UK HE International Unit (IU) uses cookies to improve your experience of our websites. For more information or to change the use of cookies, please click here.

Innovation Union

Innovation Union Flagship Initiative

Innovation Union is one of seven flagship initiatives announced as part of the Europe 2020 Strategy, the overarching policy statement agreed by Member States at the June 2010 European Council as a replacement for the Lisbon Agenda. It aims to re-focus research and innovation policies on the grand challenges facing society - which the European Commission identifies as climate change, energy security, food security, health and an ageing population - while at the same time improving conditions and access to finance for research and innovation, and ensuring that innovative ideas can be turned into products and services that create growth and jobs.


Innovation is a cornerstone of the Europe 2020 Strategy, and is defined by the European Commission as "the successful production, assimilation and exploitation of novelty in the economic and social spheres." The European Commission's ultimate aim is to extend its strategic approach to innovation across all of its policy areas.

Innovation and Research

The terms innovation and research are closely related and are often used in tandem. This relationship is reflected in the European Commission's organisational structures, where Innovation Policy has recently been moved from the Commission's Directorate General (DG) for Enterprise to its DG for Research & Innovation. The basic distinction used by the Commission is that while research concerns the generation of new knowledge, innovation is primarily about rendering research results useful, relevant, and commercially viable.

The increasing closeness of research and innovation policy has led to concern in some quarters that the Commission's agenda is too heavily focused on innovation and the market value of research, to the detriment of basic research. However, the European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, is adamant that there is no reason to be concerned, regularly stating that excellence in frontier research is a must, and that European Commission support for the continuation and growth of the European Research Council is evidence of the commitment to both basic and applied research.

At the same time there is a strong focus, clearly visible in the Commission's Communication on Innovation Union, towards support for applied industry-driven research. The European Commission's vision is to strengthen the links between the three sides of the knowledge triangle - higher education, business and research. Public-private partnerships are seen as one of the best means of achieving this objective.

Implications of the Innovation Union for Higher Education

The promotion of excellence in education has been identified by the European Commission as the "starting point" for the Innovation Union. In particular, higher education reform has been identified as an urgent objective. The Commission's Communication on Innovation Union draws attention to the difficulty experienced by European universities in attracting enough top global talent, and the low number of universities in leading positions in international rankings. It also states that universities should be freed from over-regulation and micro-management in return for full institutional accountability.

The Communication outlines that universities also need more diversity in their missions and outlook, with smarter specialisation across different fields.

The role of business in higher education is identified by the Commission as a major priority. The Communication calls for businesses to be more involved in curricula development and doctoral training, in order that skills better match industry needs.

The Commission has also committed to supporting business-academia collaborations through the creation of 'Knowledge Alliances', active partnerships between business and academia. The Commission proposes that these Alliances could develop new curricula addressing skills gaps to improve innovation capacity, thus helping universities to modernise through more inter-disciplinary entrepreneurship.

European Innovative Partnerships

As part of the Europe 2020 Strategy, the Commission set out plans for a new approach to R&D that would address the urgency of societal challenges while simultaneously putting in place the conditions which allow breakthroughs to find their way to market quickly. Known as the 'European Innovation Partnerships' (EIP) initiative, this approach aims to overcome the current fragmentation of research and innovation efforts by pooling expertise on research and innovation.

The Commission views EIPs as a new approach to EU research and innovation. EIPs will aim to:

  • act across the whole research and innovation chain. The Partnerships will bring together all relevant actors at EU, national and regional levels in order to increase research and development efforts; coordinate investments through demonstration and pilots; anticipate and quickly bring about any necessary regulation and standards; and mobilise demand, in particular through better coordinated public procurement to ensure that breakthroughs are quickly brought to market.
  • be challenge-driven, focusing on societal benefits and a rapid modernisation of the associated sectors and markets. This means that they will go beyond the technology focus of existing instruments, such as Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs).pilot European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing

The pilot European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing was launched in 2011.

Universities UK registered Charity No. 1001127
A Company limited by guarantee and registered in England and Wales Company No. 2517018
Registered Office: Woburn House, 20 Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9HQ