How to bring SMEs closer to innovation: the 4.0 case of Veneto-Alto Adige-Tyrol

The PNRR has opted for the creation of new innovation ecosystems based on collaboration between universities, research centers, private companies and local institutions, and aimed at promoting the integration of basic research, industrial research and experimental development, as well as the transfer of technology between the different actors involved. The hope is that this initial technology transfer will be followed, over time, by a growing digitalisation of companies operating in the affected areas, in particular SMEs.

Technology transfer centers, because for SMEs they are a keystone

Between technologies included, includes those attributable to Industry 4.0 (eg industrial internet, additive manufacturing and collaborative robotics), thanks to which it is possible to integrate different production spaces, whether individual plants or entire value chains. Due to the breadth and complexity of the technologies involved, as well as the generalization of their impact, the ecosystem approach is appropriate to be used to identify actions that can support the spread of Industry 4.0 (Benitez et al., 2020). The assumption underlying the application of the territorial ecosystem approach to Industry 4.0 is, therefore, that the development of Industry 4.0 requires the involvement of a diverse set of local actors who interact with each other collaborating to to the exploitation of one or more technologies (Reynolds). and Uygun, 2018).

Ecosystem analysis and relevant dimensions

The scientific literature has identified six useful dimensions for categorizing actions aimed at promoting the adoption of Industry 4.0. The first is the size of the Resources, which affect both infrastructure and financial assets. In fact, ecosystem actors not only need adequate physical and technical conditions to activate innovation, but also adequate access to capital. The second dimension refers to the Public policieswhich can support digital innovation with appropriate updates of laws and regulations, locally, nationally and internationally (e.g. European). The third dimension is that of Know howsince the process of innovation, to be effective, necessarily requires the strengthening of human capital.

Market challenges, strategies and tools for the new INDUSTRY4.0, with digital at the center

The creation and dissemination of knowledge is essential not only to build an innovation ecosystem, but also to preserve it and create the conditions to take advantage of future opportunities that may arise. The fourth dimension refers to the Research and development (R&D), that is, those actions and initiatives based on innovation that represent the fundamental components of the very definition of ecosystem. R&D initiatives are mostly carried out by the private sector and represent the most critical aspect, especially for SMEs. The fifth dimension is the Culture: For the innovation process to be successful, it is necessary to promote an open and positive mindset towards the technological challenges of the future. The last dimension refers to the Interactions among the actors. The interactions refer to all the internal connections and interdependencies that support the realization of the value proposition of the ecosystem and the development of collaborations between companies, universities and / or research centers. These six aspects represent a valid starting point to guide the analysis of the main actions needed to support the adoption of Industry 4.0, both at the individual and ecosystem level.

The case of the Veneto-South Tyrol macro-region

Taking advantage of these dimensions, a recent study – based on the A21Digital Tyrol Veneto project funded by the European Regional Development Fund and Interreg VA Italy Austria 2014-2020 – has suggested some actions and good practices that can be activated within innovation ecosystems to give support for the adoption of industry 4.0 technologies by the productive fabric (Matt et al., 2021). The study focused on the cross-border macro-region of Veneto-Alto Adige-Tyrol and was based on interviews with 52 actors belonging to different categories: companies, educational and training institutions, research centers, public administration and public services. The actions identified by the interviewees were classified into 8 macro-areas of intervention:

  • Offer incentives and financial resources to support R&D activities aimed at Industry 4.0 technologies, to encourage the training of workers on these issues, to combat brain drain and to attract skilled workers to the region.
  • S.develop appropriate ICT infrastructuressuch as 5G, even in rural and peripheral areas.
  • Reform existing regulations by adapting them to the new technological paradigm, and introducing, for example, appropriate cybersecurity legislation that encourages companies and organizations to protect their data and systems. This could be accompanied by the implementation of pilot projects on blockchain technology, which, according to the scientific literature, has considerable potential for the provision of local public services.
  • Review the programs of vocational and tertiary training courses, orienting them to the learning of three specific technologies: Internet of Things, Big Data and Artificial Intelligence. With regard to vocational training, greater awareness must be encouraged at all levels, from operations to the potential of Industry 4.0, to management, in order to optimize strategic options in the technological field. With regard to school education, in addition to the development of new computer-related programs, it would be advisable to offer students the opportunity to try out new 4.0 technologies in the field, for example by setting up small smart factory laboratories. in higher technical institutes. , with the inclusion of 3D printers, collaborative robots and simulators.
  • Teacher trainingnot only in technical matters, but also in the opportunities offered by digital teaching tools (e.g. e-learning platforms).
  • Restructuring of the organization of companies and public administrations, valuing, for example, the possibility of introducing new roles such as the figure of the “innovation manager”.
  • Foster a culture of innovation in the territory that allows to know better the needs of the SMEs and to give them adequate support in their efforts of technological transition.
  • Create collaborative networks local, national and international. Universities in the area, in particular, can play a key role in supporting the technological transition of SMEs and in promoting new managerial thinking. Among the specific actions, we find the development of strategic partnerships aimed at finding solutions related to specific needs (for example, the development of cloud solutions). Instead, companies should work together to integrate and recombine the different skills they already have (e.g., hardware, software, data, or artificial intelligence skills), as well as share data and product information. common machinery through the implementation of shared platforms. Finally, future networks could also be internal to the university, involving different faculties and disciplinary areas in the project activities to encourage the emergence of new ideas and intuitions.

While the actions identified are not new, they do contain some original elements that deserve to be highlighted. For example, it follows that the introduction of tax incentives and bonuses to support digitization must be coordinated with financial schemes. intended to counteract brain drain and to attract highly skilled workers to the region. In fact, given the complex and advanced skills needed to implement new technologies, an innovative ecosystem should be able to attract skilled workers and at the same time avoid the risk of a substantial part of the workforce being trained. leave the region.

The request for reform of the training system

Even the request for reform of the training system is an action that has peculiar aspects. In addition to the issues that other studies have already highlighted, such as the use of innovative approaches to student training, and the need to reform the education system, the study highlights the need to train students as well. teaching staff, which is often insufficiently trained. new technological trends. The second aspect is related to the adoption of the approach learn by doing based on which the student acquires a more active role in their own learning itineraries, participating directly in the performance of those non-routine tasks that will not be automated in the coming years.

Referring to creation of collaboration networks finally, a clear distinction emerges between local and interregional cooperation. The demand for interregional relations suggests that the ecosystem cannot ignore external skills and competencies. In addition, cooperation activities should not be limited to interventions on individual technologies, but should also be aimed at developing skills and competences that are transversal to the whole set of digital technologies or, in any case, to an important part of these.

It is also interesting to reflect on the actors in the ecosystem who must take charge of the actions described above. According to study respondents, some actions are the responsibility of specific actors. For example, financing, regulating and developing appropriate infrastructure are the actions of the institutions. Other actions, on the other hand, are associated with various actors, although each is often assigned different responsibilities. For example, the culture of innovation must be promoted both by companies, towards their employees and by local institutions, with politicians and society as recipients. With regard to vocational training, companies are mainly responsible for updating technical skills, while the education and training system should raise awareness of new technologies and their risks, as well as ensure the development of cognitive and horizontal skills.


Overall, the study presented in this article confirms the usefulness of using the ecosystem dimension to describe the dynamics of industry 4.0 adoption and to encourage its acceleration. Local institutions need to be aware that they have a key role to play in the adoption of Industry 4.0 and should be prepared to take a wide range of actions. Consequently, industrial policies that still address a limited set of areas of potential comparative advantage should broaden their scope and stakeholders, addressing the whole ecosystem and recognizing the need to improve the quality of governance. and promoting a culture of innovation can become a pillar of the future. policies. This perspective could be further enriched if the analysis were extended to specific subcategories of actors, such as start-ups or business incubators.



Benitez, GB, Ayala, NF, Frank, AG (2020), Industry 4.0 ecosystem innovation: an evolutionary

perspective of co-creation of values, International Journal of Production EconomicsVol 228, 107735.

Matt, DT, Molinaro, M., Orzes, G., Pedrini, G. (2021). The role of innovation ecosystems in industry adoption 4.0. Manufacturing Technology Management Magazine, Vol 32 núm. 9, pp. 369-395

Reynolds, EB and Uygun, Y. (2018), Strengthening advanced manufacturing innovation ecosystems:

the case of Massachusetts, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Vol 136, pp. 178-191.

Dominik Matt (Free University of Bozen-Bolzano)

Margherita Molinaro (Free University of Bolzano)

Guido Orzes (Free University of Bolzano)

Giulio Pedrini (“Kore” University of Enna)

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