With the new Innovation Agenda on the way, Europe and its member states find themselves in a crucial phase when it comes to integrating innovation policy at EU, national and regional level. The event ‘Hit or Miss: Innovation ecosystems’ asked a panel of speakers from different backgrounds to elaborate on innovation ecosystems through the lens of vocational education providers and universities of applied sciences, specifically emphasizing on the interaction and collaboration between regional innovation strategies, national funding instruments and European policies. During the event various practices showed how sustainable and fruitful outcomes were achieved, and what specific kind of support or changes are needed to foster more dynamic ecosystems

Hit or Miss: Europe’s region and students lead the way to prosper innovation ecosystems

Perfect timing to talk about innovation ecosystems

On 17th of June, Neth-ER, in cooperation with the Vereniging Hogescholen, UASNL and the MBO Raad, welcomed stakeholders from the Dutch and European education and research sector for a ‘Hit or Miss: Innovation ecosystems’ event at the House of the Dutch Provinces (HNP). The timing of the event is perfect, as mentioned by the secretary of the board of HNP, Rob van Eijkeren. Rob referred to the upcoming elections of the European Parliament and the big challenges Europe is facing, addressing the necessity to bring more innovative initiatives and structural funding for our regions in the next legislative term. Moderator of the day and director of Neth-ER, Jurgen Rienks, also pointed out the importance of this event since the European Commission will put forward its brand New European Innovation Agenda in July.

Innovation is place-based

Rienks was happy to announce the first speaker Thomas Wobben who is working for the Secretariat-General of the European Committee of the Regions. Wobben stipulates that just like the Green Deal and Digital Transition, the Commission’s approach regarding innovation is mission oriented. However, Wobben highlighted that this so called ‘one size fits all’ approach lacks sufficiency concerning our regions and lacks a place-based delivery process. To overcome this challenge the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre has published the first draft of the Partnerships for Regional Innovation (PRI) Playbook, which facilitates a strategic framework for innovation-driven regional change, linking EU priorities with national and regional plans and challenges. Wobben hopes that this new approach will provide the tools for regional actors to explore and learn about their own needs.

Every tree is rooted in the ground

Thereafter three speakers shared their own findings and practices on innovation ecosystems related to the education sector. Lisa Heyman, recently graduated at the Avans University of Aplied Sciences, elaborated on her innovative Afstudeerboom project. This project ensures that all Avans graduates will receive a graduation tree as a gift, which means Avans is planting its own new forest. A beautiful initiative that not only has an added value for the Avans community but also for the Dutch society. She expressed that innovation projects like these do not happen suddenly, but ‘that it comes by trial and error. Therefore, she called for a platform where students can conduct this paradigm of trial and error. Second speaker, John Schobben, who works at the Vocational Education & Training Institution De Leijgraaf, took us back to the long road Dutch VET has travelled. He reminded us how important innovation projects on VET schools are for the region and how this collaboration eventually creates a national surplus. ‘This kind of development in VET is more than creating innovation. It is both realizing innovation and implementation.’ The last speaker of this round is Anu Manickam. She is a researcher at the Hanze UAS and explained the complexity theory applied to economic clusters and regional development. Manickam showed how the Hanze UAS helps the region by fostering and building up dynamic ecosystems. She stressed that it is important to create a proper infrastructure with all the innovation stakeholders in the region. ‘The region needs to be in the lead’, says Manickam.

No competition but complementation

After the break the stage was taken by Panagiotis Sevdalis, working at the Commision in DG RTD. Even though the new European Innovation Agenda is not published yet, Sevdalis was so kind to elaborate on the preparation and implementation of this agenda. He stressed that innovation, and especially deep-tech innovation, is crucial for achieving both the green and digital transition and it could give Europe more technological and social sovereignty. ‘We are in a moment that the different ecosystems we have today need to complement each other instead of competing. That gives SME’s, schools and local authorities not only the opportunity to build a sustainable and fruitful network for the region, but also contribute to the well-being for the whole of Europe.’

More funding, human capital and collaboration

Finally, it was time for the panelists to take the stage. Jorick Scheerens, initiator and coordinator of the foundation Every VET a practoraat, Inez Meurs, program manager for the Taskforce on Applied Research SIA and Willem Foorthuis, lector in Sustainable Cooperative Entrepreneurship at the Hanze UAS, formed a panel in which they discussed what needs to be done to create a successful innovation ecosystem. When it comes to ‘hit or miss’, Scheerens explained that funding is crucial to get a project or start-up to the next level. Most educational organizations in VET do not have the resources to expand their projects or to go from start-up to scale-up. Foorthuis agreed on this and added the important role students play in innovation processes. Furthermore, he mentioned that education and research should be more integrated. Educational institutions and regional companies need to be supported in building a proper cooperative framework, states Foorthuis. ‘Innovative students like Lisa can play a huge role in building up these regional partnerships, but prerequisite educational institutions must create this space in their own organization.’ It was Meurs who criticized the view about the importance of funding, reminding us funding is crucial for getting the right people on the right spot. When Jurgen Rienks asked the panel what the new European Innovation Agenda needs to address and tackle, the three panelists seemed to agree on one thing: the importance of facilitating collaboration.