Designing a policy mix for responsible research and innovation

Brussels Capital Region (2019)

The Brussels Capital Region is a small knowledge-intensive city-region, nexus of financial, geopolitical and multicultural flows and centre of the European Union. With 1,2 million inhabitants and an average population density of over seven thousand inhabitants per km² (over 19 thousand in some particular municipalities), its densely populated territory magnifies social and economic challenges. Furthermore, representing a patchwork of 19 municipalities and hosting its proper regional government, Brussels is confronted with complex institutional challenges. Conversely, the region is equipped with a vibrant R&I ecosystem that warrants a substantial leverage for economic and social development: it hosts 51 higher education institutions, three of the seven Belgian university hospitals, a large number of researchers1,  a highly educated population, the region is a forerunner in the digital and health sector, a tech-start-up hub and contains the highest number of start-ups per capita in Europe. Furthermore, it strongly benefits the great physical proximity/accessibility of key innovation actors.

With a limited annual R&I support budget (which almost doubled since 2009 to 50 million euros to support some 400 projects in 2017), the regional R&I funding agency Innoviris aims to adequately meet these challenges and maximise the leverage potential of each euro invested. To this end, a Smart Specialisation Strategy was already adopted in 2006, which was developed via an Entrepreneurial Discovery Process (EDP) in the elaboration of the Regional Innovation Plan (RIP).

The most recent RIP encompasses three strategic domains that reflect the strengths of the region and refine the initial domains defined in 2006: personalised medicine and well-being (bioinformatics, clinical studies, medical devices, etc.), green economy (ecological building, sustainable chemistry, circular economy, etc.) and digital economy (big data, SaaS, IoT, information security, etc.). All were identified through discussions with more than 200 actors: entrepreneurial agents on the one hand (entrepreneurs, university colleges, universities, public research institutions, professional associations) and policy and society representatives on the other hand (public institutions, civil society, policymakers). The Smart Specialisation Strategy has also been adopted by the regional operational plan for ERDF 2014-2020, to ensure coherent regional policies and to increase the local growth and development potential of the aforementioned domains and subdomains.

At the same time, Innoviris advocates open innovation, also implying openness in "instrument design": an EDP is deployed to develop thematic programmes, in addition to pre-defined flagship domains. The process allows a timely response to changing (societal) needs, and provides flexibility to support state-of-the-art R&I domains.

Programme topics are therefore not imposed on the R&I actors solely on the basis of existing knowledge. Instead they evolve through the following chronological phases (companies, governments and academic actors may or may not be involved depending on the nature of the programme). (1) The inventory of strategic action plans, policies, scoping papers at Brussels, Belgian and European level. (2) Consultation of internal scientific advisors and the cabinet of the incumbent Minister. (3) Consultation of all Brussels' public-led institutions and policymakers (policy-oriented programmes). (4) Drawing up a first shortlist of 3-10 themes. (5) Presentation to academic actors, with the possibility of alternative theme proposals (academically-oriented programmes). (6) A synthesis of relevant contributions, and definition of one or more broad topics. (7) Consultation of sector organisations from the industrial tissue (industry-oriented programmes). (8) Selection and detailed elaboration of one or more topics, presented via a memorandum to the members of the Cabinet (which documents the EDP), for approval. In some cases, for societally oriented programmes this EDP yielded over 30 topic proposals by 9 regional public-led institutions, and over 60 proposals by 4 universities and more than 25 research groups. For one particular technologically oriented strategic research programme, the EDP has yielded 136 contributions by 40 research groups. The interest in the subsequently launched calls was consistently high, reflecting the support of the ecosystem.

In recent years, for the policy-oriented programme Anticipate, for example, this approach allowed to define topics such as making invisible populations visible, governance of the future and tourism and quality of life in the city. Eleven academic research projects, with 21 partners (and in collaboration with government administrations), are currently running on these topics. Beside these topics, several dozen of projects are ongoing in topics related to the three strategic domains, including green chemistry, artificial intelligence, personalized medicine, and circular economy, each of which was also the subject of a specific call.

Innoviris stresses the importance of a well-considered horizontal-vertical policy mix, a policy that capitalises on the optimisation of value chains. That is why more than half of the budget is dedicated to open non-thematic calls (bottom-up or horizontal) and why thematic calls (top-down or vertical) are only launched if they demonstrate sufficient interest and support on the part of the stakeholders.

Facilitated by the very limited and concentrated scale of the Region and the corresponding geographical proximity of all stakeholders, the regional innovation policy strives to achieve effective and legitimate economic and social development (i.e. economic and social ROI). Innoviris considers its role as a public administration to act as a facilitator of this process.

[1] Institut Bruxellois de Statistique et d'Analyse (IBSA):

background quote

Openness in instrument design by definition leads to effective and legitimate economic and social development (i.e. economic and social return on investment)”, Cédric Verstraete, policy advisor

Additional Information

Openness in instrument design by definition leads to effective and legitimate economic and social development (i.e., economic and social ROI). Innoviris considers its role as a public administration and funding agency to act as a facilitator of this process.” Cédric Verstraete, policy advisor

Contact: Cédric Verstraete –