Based on own experience I came up with an informal list of items that I think are key to an innovative ecosystem for it to thrive over a significant time period. It doesn’t attempt to be anything more than a practical checklist to a first characterization approach. What I would start looking into is:
. Size and critical mass
. Distance to power
. Strategic vision
. Open innovation culture
. Technology approach: adoption versus invention
. People involved
So let’s start with size and critical mass. Like it or not, size does matter. Regardless of how innovatively appealing your products may be, it is unrealistic to try and compete on your own in a global market if you are a micro-SME, as is the case with a huge number of businesses in Europe (http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Glossary:Enterprise_size).
The way out of this “size trap” is, I think, either scaling up product and company or else being exceptionally good at productively networking with other SMEs outside your internal market. Both solutions are costly for an SME in terms of capital and culture, but if they manage to succeed they will most likely have a competitive advantage toward bigger corporations typically less agile and market responsive.
An ecosystem populated with such SMEs will soon start seeing internal and external synergies exploited and will capture the interest of similar companies from other regions. The process will hopefully grow exponentially and beyond a certain point there will be no turning back, thus consolidating the innovative environment.
In connection with this I think a reflection on the public SME support programs throughout Europe should be made. Are we putting the right means in place or rather helping SMEs survive staying small and local?
A good approach here may be the SME Instrument (https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/en/h2020-section/sme-instrument), which I consider an ambitious innovative concept in the right direction. We will soon see its deployment and phases 2 and 3 results.
Far from being an expert in the matter, I would think a similar logic is applicable to the size of research groups and their competitiveness at global level. It seems not so evident: http://www.nature.com/news/bigger-is-not-better-when-it-comes-to-lab-size-1.16866
But then again, this raises further questions. I will just leave one on the table. Are number of publications and their impact indexes the right indicators to measure productivity in research? This is indeed connected to the next item in my list: specialization.