The Greek economy as a whole scores poorly on innovation: firms under-invest in research and development. Meanwhile the education and training systems are also failing to deliver the school retention rates and participation in lifelong learning that typify northern European countries.
The East Macedonia and Thrace Region (REMTH) is in the north-east of Greece. It shares a border with Bulgaria and the EU border with Turkey, and includes a couple of islands. Its low GDP per capita (around 60% of the EU average) makes it eligible for Objective 1 Cohesion Funds. The general Greek weaknesses in innovation are particularly acute in regions like this. The ESPON project SURE researched how the Region set about tackling problems of competitiveness, and what happened.
A European-funded innovation project
“Technogenesis in REMTH” was a project funded under the 2000-2006 European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) Innovative Actions Programme. It was shortlisted for an award by the European Commission. As the SURE research explains, the aim of the project was to eliminate the weaknesses in the Region’s innovation system.
To do this it sought to develop a new regional innovation strategy in REMTH, through the networking of public authorities, research and technological institutions, consulting agencies and local enterprises or individuals for production of new, innovative products. Uniquely within Greece it sought to create new products and services developed by individuals. It's all textbook stuff, and the Technogenesis Project was also aligned with the main objectives of the National Operational Programme for Competitiveness 2000-2006 and the National Operational Programme for Information Society 2000-2006. So the project offered both the horizontal and the vertical integration that is widely recognised within Cohesion Policy as necessary for success.
Citizens came forward with ideas for 300 new products. These were then reduced to a short-list of 70. The selection process itself was intended to create the basis for an intelligent system (the Technogenesis model) that could work permanently in the Region, after the closure of the project, and which would be transferable to other regions.
Technology Clinics were introduced to support the firms or individuals to take the necessary steps before their new product idea could be transferred to ready-to-production prototype status. Previously there had been no such "intermediary" institutions in the region. Through the Clinics 10 of the 70 ideas were taken forward into production. An Investment Opportunity Forum was established to connect inventors to investors, again with the aim of it continuing its work after the life of the ERDF-funded project.
The project also included a model to connect the region's traditional larger companies with the smaller firms and individuals with ideas but little capital or business experience. Both physical and web-based networks were built which also connected to research institutions in the region. Again the plan was for long-term sustainable technogenesis partnerships able to cope with shocks, threats and opportunities.
The Technogenesis in REMTH was successful in building and delivering a regional innovation strategy in line with national and EU aims. However, it proved difficult to sustain. This was due to a combination of lack of political commitment, limited funding and a shortage of staff within the public administration with the necessary economic development skills. Also the private sector remained reticent.
Frustrating as it may be, the lesson from the experience from this peripheral region is that economic transformation is likely to be a long term process. Regions like East Macedonia and Thrace are unlikely to resemble Bavaria any time soon. They will require sustained investment in hard and soft infrastructure. Also political leadership and high quality economic development staff in the public sector are essential to forge and deliver the regional innovation strategies. Unless such issues are addressed, austerity and bale-outs will simply fuel migration from regions like this. Such policies do not build the regional competitiveness on which the Greek economy and ultimately the EU economy depends.