In November 2018, EURADA presented at the Regional Studies Association’s annual Winter Conference. The presented practitioner experience about Innovation Voucher Schemes was part of the work of an Interreg Europe project – ESSPO. Innovation Voucher Schemes are an important instrument of regional development policy in Europe, EURADA seeks to share a brief summary on the instrument itself.
A simple and an effective instrument of regional and territorial development, innovation voucher schemes are deployed by public authorities (national ministries and regional development agencies) to encourage certain behaviours , in this case innovation, in targeted companies – SMEs. These small lines of credit are used for the purchase of services from knowledge service provider(s) which begin a formal professional relationship between experts and SMEs. As agile and administratively light public investment, voucher schemes incentivise the introduction of innovation (the commercialisation and conversation of research) of an in an SME’s operations and they are a first and stable measure enabling the opportunity for Academy to Business collaboration.
At the end of the 1990s this instrument was first introduced and piloted in Limburg, Netherlands and it has gone on to become popular and commonplace in regional and territorial development. After ten years of deployment in 2010, at least twenty-five voucher schemes had been identified. Currently, a coordinated approach to monitoring Europe’s voucher schemes is not yet in operation and therefore EURADA’s estimation concerning the number of voucher schemes available in Europe is an approximate figure. In 2018, it is estimated that more than fifty voucher schemes operate at all levels of territorial governance.
The popularity of voucher schemes is found in its real added value of encouraging innovation for segments of a region’s SME population which are difficult to target for public intervention and for which traditional subsidies are not suitable due to a general lack of awareness. Practically, for the users of the schemes vouchers represent a low level of administrative burden and can be implemented with ease relative to more complex forms of support (such as loans and subsidies). According to an impact assessment of an innovation voucher scheme in Scotland, voucher schemes create and accelerate formal relationships between R&D (including academia) and business in the pursuit of innovation.
The principal stages of a voucher scheme
Nevertheless, these instruments are not simplistic and cannot be applied without a structure. Some key factors should be understood to enhance voucher scheme implementation in Europe and build on the Riga Declaration of 2010 : spatial limitations; holistic support for innovation; and monitoring. First, spatial limitations and constraints (of solely regional or national programmes) pose potential issues for innovation voucher schemes successful impact due to the limitations these place upon SMEs in search of particular service/innovation support. Although, national schemes are less restricting due to theor innate greater geographic coverage and conversely regional schemes can use their proximity to their locally embedded SME to provide individualised and tailored support. Nevertheless, the widening of European voucher schemes’ spatial coverage has been in development in recent years with initiatives like Innovoucher, Baltic Tram and Greenovate, which all have elements of the trans-regional and cross-border.
Second, innovation vouchers should be and are considered in their widest form, which encompass not solely knowledge service acquisition such as product, process or service development to innovation and technology audit. Innovation Vouchers can be used and stretched to include technology uptake (primarily ICT modernisation and use) and to a lesser extent creative industry innovation vouchers such as Creative Credits in the UK. Finally, in accordance with the Riga Declaration, monitoring and impact assessment are fundamental parts of successful innovation voucher scheme implementation for which the role of the delivery agency and its supporting territorial development ecosystem is also important. Successful implementation of Innovation Voucher Schemes implies a policy consensus, and in this respect, requires appropriate checks and balances to ensure the proper allocation of resources in a competitive process.