Why European regions need a triple helix for innovation
Global trends have a significant impact on uncertainties and insecurities at the national and local level. Challenges result from the increasing interdependence of national economies, with the likelihood of chain and domino reactions leading up to financial crises, the rapid emergence of ‘new’ economies (among others China, India, Brazil, Russia) triggering fierce competition, new technologies (the digital revolution), sustainability issues (ecology, carbon emission, energy security) and demographic developments such as the ageing of society and increased cross-border migration.
Traditionally national systems and methods of governance are advanced to try and deal with these challenges. Socio-economic coordination and consultation at the national level – in Netherlands embodied in the so-called Poldermodel – and, aligned with this, sector level coordination, e.g. by means of collective labour agreements, have a long-standing tradition in many countries. In recent years, however, the span of control and success of these coordination mechanisms is on the decline. This is due to on the one hand the ‘boundaryless’ nature and magnitude of these challenges and flaws in national governance systems on the other. Sub optimal performance of national and sector level governance is caused by, among other things, a lack of trust and awareness (sense of urgency) among the stake-holders, political deadlocks and insufficient capacity for collective and strategic action. As a result the designing of future-oriented and future-proof strategies and policies proves very difficult.
This situation also applies to the national approach to labour market, social security and economic challenges. The recent financial crisis has but lowered the potential of the national governance level. Consensus is lacking, on both what to do and how to do it aspects.
Following this analysis it is possibly understandable but far from self-evident – and therefore both scientifically and societally very interesting – that regions increasingly become aware of the necessity to develop regional forms of governance and coordination to adequately respond to (either globally or locally induced) labour market challenges. The rise of the region, as one may refer to this development, is certainly not self-evident in countries as the Netherlands where the region is not a legally defined level of governance (compared to the national, province and municipality level that are recognized in the Basic Law) as opposed to larger, federal states such as Italy and Germany.
The energy and will power to formulate a joint policy response, in view of sluggishness and budget cuts at the national level, can be observed within a growing number of regions in European countries. Both the ‘what do to’ (goals) and ‘how to do it’ (organization and instruments) are being addressed. Increasingly, the ‘how’ is configured within a triple actor model that includes business, education & training institutions (including universities) and local government. This governance configuration is being referred to, both in academic literature and policy practice, as the ‘triple helix’, a term inspired by DNA theory. One of the key authors in the field, Etzkowitz, author of the 2008 book ‘The Triple Helix’, rightly pinpoints the issue of regional socio-economic governance as ‘innovation in action’, a joint and coordinated effort to further develop, via technological and social innovation, both business potential and human capital. The ultimate goal is to safeguard and support local business and employment opportunities, thus contributing to maintaining growth and welfare within the region. For workers the main issue at stake is employment security, which can be defined as the security to enter into employment, to remain employed and to progress in the labour market, but not necessarily within the same job with the same employer.
In general labour markets are a key focus of regional governance efforts as there is a growing understanding that core regional economic sectors become extremely vulnerable without the guarantee of being provided with the right number of workers, with the right qualifications and competences at the right time. Well-functioning flexicurity oriented labour markets and well-educated workers with adequate skills for the new jobs to come are considered the main competitive assets but also the Achilles’ heel for European countries. This is widely acknowledged within the European Commission’s Agenda for new skills and jobs. If properly designed and operating strategically a regional triple helix organization can act as the main vehicle to practically and successfully implement business innovation, flexicurity and new skills for new job policies in European regions.
A good example here is the so-called Brainport region in the South East of the Netherlands (with Eindhoven as the main city). This top technology region accommodates high tech companies as Philips and ASML, a leading company in the provision of lithography systems for the semi-conductor industry. Brainport is one of the cornerstones of the Dutch economy along with Rotterdam (seaport) and Amsterdam (airport).
Industry, educational and knowledge institutions as well as local government cooperate closely to further boost the international competitiveness of Brainport. This triple-helix approach has resulted in a positive climate for both large international companies and small and medium-sized enterprises, that are part of the business chain (e.g. as suppliers). The agenda for the collaboration, referred to as Brainport 2020, focuses on the domains of ‘People’, ‘Technology’, ‘Business’ and ‘Basics’. Within these domains, various projects are developed and carried out in the key areas of industry, the so called spearheads of the region: High Tech Systems & Materials, Food, Automotive, Lifetec and Design. The economic success can be attributed to a large part to the culture of cooperation and coordination in the region. The close collaboration between government, the business community and knowledge institutions is unparalleled. Supporting and complementing one another is the Brainport success factor. In the high-tech field the only way forward is working together as it is simply not feasible to have all the necessary specialist knowledge and processes in house. The solution is ‘open innovation’, as demonstrated on the High Tech Campus in the city of Eindhoven: technology companies inspiring one another by conducting joint research and by sharing and using their mutual results.
From the experience in the Brainport and other regions important lessons can be drawn. These lessons can be listed as the ‘Ten Commandments of regional coordination and governance’:
1. Industry must take the lead and also be the problem owners. Companies have mapped out their future strategy, so they know the requirements (e.g. training) and conditions (to be established by the government).
2. Avoid conflicts of interest between industry-based structures on the one hand and local government structures on the other.
3. Mutual trust between the parties (also between the regional municipalities and councils) is crucial. Hidden agenda’s are detrimental to fruitful collaboration.
4. Take good notice of the fact that each of the various actors are judged by different targets and rationales from their own policy and hierarchical environment (accountability) and might not necessarily have similar goals.
5. It is tempting to keep talking about the problems and challenges, but not actually act. Keep in mind: put your money where your mouth is.
6. Don’t waste time doing something that has already been done by others (reinventing the wheel). Look for similar regions and investigate how they tackled their problems, look for analogies.
7. Be self-confident and demand leeway and room for maneuver from the national government for your own agenda to improve the region.
8. Identify spearheads in business sectors and challenges on which to focus activities. It is impossible to deal with all problems at the same time. Decide on the ones to tackle first and those activities that will have the highest impact. While going through the process do not fail to involve and mobilize small and medium sized businesses. And monitor adequately.
9. Always work according to a long term strategic approach instead of short term subsidy driven actions. This might be tempting, but if grants stop, so will progress and development
10. Find a figurehead from industry, a person authoritative to spread the word and act as a devoted and diligent ambassador of the regional vision and agenda.
There is a huge potential and, at the same time, an urgent need for innovation within European regions. Advanced and self-aware regional governance structures aptly fit into the EU’s concept of multi-level governance and are a precondition for the successful implementation of the EU’s 2020 Agenda. Similar to the way EU governance adds to national governance, regional governance underpins and supplements EU and national governance. Triple helix organizations are a good practice, showing how one can make the region work by concerted action aimed at innovation and business and employment development.
René Voogt and Ton Wilthagen
Programme manager and professor
Research Institute for Flexicurity,
Labour Market Dynamics and Social Cohesion
at Tilburg University, the Netherlands