A key driver for SME competitiveness and sustainable regional growth
With technological innovation vital to Europe’s economic growth, KARIM, a pioneering transnational European project for responsible innovation and technology transfer, was set up to help north west Europe become more competitive and boost growth opportunities. As part of the three-year project’s aim of promoting innovation and improving SMEs’ access to high value innovation support and technology, the project partners worked to help increase SME competitiveness by guiding and supporting them to integrate responsible approaches in their businesses.
The concept and its fit with SMEs
Responsible innovation, as defined by the KARIM project, is an iterative process throughout which a project’s impacts on social, economic and environmental factors are measured where possible and otherwise taken into account at each step of project development. This guarantees control over, or at least awareness of, the innovation’s impacts throughout its entire lifecycle. The concept introduces a new and important dimension to the innovation process: It requires not only that the new product or service is market ready and economically viable but that it is ethically acceptable, environmentally sustainable and socially desirable.
Drawing on the findings from an extensive range of activities, workshops, projects and research, the KARIM partners clearly identified that SMEs are in a favourable position to engage with and adopt responsible innovation. Compared to larger organisations, they are more flexible and adaptable, less hierarchical and more willing to experiment with the potential benefits of emerging technologies for meeting societal challenges.
Benefits and barriers
KARIM highlighted significant competitive advantages and benefits for SMEs of including responsible innovation in their processes and products, including greater potential to attract new business; better relationships with investors looking for reduced risk investments; enhanced supplier confidence in the company’s integrity; and better supply chain engagement. Integration also generates cost savings through eco efficiencies, improved relationships with government, regulators and local communities and greater staff loyalty motivated by demonstrable company values.
However, the project also showed that even where SMEs recognise the value and business opportunities that responsible innovation offers, factors such as time constraints, limited financial resources, absence of the right skills and staff, and limited access to knowledge and collaborative opportunities are holding them back from engagement. Where avenues of support are concerned, SMEs were found to have minimal options: Commercial markets see little value in supporting them and private consultancies rarely approach them on the basis that they are unlikely to be able to afford their help. Support through the vast Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme is equally restricted, as its scope does not include supporting responsible innovation in SMEs.
The case for external support
KARIM clearly established that support is vital to encouraging and helping SMEs to consider, integrate and gain from responsible innovation, in turn generating wider social, economic and environmental benefits. With organisations such as regional development agencies, SME advisers and business development managers the only available source of help, ensuring their continued support is therefore crucial.
The project’s partners identified a host of areas where SME advisers can add considerable value to companies, from helping them reconsider their business model and developing new products, services and technologies to improving their production processes. They can help with defining sustainable development needs, identifying where market value can be created, carrying out early lifecycle analysis to assess a project’s impact, developing plans for embedding responsible innovation and confirming that choices are the right ones. Equally valuable are advisers’ ability to help SMEs overcome uncertainties and see social and environmental challenges as an opportunity for their business, as well as showing how sound innovation management can be used to grow the triple bottom line – their financial, social and environmental performance.
An important finding during the KARIM project was that SMEs benefit most when they have help to embed responsibility principles into their innovation management processes as a whole rather than support that focuses on specific responsible innovation tools. Although tools can be relevant as well as approaches such as biomimicry and circular economy, what works best is when these form part of day-to-day practices.
Over the course of the project, the partners determined best practice methods that support organisations could adopt, which were trialled with over 200 SMEs. They also developed a responsible innovation guidance document for SMEs, innovation support agencies and policy makers, and a transnational responsible innovation diagnostic tool that SMEs in the ICT sector can use to determine how responsible innovation applies to them.
Other KARIM actions included developing processes for raising awareness and promoting the value of responsible innovation to students and SMEs, and running responsible innovation courses, training and awareness sessions for over 1000 people spanning students, researchers, SMEs, SME advisers and business development managers. A key finding was that raising entrepreneurs’ awareness of ways to embed sustainability in their business and raising awareness of the concept and its relevance amongst innovation students and researchers are equally important. This joint approach means that current SMEs’ ability to address these issues is improved and the generation that will build businesses in the future is informed.
The KARIM project demonstrated the considerable potential that SMEs have for including greater responsibility in their innovation management process and consequently benefiting from its value. The overall legacy of how the support that the project provided translates into increased innovation, technology transfer and ultimately sales is yet to be determined, however it has meanwhile led to a number of strong responsible innovation relationships and collaborations being fostered between universities and SMEs.
With best practice methods established, the KARIM partners will continue to apply them beyond the formal project framework. The awareness and training courses are continuing to be delivered and the partners are working on extending them across Europe.
Moving forward, a major challenge for SMEs and business support organisations is to shift from local and limited business successes to large scale, Europe-wide SME engagement with responsible innovation. To help meet the challenge, research is needed into the impact of incorporating it, including development of objective ways of measuring return on investment in order to demonstrate a responsible innovation business case. Equally, responsible innovation needs to be embedded in SME support activities on a much broader basis by finding ways of disseminating the methods developed by KARIM and the associated learnings to regional agencies, academic institutions and business support organisations and persuading them to work in a similar way.
You can hear more about the Responsible Innovation support provided by KARIM with the following examples :