DigiFed ecosystem and mapping
Digital Innovation Hubs (DIHs) are meant to support and guarantee that local businesses, especially SMEs, and public authorities have access to the newest digital technologies and advanced digital skills.DIHs provide a valuable contribution to understanding how digital technologies may improve their efficiency, effectiveness, and product/service quality and assist businesses and the public sector in finding valuable experts to work with and address them towards adequate financial support to start/consolidate their digitization.
Therefore, DIHs are strongly connected to local industries, geographical assets, and available expertise while, at the same time, having the networking infrastructure that allows them to engage and complement the resources required to achieve their stated objectives.
DigiFed Objective regarding DIHs
The DigiFed project aims at creating a solid ecosystem of European DIHs – or the so-called federation of DIHs on Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) – to, on the one hand, understand the challenges and success factors of DIHs across Europe and, on the other hand, explore potential opportunities for collaboration and development of complementary services.
To this end, the DigiFed project has performed comprehensive research on the current state of DIHs across Europe and complemented it with a series of ecosystem activities. These activities allowed the project to reach a thorough understanding of the current DIHs landscape, including their transversal challenges and critical success factors.
Challenges being faced by DIHs in Europe
The main findings obtained by DigiFed regarding the state-of-the-art on DIHs across Europe are summarised below:
Collaboration between DIHs
DIHs have expressed their interest and need to collaborate with other DIHs and structures at regional, national, and European levels. Nevertheless, developing and achieving collaboration structures that translate into concrete results – e.g., new services for DIH users, has been remarkably challenging.
In the case of the DigiFed-DIHs, collaboration takes place in the form of joint dissemination of services and opportunities to users and coordination to achieve specific objectives. These include joint application to funding programmes, support to the application of public funding, exchange of experiences, e.g. success cases as a means to engage with non-digitalized SMEs, and in general, exchange of information to strategically position parties collaborating in the EU-DIH landscape. Moreover, there is an interest in achieving DIH collaboration within and outside of DigiFed, especially in areas and services related to the exchange and offering of technical support, finding investment opportunities, legal/ethical support, engagement with incubators and accelerators, skills development and training, and resources unification through partnership development.
DIHs have claimed that support to achieve such collaboration is needed. The development of structured instances of interaction between DIHs is a valuable tool to foster collaboration. These could take the form of platforms/frameworks to facilitate the exchange of experiences and information leading to concrete exploitable DIH-collaboration opportunities. In terms of content, DIH collaborations should aim at creating new business opportunities for their users, hence offering a value proposition that clearly states how and to what extent users will benefit from the achieved collaborative structures.
The sustainability of DIHs in bringing services to their users has been a relevant challenge for their successful operation. Preliminary results and outcomes from the DigiFed-ecosystem activities indicate that, although many DIHs are successfully run by RTOs, universities, and/or consortia of public-private partnerships, most DIHs have emerged as European initiatives and strongly rely on EU funding. Therefore, DIHs themselves need the development of innovative business and revenue models to achieve a healthy level of independence from EU funding mechanisms.
In this context, preliminary outcomes from DigiFed show that DIH users are willing to pay for some DIH services, particularly technical support, matchmaking, and networking and gatewaying to new markets.
Most DIHs act within their usual stakeholder environment – i.e., SMEs and organisations that typically collaborate with them. Moreover, their services and overall activities tend to be tailored and aimed at companies that are already familiar with DIHs, know how to benefit from interacting with them, and/or have a notion of the digitalisation path they want to follow and how to transit through it.
This reality clearly conflicts with one of the visions of DIHs, i.e. supporting SMEs in initiating their digitalisation journey. In this context, DIHs do not seem to have the appropriate capabilities to reach out to a larger number of traditional or non-digitally savvy SMEs. A possible explanation may be that DIHs have not been successful, either for their lack of instruments, experience, or even interest from potential users, in rationalising the importance and benefits that SMEs may gain by engaging with DIHs.
Moreover, preliminary results indicate that the support requirements and overall needs of SMEs drastically change depending on their geographical location and, mostly, on the level of digital development and sophistication of their immediate environment. This finding is transversal throughout countries and regions, i.e., SMEs in rural or not well-connected regions face similar challenges regardless of the country.
Outcomes from the DigiFed ecosystem activities show that the first step to successfully engaging with SMEs with such a profile has to be trust-building and community development. Once trust has been established with potential newcomers, the presentation of services and recommendations to improve the business operation of such SMEs becomes drastically more successful.
In terms of the provision of services, access to technologies and stakeholder networks are the foremost strengths of DIHs. Conversely, funding and supporting scale-ups or internationalisation are identified as their greatest weaknesses. Regarding the latter, this may be a consequence of the fact that while hubs are strong on bringing people together, tangible project activities and concrete collaboration structures are rather uncommon.
It is also observed that testbeds are heavily underutilised, to the point that they usually operate as showrooms rather than demonstrators and platforms for experimentation of innovations as a prior step to adoption.
DigiFed-Experiences and Facing Challenges
The DigiFed project has tested several SME-support instruments, which have dealt with the previously mentioned challenges in different contexts, and with different levels of success. The experiences gathered by the project are of great value for DIHs and the possible adaptation and implementation of these instruments.
Application Experiments (AEs)
Application Experiments (AEs) are designed to attract companies with diverse digital maturity levels, coming from any application domain and targeting specifically the development of CPS and Embedded Systems. Companies with low digital maturity are supported in upgrading existing products and skills with dedicated services, tools and solutions. Digitally mature companies are offered further innovative technology integration and access to potential customers, including large industrial stakeholders. Three schemes have been put in place:
- Single AE: involving one European SME and one DigiFed Technology partner, both of which provide support and expertise.
- Twin AE: involving two European SMEs with complementary expertise.
- Twin AE with one low-digitalised company: involving two SMEs, of which at least one with a low digital maturity level.
Generic Experiments (GEs)
Generic Experiments (GEs) provide a small financial incentive to small groups of SMEs to participate in closed workshops to understand and assess specific technologies. Beneficiaries are low-digitally matured companies. This setting offers an opportunity to introduce technologies and foster SMEs’ digitalisation transition in specific application areas. This instrument addresses two of the challenges previously identified:
- It is a great tool to build trust with non-digitally savvy SMEs in a controlled and encapsulated environment, which facilitates the understanding of otherwise complex concepts, and also more advanced DIH services.
- It constitutes a suitable scenario to introduce and test new technologies, thus facilitating the comprehensive utilization of prototypes in test before investing services. Thus, GECs may be a suitable instrument to foster and improve the success and impact of DIHs within their local environment.
Digital Challenges (DCs)
Digital Challenges (DCs) connect an SME (or SMEs) with a larger company – the so-called Digital Challenge Owner (DCO) – to develop a tailored solution for a specific technical challenge the latter faces. DigiFed and the DCO finance the development and implementation.
This instrument may be imported by DIHs and used to foster engagement with larger companies, foster collaboration structures with SMEs, and increase the reach of the corresponding DIH ecosystem.
- First DigiFed DIH-Ecosystem Event – 17th of November 2020
- Second DigiFed DIH-Ecosystem Event – 8th of November 2021
- Putting Digital Innovation Hubs into Regional Context; 2019
- Digital Innovation Hubs in Smart Specialization Strategies; 2019
- Place-Based Innovation Ecosystems; 2020.