skip to Main Content

Place-Based Innovation Ecosystems in the Making: A Snapshot from Europe

We live in an era where the need for geographical proximity is greater than ever for successful innovation. The fate of the regions is no longer determined by the success of a single industry, but through cross-sectoral collaboration, open innovation, and authentic public interaction. Isolated production facilities and traditional office buildings are being slowly abandoned for fluid and flexible spaces in the vibrant urban centres, including universities working on to find solutions how to physically locate and culturally weave themselves into the urban fabric. The knowledge-led economy requires leading regional institutions and companies with their workforce to cluster and connect with start-ups and incubators, and transfer knowledge and ideas quickly in close proximity. After all, innovation is a social process that takes place in collaborative environments, where people share skills and ideas as they work and socialise together.

This approach to innovation has also been acknowledged in the recent work of Brookings Institute and their Initiative on Innovation and Placemaking who have labelled these hubs as ‘innovation districts’. Their work on this has since 2014 resulted in a wide range of research reports and case studies, with their most recent publication being a how-to-guide on assessing innovation districts[1]. The guide outlines a solid framework with 5 interconnected elements to be used for innovation ecosystem asset audit, by public and private leaders. In the context of Europe the discourse has been revolving around major policy initiatives, all contributing to the development of place-based innovation ecosystems.

With each representing unique features, innovation districts are largely clustered in North America and Europe, followed by those in Australia, (e.g. Sydney Westmead, Macquarie Park, Melbourne Innovation District), Asia (e.g. New Town Kolkata, Singapore Jurong Innovation District, Hong Kong Innovation Node), Latin America (e.g. Medellin), and in the Middle East (e.g. Tel Aviv Silicon Wadi).

What’s in in Europe?

European initiatives focusing on sustainable urban design as a path to regional innovation dates back to 1990’s. In the case of Barcelona (El Poblenou), Eindhoven, and Helsinki-Espoo, the cities have risen from their ashes after severe economic crisis, through strong collaboration between public, private and knowledge sectors in their respective regions. Other European cities have been experimenting with the trend as well, e.g. London (Knowledge Quarter), Stockholm (Kista Science City), Berlin (Silicon Allee), and Rotterdam (Innovation District), each contributing to the development of innovation districts in different ways. These cities to a large extent meet the three preconditions that matter to the development of successful districts: economic assets, e.g. research-intensive companies, universities, physical assets, e.g. coworking spaces, parks, plazas, and networking assets, that refer to the relationships between actors to generate and accelerate development of ideas. The ‘innovation ecosystem’ only emerges when availability of these assets meet with a supporting, risk-taking culture[2].

Since its official launch in 2000, [email protected] has inspired different cities around the world, including e.g. Medellin (Medellinovation Innovation District), and Montreal (Innovation District) as an international economic and social transformation benchmark model. In its first 10 years, the number of companies has grown twice as many (almost 110%), and excluding freelancers, number of workers has increased 63%, as well as the project being recognised by as many as 60% of Barcelona residents. Whilst the development of the El Poblenou neighborhood has been driven by the City Council, the regional universities, e.g. Pompeu Fabra University, University of Barcelona, Polytechnic University of Catalonia and the Open University of Catalonia are heavily invested in the project, in the construction of diverse technological centres and company incubators[3]. Cited as ‘the most intelligent region in the world’ by the American think tank organisation The Intelligent Community Forum, the Dutch city of Eindhoven established its High Tech Campus – and further consolidated the efforts by establishing Brainport Eindhoven Foundation, chaired by Eindhoven’s mayor Rob van Gijzel, to constantly improve ‘brainsharing’ and improving relationships between the members, including the tech giants Intel, IBM, Phillips Research, and the Technical University of Eindhoven[4]. The development project in 2011 received EUROCITIES award for its excellent cooperation between business, knowledge institutes and the public sector.

Measures at the EU level

We are beginning to see more attention is being placed to the ecosystem approach to innovation in European regions, and collaboratively addressing the ‘grand challenges’, particularly through the EU Cohesion Policy Framework based around the key concepts of Smart Specialisation Strategies (RIS3). This approach is also in line with the principles of Open Innovation, Smart and Sustainable Cities, and Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), a few of the crosscutting priority themes introduced by the Commission.

While there is strong policy support, and diverse number of blueprints and strategic documents published on the subject, until recently the support has not focused on the “how” to translate these policies into action. The Innovation Camp Methodology Handbook[5] published last year by the Commission aims to address this gap and support stakeholders in the implementation of their RIS3 strategies. The handbook adopts the Aalto Camp for Societal Innovation (ACSI) methodology to be applied in the design and implementation of place based regional innovation strategies, and serves its content as a ‘cookbook’, for regional and urban policy makers, quadruple helix actors and experts who set out to create their own ecosystems. The case study report[6] published the same year by JRC particularly focuses on the role of a higher education institution, Aalto University, in the facilitation of a unique ecosystem in the Helsinki region developed as Espoo Innovation Garden.

These promises of urban growth also prepares the regions to adopt smart city technologies, as argued by Horn[7], allowing cities to “test different pieces of smart technology, pick and choose the best options, and scale them through the rest of the municipality”. Involved in the European initiative of Smart Cities and its instrument programs, many cities are now pursuing smart city strategies, by collaboratively (local residents, academia, government and businesses) developing and integrating public networks, ICT and e-services to manage their services more efficiently. Taking one step at a time, and developing neighbourhoods as testbeds, these cities can gather operational insights in the short term and ensure efficient use of resources.

Role of European Universities

The challenge arises as European regions vary greatly in their capacities of innovation support, with in some ‘lagging’ regions, key components that underlie urban development is not fully present. This is due to several factors, including the weak knowledge generation capacities of universities, insufficient absorption capacity of local businesses, or simply lack of leadership in the region to facilitate collaboration among key actors. Within this context, European universities can play a pivotal role as orchestrating actors, by capitalising on their knowledge and human resources, and help create new businesses via start-ups and spin-offs, foster innovation via industry R&D cooperation, and extend their services to the direct benefits of the local community.

While undertaking these tasks, universities should mobilise their existing resources strategically, and first help identify the innovation assets of their regions focusing on the competitive distinct advantages. In the case of RIS3 strategy development, universities can achieve this by initiating and participating in the Entrepreneurial Discovery Process (EDP), and collaboratively identifying potential opportunities with local stakeholders. When regional and institutional commitment is ensured, European universities will not only play a greater role in regional innovation via EDP, but also in the translation of these processes into sustainable urban development initiatives.

[1] Report downloadable from

[2] Katz, B. & Wagner, J. (2014). The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America. Metropolitan Policy program, Brookings Institute.

[3] [email protected] Plan (2012) Downloadable from[email protected]_p.pdf

[4] Agtmael, A & Bakker, F. (2017). The Smartest Places on Earth: Why Rustbelts Are the Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation. New York: PublicAffairs

[5] Rissola G., Kune H. & Martinez P. (2017). Innovation Camp Methodology Handbook: Realising the potential of the Entrepreneurial Discovery Process for Territorial Innovation and Development, EUR 28842 EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.

[6] Rissola G., Hervas F., Slavcheva M. & Jonkers K. (2017). Place-Based Innovation Ecosystems: Espoo Innovation Garden and Aalto University (Finland), EUR 28545 EN, European Union.

[7] Want to become a smart city? Start with an innovation district. Access at

Image credit: David McBee via Pexels

Back To Top