International cooperation helps one to find what is near

After starting my job at the Kerttu Saalasti Institute more than four years ago, I was given the opportunity to get involved in the preparation of the Interreg Europe project, FOUNDATION, in spring 2018. This form of funding is less known in the North Ostrobothnia region and its objectives are a little difficult to understand. After three years of project implementation and new clarifications to the programme, I encourage others to be open-minded about the somewhat lesser-known project funding. Personally, I have found that this experience has opened up a wide range of doors and opportunities.
Visiting the STEAM Centre in Panevėžys in February 2022.

Interreg Europe -funded FOUNDATION project

FOUNDATION (https://projects2014-2020.interregeurope.eu/foundation/) is a joint project between nine regions and countries, coordinated by Munster Technological University in Ireland. In addition to North Ostrobothnia, project partners from the UK, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Italy, Spain and Austria are involved. The University of Oulu has been mandated by the North Ostrobothnia Regional Council to represent the region with the aim of finding the best models for building SME growth and resilience. A key tool for this has been the exchange of experiences. Each partner has presented different good practices and models from their region that have strengthened the competitiveness of SMEs in areas undergoing restructuring. During the first three years of the project, the aim was to visit each partner's region in turn and work on the models and ideas with the stakeholders in their region: which ones meet the needs of their region and how they could be applied.

The project started in August 2019 and we had time to visit Cork, Ireland and Manchester, UK before the Covid-19 pandemic hit and we had to start sharing these best practices remotely for 1.5 years. Fortunately, however, we were able to meet twice with all project partners. We had the opportunity to see and network enough to get to know, understand and trust each other enough to work together remotely. Each host, in turn, has built up a set of sites relevant to the theme of their own region, that have helped to identify the specificities and strengths of the region visited. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, at least as much as the learning from the site, each visit has put into practice the familiar proverb "you have to go far to see near". I have noticed how many of the solutions and conditions - both good and bad - in my own region are taken for granted and "set in stone".

Insights and experiences

Learning about and learning about the differences between regions at grassroots level gives a perspective on, for example, what we mean when we talk about peripheral or sparsely populated areas - which all these regions officially represent from the point of view of their own country. The south-west of Ireland is perceived as a deep rural area with a population density of 44 inhabitants per square kilometre. As a Finn, this makes me smile a little: in North Ostrobothnia we are a quarter of that, and we are still far from being the least densely populated region in Finland. And since Finland is an island in terms of accessibility, it is quite surprising how international we are!

Although we managed to learn about the practices of several regions remotely with people we already knew, and thus to have our own, the learning through webinars was necessarily superficial. How nice it was to meet most of the partners in September 2021 in Linz, Austria and in February 2022 in Panevėžys, Lithuania! Where a picture is worth a thousand words, real visits are perceived with all senses in the same proportion compared to webinars. Of course, the routines and experiences gained from these are a very good addition to the administrative and routine contacts.

The lessons learned and the exchange of experiences, the sharing of good practices already in place in one's own region, require looking at familiar things with new eyes. Which of our practices are good and worth keeping, which could be developed further, drawing on lessons learned elsewhere?

Increasing the number of businesses created by young people?

Our European partner regions have a significant number of different models that activate concrete cooperation between children and young people, educational organisations and businesses. We in North Ostrobothnia already have strong entrepreneurship education. The result of this work has already been reflected in an increase in young people's entrepreneurial intentions, but not yet significantly in the number of businesses started by young people. We still have very few businesses founded by young people, at a time when youth unemployment is still high.  From the good practices we have identified in the project, we have highlighted those that are most applicable to our region and discussed with developers in our region how to make them work for young people in our region. In order to channel the interest in entrepreneurship generated by entrepreneurship education into business start-ups, a strong commitment to practical measures to support business start-ups and early-stage development is needed from educational organisations, development companies and businesses in the region. And this should be done in a broader partnership.

One example of a good practice that has succeeded is Student Inc (https://www.studentinc.ie/), a student-focused business accelerator established in the Southwest region of Ireland in 2018. All students from the first year onwards, regardless of their field of study, can participate in this activity. In addition to entrepreneurial skills, an entrepreneurial support community and seed funding, students receive credits for participating in the programme. The programme has benefited students by teaching them practical entrepreneurial skills and improving their employment prospects. At the same time, cooperation between educational institutions, business developers and companies has been strengthened. In concrete terms, this has been reflected in improved employment rates and an increase in the number of businesses set up by young people even before they graduate.

What have we learned from the project?

The actual objective of the project is important and concrete: to strengthen the vitality of each region by applying the experience of other regions to the development of regional policy instruments (programming, implementation and projects) in response to the needs and challenges of their own region. This will not happen overnight, but the first steps have been taken. The project will run for 3+1 years, in the last year each region will pilot an Action Plan based on three years of exchange of experience, so that by summer 2023 we will have first experiences of how the models we are thinking about can be applied to Ostrobothnia. Personally, I also feel that I have gained a lot: by working together, my own networks and potential partners have expanded, as has my own world view. Alongside our regional and cultural differences, we have a lot in common, both as people and as regions. In this way, one small piece at a time, we can make a more united and stronger/sustainable Europe.

The best practices of the FOUNDATION project have been reported on the Policy Learning Platform for all to see, and their effectiveness, efficiency and applicability to other regions have been assessed by a group of experts from Interreg Europe. They are available at: https://www.interregeurope.eu/policy-solutions/good-practices.

 

Author:

Katariina Ala-Rämi, PhD, Researcher, University of Oulu Kerttu Saalasti Institute

For more information: katariina.ala-rami@oulu.fi, tel. 050-3509471