Formal and informal networks accelerate the innovation process

The innovation process is non-linear as it involves multiple feedback loops and interactions among quadruple helix actors and knowledge structures. Innovation networks accelerate the innovation process by promoting interactions, the acquisition and diffusion of knowledge, learning processes, the reconfiguration of relationships—such as with suppliers or with producers of knowledge—and collaboration on a diverse range of issues including training, technological development, product design, marketing, exporting, and distribution (OECD, 2001). 

Innovation networks can range from formal contractual agreements (such as multi-actor research cooperation, joint ventures, clusters…) to loosely-coupled informal networks that operate on trust and shared social capital to foster knowledge exchanges, negotiations, and collaboration. At the urban level, informal innovation networks are central in knowledge-based activities, such as in creative industries, Information Communication Technologies (ICTs), software development… that require frequent face-to-face, formal and informal interactions, open innovation, and the diffusion of tacit knowledge. Regional policymakers have thus established innovation policies that encourage the formation of formal networks, most often with cluster policies, and more recently, informal networks

The Interreg Europe project, RELOS3, focuses on implementing regional Smart Specialisation Strategies (S3) in a local context by actively involving triple helix actors, namely local authorities, innovation actors, and companies. RELOS3 has for ambition to adapt and deploy the concept of S3 from the regional to the local contexts. Many RELOS3 good practices aim to build networks that range from formal, such as with the Emilia-Romagna High Technology Network, which aims to rally laboratories, innovation centres, technopoles around the six regional S3 thematic platforms, to more informal such as with SPARK Demo

Building informal networks: a path to do it

SPARK Demo is a physical space to promote collaboration through informal networks and to showcase regional innovative products and services in Tartu, Estonia. SPARK Demo was created in 2016 from the joint public-private leadership of Tartu Science Park and the City of Tartu. The City of Tartu, the regional government, the Estonian University and Tartu University founded Tartu Science Park in 1992. Tartu Science Park, which is an example of a formal network, provides innovation infrastructures, supports and services to start-ups, SMEs, and large companies.  

The concept of SPARK Demo emerged from the acknowledgement of the City of Tartu and Tartu Science Park of the importance to create a physical space to engage with civil society on research and innovation topics such as S3 priorities and to promote informal networking opportunities for entrepreneurs. Indeed, formal networks such Tartu Science Park are well complemented with informal networks since ‘the real business of knowledge exchange, dialogue and mutual cooperation often operates at the informal level – largely through a process of incorporating tacit knowledge into the participants’ learning processes’ (Cunningham and Ramlogan). The City of Tartu was thus motivated to create SPARK Demo to bring together quadruple helix stakeholders, to showcase the local innovation ecosystems, to raise awareness on S3 priorities and opportunities. 

Networks anchor innovation

SPARK Demo allows to anchor innovation within downtown Tartu. The innovation space works as a meeting point for regional innovative actors such as start-ups, educational institutions, R&D organisations, business support organisations.... The space is free of access and open to visitors on weekdays from 9 to 5. SPARK Demo includes meeting rooms to organise workshops, seminars, networking events, and prototype testing and demonstrations. The space also includes a makerlab and promotes the diffusion of an innovation culture to schoolchildren through the entrepreneurship village. The space facilitates the process of open innovation through raising awareness on emerging technologies and engaging with civil society and other innovative actors in the regional innovation ecosystem.  

SPARK Demo really anchors innovation within Tartu urban fabric. In 2019, the innovation space has hosted more than 6000 visitors—coming from the quadruple helix—from 46 different countries and presented more than 40 companies and their innovative products and services. SPARK Demo organised or co-organised more than 100 events (workshop, seminar, networking, etc.) for entrepreneurs. The events organised within the space aim to support regional business visibility, highlight regional S3 priorities and opportunities, showcase innovative products and services, foster collaboration, informal networking, and the diffusion of external knowledge. 

Photos from SPARK Demo. Source: SPARK Demo

Interview with Alo Lilles, Head of Department, Tartu City Government

Research and Innovation thematic experts: How does SPARK Demo engage with the civil society? 

Alo Lilles: SPARK Demo is at the very centre of Tartu entrepreneurship ecosystem. The centre functions as demo and training hall, info and contact point both for local and international stakeholders. It is a unique set up that sparks new ideas, collaborations and helps to raise the visibility of regional business landscape. Furthermore, it is open to public and citizens can step in during business hours. 

Research and Innovation thematic experts: What recommendations would you give to policymakers trying to set-up similar initiatives in their regions? 

Alo Lilles: There are 3 essential factors to consider: location, people and content. It must be easily accessible and close to other stakeholders. To offer the kind of service that the different parties expect, it needs an outgoing and professional team willing to put in the working hours required. And you need to bring people there, organise events, delegation tours etc. 

When planning such innovation spaces, practitioners and policymakers should consider the following three points: 

  • As pointed out in the good practice SPARK Demo, such innovation spaces can partially be funded with private funding. Indeed, renting meeting rooms and working spaces, charging membership fees, organising communication campaigns can generate private funding to cover part of the annual budget and contribute to the innovation space’s financial sustainability.
  • Such innovation spaces must consider providing high-level amenities to users such as a coffee shop or a restaurant within the innovation space, leisure spaces, and co-working community spaces open to the public to retain its users with the objectives to promote formal and informal face-to-face interactions, the creation of networks, and the spread of tacit knowledge.
  • Professionals must operate such innovation spaces to frequently update the event agendas with new and relevant content for its users. Additionally, local public organisations such as the ones dedicated to promoting research and innovation activities can have a physical presence in the innovation space. 

Read about the good practice SPARK Demo

Learn more about the Interreg Europe project RELOS3

Image credit: Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels