Smart Specialization and the Entrepreneurial Discovery Process

Smart specialization was first proposed by the Knowledge for Growth Group in 2008. Conceptually, it means "the capacity of an economic system (a region for example) to generate new specialities through the discovery of new domains of opportunity and the local concentration and agglomeration of resources and competences in these domains" (Foray 2015, 1). On this basis, the "smart specialization strategy (or policy)" has been proposed as a policy strategy, aiming at developing endogenous potential in regions, and has received attention not only from national governments but also from many international organizations, such as the OECD (2013) and the World Bank (Aprahamian and Correa 2015). Moreover, we can observe a soaring academic interest, also among economic geographers, in smart specialization. Recently, also critical voices have become louder (Hassink & Gong 2019; Foray 2019; Benner 2020).

In this session, we pause for a while and will take critically stock of what has been achieved so far, with a particular focus on the entrepreneurial discovery process. The latter is namely considered as the key contributor to transforming regional economic structures. Entrepreneurial discovery is defined as a process in which entrepreneurial actors (both firms and non-firms actors, such as researchers at universities and public research establishments) in a region explore and discover new and innovative activities, which in turn leads to innovation and transformation of the regional economy. Innovative activities are seen in a broad way, including all sorts of innovation (beyond just technological), which involves the engagement of a broad range of innovation actors in the strategy development and priority setting. While the entrepreneurial discovery process is in principle a good tool to select regional sectoral priorities, vested interest groups and related rent-seeking behavior, as well as the strong dependence on local, pre-existing economic structures and conditions, and the consequential high risk of lock-ins, has led to doubts about its potential to set in motion structural changes of a regional economy. Moreover, in measuring the impact and potential of smart specialization and related entrepreneurial discovery processes, so far, there has been a strong focus on using patent data, as well as other quantitative indicators. While such quantitative measures might be useful in indicating the outcomes of the policy, qualitative methods, such as innovation biographies, are essential, since smart specialization and particular the entrepreneurial discovery process is a qualitative concept.

In particular, we welcome submissions that deal with, but are not necessarily constrained to the following topics: How do entrepreneurial discovery processes emerge? How are they orchestrated and governed? What role do different spatial scales and governance levels play in initiating entrepreneurial discovery processes? How far do local and regional actors have leeway to influence smart specialization, in general, and the entrepreneurial discovery process, in particular? What kind of actors are involved? What role do local universities play? How can smart specialization and entrepreneurial discovery processes affect grand challenges and wicked problems, such as climate change and sustainability transition, and hence contribute to mission-oriented innovation policies (Mazzucato 2013)? Are there differences between the initiation and impact of entrepreneurial discovery processes in advanced, intermediate and less-developed regions (Trippl et al. 2019)? What role do non-local resources play for entrepreneurial discovery processes? Do entrepreneurial discovery processes really lead economic structural change, or are they putting a region in various lock-in risks? What alternative measures and indicators are available to measure the effects of smart specialization strategies, in general, and entrepreneurial discovery processes, in particular?