Technology transfer and skills in the Western Balkans: key to growth and innovation
The countries of the Western Balkans generally lack customised services to support companies keen to develop or incorporate new technology and innovative solutions. Companies often lack people with the skills needed to undertake such initiatives. Moreover, the organisations that are supposed to help the companies often have limited capacities themselves to do so.
Those were the central conclusions of an online meeting called 'Fostering Innovation and Growth: Presenting the Results of the Western Balkans Technology Transfer Skills Study' organised on 30 March. The data and conclusions presented during the event were gathered from a ground-breaking study on the topic due to be released in the coming weeks. Sign up to receive the report.
The event provided a platform for experts and stakeholders to discuss and debate the findings of the research on the provision of skills-based services for technology transfer in the Western Balkan economies.
The study represents a departure for the European Training Foundation (ETF), focused as it is on vocational education and training. Rarely are the issues of technology transfer and skills development united in the same discussion. Yet the initiative links nicely with the declaration of 2023 as the Year of Skills by the European Union.
‘This study pushes us at the ETF out of our comfort zone,’ said Manuela Prina, Head of Skills Identification and Development Unit. The role of skills deserves greater attention ‘in programmes that target innovation and growth'.
Six national reports showed that everyone encourages innovation and technology transfer to some extent. However, it seems that no one takes advantage of the distinctions offered by the accepted academic definitions of vertical technology transfer and horizontal technology transfer.
‘The difference between horizontal technology transfer and vertical technology transfer is not clear in the legislation,’ said Jan Peter Ganter de Otero, ETF Human Capital Development Expert.
Those concepts provided much of the backbone for the analysis in the report. Vertical technology transfer refers to the 'transfer of technology from basic research to applied research to development', according to the forthcoming report. It can take place within firms, but typically involves external partners, often public institutions that specialise in research and development. It 'typically involves the sale or licensing of patent rights.'
Horizontal technology transfer refers to 'the transfer of established technology from one operational environment to another', states the report. It usually features a 'fully mature technology' and is 'often termed "technology adoption" or "technology diffusion" and typically occurs across international borders and often as a result of foreign direct investment'. Corporations may not need help in this realm, but small and medium-sized enterprises may, said Ganter de Otero.
While local characteristics remain important, Western Balkan economies would seem to have much in common.
‘In terms of aspects like research and development and capacity to absorb technology, we would say that there are quite strong commonalities across the region,’ said Lisa Cowey, Independent Expert and research team leader. ‘Probably because, sadly, investment in R&D is low and the capacity to absorb technology within companies is also low.’
Cowey emphasised the concept of 'smart specialisation', defined on the European Commission website as 'a place-based approach characterised by the identification of strategic areas for intervention'. Again, Cowey found much in common among the countries of the region.
‘Smart specialisation is a strategy for innovation,’ she said. ‘It tends to focus more on vertical than on horizontal.’ Advances on smart specialisation and other legislation often seem to be propelled by ‘the pathway to EU membership,’ she added.
However, the main stumbling block seems to be what Cowey called the ‘very low provision of skills-based services and very few support providers'. Skills-related services play a crucial role in supporting technology transfer in both vertical technology transfer and horizontal technology transfer contexts. These services provide individuals, employees, and employers with the necessary information, training and consulting services to develop and implement technology transfer horizontally and vertically. It is essential to recognise the importance of these services and ensure that they are available to those who need them.
Nearly every country expert noted that much of the training in this realm comes via project funding, with the scope and depth defined by donors. Donors tend to dictate the quantity and quality of training and how it will be evaluated. ‘The bonus is that they are often very good at this,’ Cowey said. But such efforts need to extend beyond projects, she added. ‘It doesn't have continuity. It doesn't have sustainability… there is a need for something not just based on projects.’
‘The starting point really ought to be end-user needs,’ said Cowey. ‘The questions should be: Who needs it? Who wants it? Who values it? Who can afford to pay for it? Who would make it sustainable?’
The research shows the importance of linking skills-based services with the companies that are interested in transferring technology. Much work is needed to enhance skills development and innovation in companies in the six Western Balkan countries.
The ETF is planning a series of follow-up live and online events based on the study.
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Watch the event that took place on 30 March: