Over the years, COST Actions have become one the main instrument for research collaboration in Europe. Thanks to a large spectrum of networking tools provided by the COST Actions, researchers and innovators have a dedicated space to grow their ideas in any science and technology field by sharing them with their peers. And if science and innovation are at the core of COST Actions’ discussions, all participants do not necessarily come with a purely academic background. On the contrary, Actions attract all types of actors including SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises).
A mutual benefit
Over the last 50 years, COST has become proof that science, research and innovation know no borders, thus enabling infinite study fields. As a bottom-up programme, COST has created strategic networking platforms, the COST Actions, which can only be described as rich ecosystems where each participant has a strong voice, regardless of its background or domain of expertise. By nature, Actions are indeed opened to all: institutions, international organisations, academia, industry and, of course, SMEs. COST Actions are also extremely easy to access and very flexible, with participants being able to join an Action after it has already started. Therefore, it is not surprising that the number of participating SMEs has increased over the years, with currently 897 SMEs involved in running Actions.
SMEs see in COST Actions powerful networking tools and seek a possible way to find potential research collaboration partners as well as a place to build a strong academia-oriented network, an opportunity they would not necessarily find elsewhere. STSMs (Short Term Scientific Missions), for instance, give them the opportunity to improve their employees’ skills. By working hand to hand with researchers, SMEs can also learn new methods and new ways of working.
On the other hand, by being a key partner in research projects, SMEs bring in new perspective and data for testing research hypothesis and models. And, in the case of some COST Actions with a successful non-academic integration rate, they offer insights into real-life application, give validation and feedback on the work of academia, redefines the research questions or streamline the agenda for further research.
The inclusion of SMEs truly creates mutual benefit for all participants, thus showing the richness of COST Actions
RESTORE, frontrunner of SMEs inclusion
And the numbers show it! Last year, 77% of the Actions had at least one SME involved, and 25 Actions included 10 or more SMEs. The absolute frontrunner has been “REthinking Sustainability TOwards a Regenerative Economy” (RESTORE Action) with 28 SMEs involved.
In addressing restorative sustainability in new and existing buildings and space design across Europe, and in willing to change the status quo of today’s practice through ecology, equity and health, the RESTORE Action was certainly appealing to many participants from the private sector.
Carlo Battisti, RESTORE’s Action Chair, comes from non-academic grounds: “I myself am a freelance consultant. 3 out of 5 leaders of the working groups in RESTORE Action come from SMEs. The profiles of these SMEs were typically architects, freelancers, engineer companies, design firms etc., working every day in buildings design. They really brought their expertise in the Action’s case studies and helped developed new ideas”.
RESTORE was also an extremely well-balanced Action at the beginning, with 50% of participants coming from the private sector and 50% coming from academia. “The more the RESTORE Action went on, the more scientific and researchers joined”, explains Carlo Battisti. “At the end, 77% were academics which was great because connection to SME is crucial for research. Researchers need feedback from the industry to know if what they are doing is relevant or not.”.
But including SMEs in the process was not always an easy road. “Companies need to believe that their contribution should be immediately applicable, but it is not always the case”, adds Carlo Battisti. “But now more than ever, in these times of pandemic, they understand the importance of networking – and COST provides exactly that! Both researchers and companies were given a lot of opportunities through the exchange of culture, knowledge and mostly ways of working which are very different from one field to another. And if you aim to change a paradigm, like us with RESTORE, and to create new practises, you need to make the old one obsolete. Research and especially applied research are essential to accomplish it”.
The RESTORE Action ended in April 2021. Within 4 years, 40 countries and more than 160 participants were involved, 10 conferences were held, 8 publications were produced, 5 training Schools were organised across Europe and more than 30 STSMs (Short Term Scientific Missions) were granted. “We did our best to create a good mixt of participants from different fields. It was not easy but, in the end of the four years at COST, we know the material we produced can be applied in the industrial field”, concludes Carlo Battisti.
RESTORE’s future is bright as the COST Action main assets have been transferred to Living Future Europe, a non-profit association catalysing the transformation in Europe toward communities that are socially just, culturally rich, and ecologically restorative.