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Smart specialisation in European regions: issues of strategy, institutions and implementation

Philip McCann (Department of Economic Geography, Faculty of Spatial Sciences, University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands)
Raquel Ortega-Argilés (Department of Global Economics and Management, Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands)

European Journal of Innovation Management

ISSN: 1460-1060

Article publication date: 7 October 2014




The purpose of this paper is to show that the approaches to smart specialisation being adopted in different European Union (EU) regions are likely to be heavily shaped by the institutional and governance context, as well as the regional economic specifics. Along with the specific regional economic characteristics, these institutional variations mean that there is no single smart specialisation template or blueprint which can be transplanted onto every region. Rather, regions have to work within their own governance frameworks to find their best solutions.


As evidence of this, the authors analyse the possibilities and challenges faced by four different sets of regional examples in the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain. Using OECD, EU and other official national documents and publications, the authors are able to explain the ways in which the governance set-ups vary enormously across these different arenas although they do share some certain common features with the other examples on a case-by-case basis.


The policy architecture within which the smart specialisation agenda will be operating is very different in each national or regional case. As such, in addition to the regional economic specifics, the smart specialisation challenges faced by different regions are likely to differ significantly due to governance issues as well as variations in the regional economic conditions. This is because the possibilities for different regional actions depend heavily on the governance relationship between the regional and the local governance remits.

Research limitations/implications

The argument presented here are necessarily in part speculative in that while they are based on a regional systems-of-innovation conceptual framework which links institutions, innovation and regional development, the actual smart specialisation implementation processes are still in their infancy, so that the actual outcomes remain to be seen in the long run.

Practical implications

The analysis here helps to situate smart specialisation discussions in the national-regional institutional and governance context. This also serves to frame how smart specialisation priority-setting processes are likely to be undertaken and helps to consider how such activities may play out in other regions with different institutional settings.


This is one of the few papers that explicitly examine specialisation issues in a governance and institutional setting. In reality, the success or otherwise of smart specialisation agenda will be heavily shaped by how the governance and institutional issues are addressed. Good analysis and data gathering is essential, but good governance for policy design, monitoring and evaluation can potentially also provide a crucial advantage to smart specialisation actions. In contrast, poor governance may undermine good smart specialisation intentions and analyses.



©Philip McCann and Raquel Ortega-Argilés.

Published by Emerald Group Publishing Limited. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 3.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial & non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at

This paper draws on material collected through the SmartSpec – Smart Specialisation for Regional Innovation project. The project is funded through the EU's Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement number 320131.


McCann, P. and Ortega-Argilés, R. (2014), "Smart specialisation in European regions: issues of strategy, institutions and implementation", European Journal of Innovation Management, Vol. 17 No. 4, pp. 409-427.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2014, Authors

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