and Targets – Towards a Performance Oriented EU Cohesion Policy and examples of such indicators are contained in the two complementary notes on outcome indicators for EU2020 entitled Meeting Climate Change and Energy Objectives and Improving the Conditions for Innovation, Research and Development.


See also Barca, F., McCann, P. et. al., 2011, Outcome Indicators and Targets – Towards a New System of Monitoring and Evaluation in EU Cohesion. Available at:

Other relevant documents on this issue can be found at:

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