18 May 2022

Innovation hubs driving sustainable growth in the Baltic Sea region

Written by Patrizia Hongisto, Aalto University

There is an ever-growing urge in the Baltic Sea regions to become greener, smarter, and economically thriving. But how to get there? The Interreg project Smart-up BSR brought together those who can drive innovation in the regions. Together, they learned how to make the best use of the region’s strengths and selling points.

Why smart specialisation?

Smart specialisation brings local authorities, academia, business spheres, and civil society together to enhance innovation at the regional level. It enables regions across Europe to advance development policies contributing to high performance and prosperity. The ground for the development varies. It can be, for instance, science economy, or digitalisation.

However, when looking at the Baltic Sea region, many regions in the area lack methods or institutional frameworks to fully exploit their innovation capabilities.

Advancing Innovation in the Baltic Sea region

The Interreg project Smart-Up BSR has brought together people responsible for driving innovation in the regions of the Baltic Sea area since 2017. These are universities, NGOs, politicians, and businesses. They cooperated on improving knowledge and practical skills on how to best implement innovation strategies. In essence, they focused on the topics of healthy ageing, climate change, circular economy, and digitalisation – the most vital for the regions involved in the project.

One of the main instruments the project used was innovation camps and hackathons. Thanks to a variety of visualisation methods, discussion, and collaboration techniques, the participants developed a shared understanding of the challenges in regional development. Taking a closer look at the regional and place-based innovation and solution-finding, the project created a comprehensive view of the cross-regional strengths.

Tuija Heikura, Smart Up BSR project manager

“We practiced ways for regions across the Baltic Sea to strive for cross-regional, cross-issue, and evidence and practice-based transformation.”

For instance, the Helsinki-Espoo-Kotka Innovation Camp worked on addressing some of the challenges of the UN SDG Sustainable Development Goals. The Camp gathered people with different skills and profiles, which were then divided into five different teams. Each team worked on the predefined challenges to fit the structure, skills, and aspirations of their own group. All 5 groups managed to develop new smart ideas and project blanks.

The developed solutions range from apps that teach about sustainable development through gamification and learning material for sustainable food options for nurseries, to implementing waste reduction projects to create new job opportunities for young people.

Learning from each other

The innovation camps gathered more than 500 enthusiasts of regional innovation and ensured continuous and vivid interactions among them. The camps took place both virtually and onsite in Aarhus (Denmark), Palanga-Klaipeda (Lithuania), Tallinn (Estonia), Brandenburg (Germany), Helsinki-Espoo-Kotka (Finland), Gdansk-Gdynia-Sopot (Poland) and Riga (Latvia).

The participants got inspired by visiting local initiatives for creative ideas on how to promote regional strengths.

A participant of the innovation camps

“The challenges of the innovation camp activities opened up details, real-life practices and processes, and possibilities within the subject area of the case. Sometimes it is about learnings and how they can be put into practice right away, sometimes it is more about building capacities for the future.”

Building on the results of a fruitful cooperation

The project’s joint efforts stirred up immediate action and new aspirations for future implementation.

Tuija Heikura, Smart Up BSR project manager

“We were inspired by each other’s ideas. What we have learned from working together in finding solutions to so many different but also some similar challenges in our diverse Baltic Sea region, is that we all benefit from cross-regional approaches, and we gain from building up capacity for future inter-regional exchange. The feedback from participants made this point very clear.”

For example, in Lithuania, people involved in regional research & innovation strategies (RIS3) used what they learned during the camps to launch three hackathons on their own to push regional innovation further. Whereas the University of Latvia initiated cooperation with the Riga City Council on the theme of smart city, resulting in the participation of the university’s representatives in the workgroup formed by the Latvian Ministry of Economics.

Based on the analysis of the work carried out during the camps, the project has also published a book on “Sustainable Baltic Sea Region. Towards Economic Transformation by Smart Specialisation Strategies.” It is an overview of how partners of the Smart-Up BSR project understood and contributed to the Smart Specialisation strategy creation and revision in their region preparing the path towards economic transformation. It sheds light on how the smart specialisation strategies have been created, revised, and implemented in the Baltic Sea Region.

Gaining the right knowledge to build a sustainable future

The Smart-Up BSR activities looked behind the scenes at how regions embed smart specialisation strategies into their regional economic development policies. For the regions, it is a competitive advantage to gain knowledge on how to effectively operationalise specialisation-related policies and local strategies. What interests regional actors is how Baltic Sea regions envision future developments in science and technology.

The thorough regional analysis points to the processes which drive sustainable and cross-regional economic transformation. Essentially, we need to ensure that the necessary instruments to make our region more sustainable and entrepreneurial are available and implemented. 

The Smart-Up BSR community aspires to refrain from being a passive observer but to be the driver of change by bringing these instruments forward.

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