Article by Markku Markkula, President of the European Committee of the Regions, to ARIES Transylvania and the Cluj-Napoca region

As the President of the European Committee of the Regions – the European Union’s assembly of regional and local representatives representing over 270 regions and thus 507 million people from all the Member States – one of my roles is to encourage regional decision-makers to increase their cooperation and partnerships. Europe needs more partnering with the collaborative power, creative thinking, ecosystems thinking, synthesis, and a stronger focus on outcomes and impacts.

Digitalisation is the driver of change

Digitalisation is the main engine of development in the 21st century. Technological advances and the growing sphere of ‘connected’ people across the globe create some challenges but most of all, great opportunities for everyone. The digital revolution has for a long time been led by the most developed countries, while developing countries have been part of the movement by providing outsourced services to others. Slowly, this trend is changing and the former providers of cheap labour and services are catching up fast and transitioning into digital hubs standing firmly on their own legs.

I believe that this fast catch-up is a natural result from all involved actors to be fully part of the digital transformation and be at the frontline of reaping the benefits from new innovative solutions for developing business models and the everyday lives of our citizens. Digitalisation and technical innovations are not just apps and fancy gadgets because in the end it is all about the people – connecting decision-makers, business, academia and the citizens to each other in co-creating better living ecosystems.

Strong move towards ecosystems thinking

Europe has to establish the culture of co-creation and breaking boundaries – a transition towards entrepreneurial discovery and open innovation, experimentation and action. Two thirds of the people in Europe live in urban areas. Urban areas are not alone. They are constantly interconnected with the rural areas which are more and more impacted by the territorial developments of the 21 century. We are challenged by global megatrends like globalization, digitalization, aging, environmental concerns and urbanization, and they call on all of us to turn these challenges into opportunities. This cannot be accomplished by one country, region, city, university or company alone; only by thinking and working together, in the spirit of learning, open innovation and crowdsourcing, can we create the desired new solutions. Entrepreneurship, capacity building, smart specialisation and risk-taking must become the mantra of EU spending if we want our regions and cities to compete globally. Every region and city can be a pioneer.

I tirelessly advocate thinking of our surroundings and networks as ecosystems and especially when applied to regions and cities. This ecosystems thinking is instrumental for tackling the societal challenges we face while ensuring sustainable growth and jobs. Business as usual will not work any longer and the European Committee of the Regions, the official EU institution representing European cities and regions in the EU decision-making process, is a strong proponent of a bottom-up approach. Our role is to enable European pioneers to lead the way in innovation and boosting the entrepreneurial spirit in Europe.

Cities and regions are the key players in creating favourable conditions and orchestrating the Quadruple Helix thinking, which is essential for innovation. This means interaction between universities, civil society, local and international businesses as well as citizens. The essence of the ecosystem thinking is, in fact, in modernising the Triple Helix model of government, academia and industry to include and engage the citizens in everything we do.

Cluj-Napoca has opportunities to become the Innovation City

Geographically, Cluj-Napoca is strategically positioned in Eastern Europe being close to five capitals and major startup ecosystems in the CEE region: Belgrade, Budapest, Sofia, Kiev and Bucharest. Cluj-Napoca’s innovation ecosystem is growing faster compared with any other Romanian city and it is already a vibrant one.

I got a good understanding of the potential of Cluj-Napoca when visiting there in June. Besides universities, there are already other important parties investing, educating and developing the innovation ecosystem. The Cluj Innovation City project has 17 research institutes which cover 4 smart specialisation topics: healthcare, bioeconomy, energy efficiency and information technology. Furthermore, several local and international events take place regularly in Cluj-Napoca, some even supported by EU-funds, others by companies, Universities, NGO’s and entrepreneurs.

In addition of Transylvania and Western Romania, I have visited Bucharest while contributing to the General Assembly of the Association of Communes with the Romanian Prime Minister. I strongly underlined the crucial role that local authorities play in catalysing and enabling activities for sustainable growth and jobs, while tackling social exclusion and combating poverty.

Cities and regions need to play a strong role in university-industry cooperation, enabling their ecosystem partners to turn the accumulating know-how into successful competitive business models, processes and operations for the benefit of all. Cluj-Napoca is already working towards this goal. Its assets, especially the universities, a leading medical community and Romania’s foremost IT industry combined, make Cluj-Napoca a strong regional economic development pole.

I have made a proposal to co-create a joint bench-learning process with some other pioneering innovation ecosystems – ideally that could be around five city-enabled ecosystems around Europe focusing on Open Innovation 2.0 development activities. Here, I refer to the recently published CoR Guide on Regional Innovation Ecosystems. Cluj-Napoca is one of the candidates to host the EU Open Innovation 2.0 conference next May-June – a perfect special topic could be focusing on a bench-learning process: how to become a pioneer city in innovation ecosystems.

Europe’s future lies in successfully creating well-functioning regional innovation ecosystems and the smart specialisation approach is the key to this. The keys to pioneering regional innovation ecosystems are cities and regions that support innovation, entrepreneurship, start-ups and SMEs. Cities and regions provide key conditions for entrepreneurial discovery and successful innovation ecosystems. Cluj-Napoca could become the centre for innovation and sustainable economic development across the region of Transylvania.