- Our South East Europe

Western Balkans challenged to unleash its innovative potential

Frequently mentioned directly proportional link between research and development for innovation and economic growth has been often recognized and practically proven in many countries. Western Balkan (WB) countries are also facing the challenge to create knowledge-based societies and are determined to move forward towards this goal.

The building-up of a knowledge-based society that leads to increased competitiveness and sustainable social and economic development, and the development of human capacity are both a challenge and a priority for the Western Balkans on their path towards European Union (EU) accession, according to the Western Balkans Regional Research and Development Strategy for Innovation project, launched in late November 2011 as WB’s response to fast-changing economic and scientific environment.

The overall objective of the project is to strengthen the innovative capacity of the Western Balkans by stimulating Research and Development (R&D) using the regional potential. This would involve interconnecting research institutes, pooling resources, training scientists and transferring knowledge across the region to increase its competitiveness. Beneficiaries of the project are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo*.

“Launching of this key strategic project of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) in building human capital area was the result of preparatory work of the experts from the region, the European Commission, the RCC Secretariat and the World Bank. The regional strategy, a project worth EUR 1,500,000 and financed from EU’s multi-beneficiary Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (MB IPA), will identify existing research capacities and consider how cooperation can be improved among Western Balkans' institutes and researchers”, says Mladen Dragasevic, Head of Building Human Capital and Parliamentary Cooperation Unit at the RCC Secretariat.

“R&D policy is one of the areas in which the Western Balkan countries (WBCs) have achieved limited progress during the transition period”, says Paulo Correa, Lead Economist at the World Bank, adding that the national innovation systems suffer from a legacy of unfinished reforms. Correa adds that R&D expenditures tend to be low and generate limited scientific and economic results, while spending is mainly concentrated in the public sector, with low research commercialization.

“More broadly, cooperation with the private sector is negligible. The WBCs have also been experiencing significant brain drain. Availability of modern research equipment and infrastructure is another problem in the region.”

Correa explains that WBCs will need to address several challenges in order to unleash innovative potential, the most important being: improve policy-making, implementation and governance of national innovation systems; increase scientific output (publications, citations, patenting); accelerate research commercialization and collaboration with businesses and promote private R&D investments, and facilitate innovative start-ups.

 “Such reforms are complex and costly, and one way to reduce the cost and increase the reform impact is through regional cooperation, which may serve as credible commitment for implementing reforms and prioritizing R&D.”

Zoran Aralica, senior research associate at the Economic Institute in Zagreb, is of the opinion that the success of the Regional Strategy depends on its ability to overcome weaknesses of current regional initiatives in the field of innovation economy (WBC.INCO NET[1], Regional Competitiveness Initiative for Western Balkans/RCI, WBinNO[2], Electronic South East Europe/ eSEE Initiative).

Aralica adds however that these projects do not really consider global challenges and bottom up approaches, where social dimension of innovation and invention within the Western Balkan region may be emphasized. He says that there is an evident lack of pan-European vision within the projects that would make integration of WB countries into the European Research Area (ERA) in a more appropriate manner.

„Due to that, this project is expected to make a step further towards establishment of a joint vision in the area of research and development, inventions and innovations as well as in setting up and defining regional priorities in the research and development field in Western Balkans.“

When talking about the ways in which the regional cooperation may help in this process, the Inception Report for the Strategy[3] lays out suggestions for avoiding unnecessary fragmentation and/or duplication of expenditures – contributing to an improvement in the quality of public expenditures in R&D and their overall impact on the economy. Possible areas for cooperation include:

  • Promoting establishment of competitive regional centres of excellence;
  • Promoting development of regional research infrastructures;
  • Supporting young scientists in their career development;
  • Strengthening the potential of WBCs to fully participate in European initiatives;
  • Developing regional early-stage finance instruments, including a regional venture capital fund.

“The European Commission (EC) Joint Research Centre’s Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (JRC-IPTS) provides customer-driven support to the EU policy-making process. In particular JRC-IPTS supports the policy Directorates General of the EC throughout the science, technology and innovation(STI) policy cycle: anticipating policy needs; assessing options and impacts; and monitoring and analysis of policy implementation”, says Mark Boden of the JRC-IPTS.

Boden explains that they are fully committed to supporting the development of the Innovation Union flagship initiative of the Europe 2020 strategy for a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy, with a number of ongoing activities that have particular relevance for the RCC strategy for national research policies.

JRC-IPTS is a partner in the Western Balkan countries INCO-NET (WBC-INCO.NET), which aims to support dialogue among the WB countries and between the WB and the EU on research and innovation priorities.

“The project aims, inter alia, at identifying research priorities for the area, at enhancing participation of researchers from the region in European projects and at implementing capacity building and networking activities. The outputs of the project  provide lessons that are crucial for RCC activities.”

Dragasevic concludes that the Regional Cooperation Council, as the mechanism for coordination of regional cooperation in South East Europe, will provide its political and technical support during the implementation of the Western Balkans Regional Strategy on Research and Development for Innovation project.

 “In accordance with its Strategy and Work Programme 2011-2013, the RCC will in close cooperation with regional and international partners, continue to work towards successful and effective development of a comprehensive regional research strategy.”

* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo Declaration of Independence

[1] The Western Balkan Countries INCO-NET enhances integration of the Western Balkan countries (WBC) in the European Research Area (ERA) http://www.wbc-inco.net/about/index_en.html

[2] Innovation Policy Learning from Norway to WB countries (WBinNO) http://www.eizg.hr/en-US/Innovation-Policy-Learning-from-Norway-to-WB-countries-%28WBinNO%29-712.aspx

[3] World Bank (2012) Inception Report – Regional R&D Strategy for Innovation in the Western Balkan Countries: Key Issues and Implications for Technical Assistance, Draft: February, 2012


RCC fosters cooperation in the area of research and innovation in the Western Balkans and the wider South East European area (Photo: http://ec.europa.eu)

RCC fosters cooperation in the area of research and innovation in the Western Balkans and the wider South East European area (Photo: http://ec.europa.eu)