The preparation of the 2014-2020 programming period in the area of Smart Specialisation in Romania was a novel exercise that outlined many challenges both at national and regional level. The challenges identified during the previous programming period revealed that all the institutions involved in Smart Specialisation ecosystems have limited capacity to capitalize on incremental results and need to improve policy and implementation options.
1. Territorial context and challenges faced
As concerns Romanian Research – Development - Innovation context, there is a long-standing imbalance in national innovation policy in favor of the public research system at the expense of business innovation.
When it comes to the regional level, since there were no formal regional innovation policies in Romania, it could be assumed that RIS3 strategies can provide a foundation for regional innovation policies. However, regional administrations have weak capabilities and little or no experience with innovation policy.
One of the strategic needs identified refers to limited transfer of research results to the market and low uptake of innovation in companies. Support for R &D is extremely low, largely inefficient, with a fragmented R&I system; there is a lack of critical mass of quality research results that do not result in applied research and innovative applications; there is a large number of research activities but weak links between education, research and business, which leads to low transfer of new ideas to the market. At EU level, Romania is constantly listed as a modest innovator, being among the lowest in terms of technology transfer and marketing innovation and with the lowest percentage of companies that have innovated and marketed in the EU.
Basically, one of the main problems seems to be the ability to absorb innovation in companies, the main features of the process of innovation and technology transfer referring to: low cooperation between SMEs and institutions of R&D; small number of innovative SMEs participating in knowledge transfer activities; SMEs are more interested in developing capacities than of research and innovation activities; low rate of technology transfer and weak entrepreneurial culture.
Starting from the above mentioned aspects, the Technological Transfer Organisations (TTO), were assumed as intermediaries between the demand for and supply of innovation on the market, as a bridge between research and business, determining the swift to economic exploitation of new ideas deriving from research and innovation, commercialisation of research results and their translation into products, processes and services from firms.
It was assumed that creating/developing TTOs will improve the absorption capacity of innovation at the SMEs level, by promoting the implementation of research findings through technology transfer in SMEs.
2. Aims and ambitions of the Initiative
From a strategic point of view, Priority Axis 1 (PA1) and the Regional Operational Programme (ROP) 2014-2020, dedicated to Promoting technological transfer is , underpinned by the following rationale: in order to become/remain competitive on the market, companies have to integrate new knowledge in their commercial vision for future products.
Subject to many modifications, it was agreed between various stakeholders (DG REGIO included) that, in order to contribute to the objective of Increasing innovation in businesses by supporting innovation and technology transfer entities in the areas of Smart Specialisation, the ROP should finance: TTOs, science and technological parks, SMEs in partnership/collaboration with TTOs and integrated projects resulted from Lagging Behind Regions Initiative implementation.
3. Content and implementation of the Initiative
Given the ex-ante conditionality for Romania, in order to access the ESIF, the National Strategy for Research and Development played the role of the Smart Specialisation Strategy. However, this strategy was limited due to its weak territorial focus and it did not reflect and establish areas of competitive advantage at regional level. Meanwhile, only 5 out of 8 Romanian Regions had elaborated a RIS 3 at that time (2016). Therefore, it was necessary to complete the national strategy with smart specialization fields identified at regional level. This exercise took place at regional level, under MA ROP coordination, being also a mandatory condition for PA 1 financing. Basically, in Romania this was the starting point of creating and using the entrepreneurial discovery mechanisms at the level of quadruple helix main categories of stakeholders, according to smart specialization specificity, as also described in JRC procedure.
The Lagging Behind Regions Initiative
In this context and in parallel, DG REGIO provided specialised assistance to two regions to develop their RIS3 in the North West and update it in the North East within Lagging Behind Regions Initiative, through the Smart Specialisation Platform of the Joint Research Center and dedicated experts.
The aim of the "Lagging behind regions" initiative was to identify bottlenecks that hinder growth in less developed regions and to provide assistance in order to build a bottom-up process, an extensive consultation with regional actors involved in priority areas of activity (where the region benefits from competitive and / or comparative advantages). Specific support was provided mainly for: Entrepreneurial Discovery Processes, education, training, skills – to create links between research and business and labour market, administrative capacity – to develop national - regional coordination, but also trainings on innovation specificity for potential beneficiaries or other relevant stakeholders in the eco-system.
Following all the support activities provided, the Entrepreneurial Discovery Process (EDP), materialized in a portfolio of project ideas for North East and North West regions. The projects resulted were integrated projects or had a multidisciplinary approach to market research results and had such a novelty character that they were not eligible under any financing source/programme/initiative in Romania at that time.
As a result, the ROP was modified by introducing a new Specific Objective and specific budget was allocated in order to finance these projects.
Subsequently, the EC expanded the Lagging Behind Regions Initiative in Romania, as follows:
The JRC provided a continuing support for the NE / NW regions (call launched, projects in contracting process), but also similar for the other 6 regions.
The World Bank together with MAROP: design and implement: Research Valorization Programme (call for NE/NW regions in preparation), Structured Research Contract (under preparation by WB), Proof of concept (call for 8 regions ready to be launched).
During the 2014-2020 programming period, Smart Specialisation in Romania materialized mainly through the design and implementation of Priority Axis 1 (PA 1) from Regional Operational Programme (ROP), dedicated to promoting technological transfer.
PA 1 ROP refers to investment priorities in exclusively novel areas for the research and entrepreneurial environment in Romania. In order to design and implement PA 1, Managing Authority (MA) ROP had to initiate and prepare a unique process of entrepreneurial discovery, at regional level, to create the optimal premises necessary to ensure a qualitative project portfolio.
Smart Specialisation concepts and tools came into picture through a process of learning and building, that was managed at national and regional level only by constant and thorough support from the European Commission, particularly the JRC, who provided support throughout the whole policy cycle based on Romania’s scientific evidence.
In this regard, support to regional innovation ecosystems – that were in incipient forms - was provided in order to facilitate their evolution, to make them work and be in correlation with a national innovation system governed centrally.
It was also initiated the process of designing and testing a new model of governance, better linking the national and the regional levels, and working together to offer better solutions for interrelated problems, for market and societal developments. For example, beside the Regional Development Agency (executive body) and Regional Development Council (political body) for each region was set up a Regional Innovation Consortium including representatives of the research, universities, innovative SMEs, local public authorities and civil society environment and having a consultative role for RIS3 and project portfolio elaboration. (For Centru region http://www.adrcentru.ro/consortiul-regional-de-inovare-centru)
"The established governance system has a multi-level approach, its purpose being both to ensure the participation and commitment of the Strategy by all key actors in the quadruple helix system at regional level and their involvement in its implementation (including monitoring and evaluation activities) and facilitate vertical communication with national and European organizations and institutions on the one hand and relevant sub-regional actors on the other (including planning and programming activities). It must ensure the ability to absorb, generate and exchange knowledge and information, promptly and efficiently."
Besides the ROP has also enabled to create and strengthen institutional capacity and to initiate a culture of dialogue, collaboration and partnership among innovation stakeholders that was almost lacking before, and placed that at the foundation of the Entrepreneurial Discovery Processes and mechanisms, as a new way of thinking together about how to identify and how to develop the best projects for the community. People who had not met before rallied to outline a project idea that they thought was of common interest and feasible, confirming thus the underlying dimension of innovation as a new driver of economic growth and the importance of creating broad awareness and better skills and competences in managing it.
"The South-East Regional Development Agency, in collaboration with the B3 Territorial Development Unit of the European Commission's Joint Research Center (JRC), has continued at regional level the series of Entrepreneurial Discovery Meetings (EDPs) under the RIS 3 in Romania ”, a project implemented by JRC in Romania. The meetings were attended by relevant actors from the region, belonging to the quadruple helix: public sector, private sector, NGOs and universities… The purpose of the meetings was to identify challenges and opportunities to promote concrete project initiatives in the areas of regional smart specialization, assess the identified priorities and the relevance of the measures proposed in the policy mix contained in the Smart Specialization Strategy of the South-East Development Region." [Quote from South East Regional Development Agency page]
The steps outlined were mandatory in order to prepare an optimal framework for ROP implementation. Even if all these created delays in implementation, since each one of them required a period of time that had been added to the original timetable, PA 1 ROP played an essential role in the creation and coagulation of the quadruple partnership structures and in the management of entrepreneurial discovery processes.
Preparing PA1 implementation, getting results with demonstration effect and involvement become essential to raise awareness, increase knowledge, level out the understanding of the correct approaches and, last but not least, to stir emulation in the market and achieve the necessary ‘momentum’ for an accelerated, effective and efficient implementation.
Therefore, ROP contributed to the change of vision by a much more active involvement of the main stakeholders in the programming process at the regional level. It may be concluded that it helped potential beneficiaries of funding to work in a more structured way for the generation and structuring of the project ideas. The projects resulted were integrated projects or had a multidisciplinary approach to market research results and had such a novelty character that they were not eligible under any financing source/programme/initiative in Romania at that moment (examples of projects: Intelligent, autonomous and quickly reconfigurable robotic system with applications in the automotive and agricultural industries or Research, design and development of ecological electric vehicles made of composite advanced materials, equipped with photovoltaic panels).
In August 2019 the main conclusions presented in evaluation report of PA 1 from ROP revealed that ROP 2014-2020 has made a visible contribution to addressing Smart Specialisation and that the institutional structures developed under ROP to support Smart Specialisation process at regional level are perceived as functional.
However, there is plenty of room for improvement and the need to strengthen the administrative capacity still exists at the level of all components of the ecosystem newly created.
Another important conclusion appears regarding the need for an approach over a multiple programming cycle and, consequently, this axis and the investment priorities must find their maximum continuity and peak load in the implementation under the 2021-2027 programming cycle. For this programming period, besides capacity building, the focus was to offer some demo results to the critical mass of promoters which are expected to join the pioneers of this funding cycle.
Even if there is a long run until solid progress are achieved in terms of Innovative SMEs collaborating with others (which is the impact indicator of PA 1), some positive effects of Smart Specialisation on regional governance in Romania can be traced:
The set-up of functional bodies that ensure better governance of regional Smart Specialisation strategies:
The establishment of an efficient bottom-up partnership approach, involving all relevant stakeholders at regional level (functional 4H), in an extended entrepreneurial discovery mechanism.
"The Smart specialization Strategy of the South-East Development Region was developed based on a quantitative analysis and a qualitative analysis. In order to complete the quantitative analysis, 7 focus groups were organized at regional level, attended by relevant actors from the region, belonging to the quadruple helix: public sector, private sector, NGOs and universities>::Focus groups were organized on previously identified areas of smart specialization… The entrepreneurial discovery meetings were provided in the Guide for the elaboration of the Smart Specialization Strategy (RIS 3) and organized according to the methodology developed by the Joint Research Center (JRC) - Joint Research Center of the European Commission, within the project “RIS3 support in Lagging Regions ”Funded by the European Commission." (Quote from South East Region Regional Development Agency)
The creation of the minimum administrative capacity in order to ensure a functional EDP process at regional level: a lot of trainings, coaching sessions, workshops were delivered for the ecosystem in the area of: technological transfer, innovation management, Strengthening University Industry Government Cooperation, project writing, governing, monitoring and evaluation of RIS3, etc.