The EU initiative for “Smart Specialisation Strategies” (S3) is animating the policy debate thanks to an interesting and innovative approach. However, this rapid success has left some mismatches from theory to practice that have emerged after the first round of implementation, and related considerations. To reflect on the S3 notion, we discuss the cases of Milan and Brussels which, in our view, question relevant theoretical elements: two advanced urban areas with entirely different institutional and spatial settings facing structural challenges and significant opportunities to keep a high level of competitiveness. This article aims to compare these two cases around four analytical dimensions: the multi-scale aspect of issues addressed; the relationships between the urban core and the surrounding areas; the possibility to govern the structural changes in the economy leading to jobs creation; and the capacity to locally embed economic development. We conclude arguing that time and space are fundamental variables to understand the dynamics leading to a ‘successful’ S3 implementation regarding the replicability of experiences associated to the scale of intervention, the long-term effects and risk-taking attitudes.

Open Access Article available using the following link.


The EU has characterised regional policies in Europe since 1980s through the ‘Cohesion Policy’ (CP) and is still providing lagging regions with significant amount of funds. Furthermore, these policies have pushed Member States towards institutional decentralisation to better tailor policy intervention across regions. The current crisis has determined strong and highly heterogeneous impacts across EU regions pushing to reconsider main development policies to maximise their effects. While national effects and policies have been largely debated, regional and local consequences of the crisis have been left relatively marginal. In an updated strategic context (EU2020), the EU institutions have approved a reform of the CP as an investment policy aimed at reaching the European growth and jobs targets, and to operate in a radically different context. Specifically, the current reductions in national-regional transfers limit the margin of manoeuvre for regions, determining three main risks: Being incapable to effectively respond to place-specific challenges, reducing capabilities to sustain public investments projects focusing on short-term responses and undermining the process of regional decentralisation that allowed for place-based interventions. In order to address these challenges, the Territorial Capital (TC) approach is a promising explorative hypothesis, based on the recognition of the value of localised assets influencing regional productivity. The fundamental distinction is between the regional endowment of TC and the regional economic performance. According to this approach, the paper proposes to take into consideration these distinctions promoting investments in assets constituting the TC to support long-term regional productivity, and not only on the current regional performance that is affected by the economic cycle. A preliminary analysis is proposed for Italy to show both the decrease in public investments and the possibility to implement the TC approach based on already-available indicators.


Published with Rocco Luigi Bubbico, in European Structural and Investment Funds.

In the knowledge era, the importance of highly-qualified human capital has been widely recognized as a key factor for local economic development, especially for those areas specialized in science and technology (S&T). Assuming a regional perspective, the capacity to attract this kind of people is both a sign of territorial competitiveness and a way to further reinforce this by boosting the quality of the local labour market in a self-reinforcing process. In line with this perspective, universities play a fundamental role because they can attract students from elsewhere, and then provide local firms with qualified workers. On the other hand, this process is particularly detrimental for territories suffering ‘brain drain’. This paper aims to show this process of selective migration in the case of Italian S&T university students. Specifically, we use a spatial gravity model to show that university students move from Southern towards Northern regions to study in S&T universities, and this mechanism is driven by the dynamism of local labour markets, and not just by the quality of universities. In our view, these results are supportive of the hypothesis that skill-biased migration occurs also very early in the lives of migrants, i.e., at the time they choose university.

With Ugo Fratesi, Camilla Lenzi and Marco Percoco, published in Review of Regional Research

This paper looks at a little-explored role that universities can play: that of representing a channel for brain gain, enabling regions to attract bright students who may decide to stay after they have graduated. In this way, universities can be a source of selective migration processes and possibly of diverging development paths, by augmenting the capability of economically dynamic regions to attract bright people from the lagging regions. In this paper, we argue that student mobility behaviour is a function not only of the quality of universities, but also of local labour market conditions in the destination locations. The paper relies on a gravity model, and shows that graduate migrations respond to several determinants, among which graduate job vacancies (that is, the dynamism of the local labour market) appear to be essential.

With Ugo Fratesi, Camilla Lenzi and Marco Percoco, published in Spatial Economic Analysis.

Lo sviluppo delle aree metropolitane richiede conoscenze complesse per progettare e implementare le politiche pubbliche. L’acquisizione di queste conoscenze, l’adattamento ai diversi contesti e la capacità di far fronte alle necessità emergenti sono elementi strategici per lo sviluppo territoriale, identificando una nuova area di “governance” orientata all’apprendimento per l’implementazione delle politiche pubbliche.

Partendo da tre casi studio di politiche implementate nella Regione di Bruxelles-Capitale, le strategie messe dei diversi attori saranno discusse alla luce di un contesto di forte regionalizzazione che, a partire dal 1989, ha radicalmente ridefinito il quadro istituzionale belga. Se da un lato le politiche europee hanno agito come stimolo esogeno, le diverse capacità degli attori locale di adattarsi e re-agire alle sfide metropolitane evidenziano la necessità di avere molteplici ed eterogenee fonti di conoscenza, di avere consapevolezza di come queste vengono selezionate ed utilizzate, ed infine di come preservarle nel lungo periodo.

Articolo pubblicato sul numero speciale dei Quaderni Svimez (n. 47).

While R&D activities are known for being unevenly distributed across space, how EU policy contributed to their regional dynamics is less explored. Since the 1980s, the EU Framework Programmes (FP) have promoted and supported transnational R&D projects through open and highly competitive calls for funding driven by ‘scientific excellence’ regardless of location. This paper aims to show the drivers of this spatial distribution and evolution of FP participations, arguing that this depends on cumulative effects of regional economic development and growth, while scientific specialization rarely is the best strategy to improve regional competitiveness in terms of FP participations.

With André Spithoven, published in Papers in Regional Science.

Knowledge plays an essential key role in the policymaking process for interpreting the available information, defining policy issues at stake and evaluating possible solutions – especially in complex policy issues like water management. However, for city-regions, knowledge is often a scarce resource due to the small size of the policy community, context-specific issues, limited availability of resources and experts, as well as the challenge of addressing complex issues that are often supra-local. This paper explores which patterns of local knowledge promote policy change and learning. Starting from the ‘policy paradigm’ concept, a cognitive–evolutionary approach is applied to analyse Brussels’ water management policy, which aims to address the major challenge of flooding. The variety of knowledge by local actors, the role of the policy paradigm of the local policymaking community in vetting information and evaluating alternative solutions, and the importance of local governments for retaining knowledge, are the main dimensions to understanding policy change and learning. City-regions benefit from direct contacts between actors facilitating exchange of knowledge, while supra-local decisions (e.g. EU directives) and local accidents can also trigger major changes. Based on my findings, policymakers tend to rely on technocratic patterns using already available knowledge, mainly whether decentralisation reshapes the policymaking community. While a technocratic pattern determines only minor changes and institutional instability undermines policy learning, policy entrepreneurs and participative patterns can promote major changes and learning if they are able to engage in dialogue with the dominant policy paradigm.

Published in European Urban and Regional Studies.

The aim of this paper is to map the spatial variations in the size of the shadow economy
within Brussels. Reporting data provided by the National Bank of Belgium on the deposit of high denomination banknotes across bank branches in the 19 municipalities of the Brussels-Capital Region, the finding is that the shadow economy is concentrated in wealthier populations and not in deprived or immigrant communities. The outcome is a call to transcend the association of the shadow economy with marginalized groups and the wider adoption of this indirect method when measuring spatial variations in the shadow economy.


Published with Colin C. Williams and Bas van Heur in European Spatial Research and Policy.