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Supporting the digital transition in the Western Balkans: How Digital Innovation Hubs help

Supporting the digital transition in the Western Balkans: How Digital Innovation Hubs help.

Digital transition – the integration of digital technology into all areas of a business – results in fundamental changes to how businesses operate and how they deliver value to customers. Progress is critical for economic competitiveness all around the world. It holds the potential to revolutionize how we do business. Yet, it is truly challenging for most enterprises to do this alone as it involves both a cultural change and the adoption of new technologies.

Several European policies that also involve the Western Balkans focus on aspects of digitalisation, e.g. by establishing support services for companies wanting to make the transition. The European Union Digital European Industry (DEI) initiative, for example, supports the establishment of Digital Innovation Hubs (DIH). Such hubs offer services to companies, provide access to expertise and competences with the aim to improve business processes and digitalise products and services. Current developments have seen a proliferation of DIH including in the Western Balkans. The Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans launched in 2018 and the Multi-annual Action Plan for a Regional Economic Area are part of the overall strategic framework.

Vladimir Atanasovski

Although ‘DIH’ is in danger of becoming a bit of a buzzword, several actors in the WB6 innovation system are now including DIH services in their portfolio and seeing concrete results. One good example is INNOFEIT in North Macedonia. Listed in the JRC European Commission catalogue of DIHs as the first and the only fully-operational DIH in North Macedonia, INNOFEIT currently runs a DIH project supported by the national Fund for Innovation and Technology Development to enhance its capabilities. Vladimir Atanasovski, INNOFEIT’s Managing Director and an EU4TECH PoC mentor, points out that the region is still structuring its innovation ecosystems, with funding agencies, accelerators, incubators, technology transfer offices, etc. finding their places and becoming more visible in networks that operate more and more efficiently. As a centre for technology transfer and innovation, INNOFEIT develops services for the industry based on academic R&D&I, promotes research results towards applications and networks with stakeholders such as SMEs, municipalities, similar centers and other end users. Vladimir is particularly proud that they were able to successfully support interdisciplinary student teams, including some from the EU4TECH PoC project, focusing on solutions for real-life problems. Based on this groundwork, digital technologies are being promoted more professionally.  Vladimir he recommends INNOFEIT as a competent partner in digital transition projects: “When we promise something, we deliver”.

Oficina in Tirana is another organisation in the region that has established the framework to be a DIH and who support the digitalisation of industry including through early stage prototypes.

Arjan Ymeri

Arjan Ymeri, Executive Director and also an EU4TECH PoC mentor for Albania and Kosovo*, highlights that it is not only important to develop the supply side of providing such a hub, but also the demand side, sparking interest and requests from SMEs. Oficina started with its first DIH services only eighteen months ago and by the end of 2021, twelve prototypes will have been created, in areas such as software development within the ecommerce industry, block chains used in the real estate and construction sectors, Internet of Things applied in the agriculture sector, robotics, etc. These prototypes, including a number from the EU4TECh PoC project, raise awareness and soon hopefully more SMEs can be targeted. In Oficina, this is “not a short time assignment, we will work on this for a long time”, highlights Arjan who knows that such a concept has to be set up with a view on the system, an eagerness to learn and a focus on results. The first DIH in the European Union were set up in the mid 1990s and while being exposed to international experiences has been very valuable for the Albanian stakeholders there is still a way to go.

The Regional Cooperation Council has also started a DIH network in the Western Balkans, mapping the current situation, raising awareness and moderating the sharing of ideas and know-how. Joint regional and EU projects brought Arjan and Vladimir together with other TT centres, Digital Innovation Hubs, SMEs and a network of experts expanding all over the region. The preliminary success shows that the absorption capacity for DIH services as well as projects such as EU4TECH PoC is still high.

INNOFEIT: https://inno.feit.ukim.edu.mk/

Oficina: https://oficina.al/

Yellow pages of DiH: https://s3platform.jrc.ec.europa.eu/tools

Measures to support the Digital Agenda in the WB: https://www.rcc.int/docs/477/european-commission-measures-in-support-of-a-digital-agenda-for-the-western-balkans

JRC Practical Handbook & Good Practices for regions on how to support DIHs using a step-by-step methodology: https://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/handle/JRC121604

Digital transition related activities of the EU: https://ec.europa.eu/reform-support/what-we-do/digital-transition_en

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