The significant role that small and medium-sized enterprises play in innovation successes achieved by the Smart City Network DE-US.net
The SME + network = innovations formula gets to the heart of it: It is widely understood that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with less than 250 employees – which make up 99 out of 100 companies in Germany – drive the economy but they are also seen as the guarantors for the success of smart city innovation networks. Without their critical eye that draws on their practical experience, only a few research ideas would make it into new products, services and processes that are put to successful use and that deliver technical, social and economic change.
“Research facilities do not turn good scientific ideas into finished products that are ready for mass production, they usually only start with the development of individual prototypes. Prototypes that are usually just a functioning and frequently simplified test model for a planned product. A model that is aimed at illustrating a concept and that still has to be tested for feasibility and acceptance. Further utilisation is usually quite difficult and in most cases cannot be achieved by the scientists alone or, if so, only to an unsatisfactory degree,“ explains Dr. Stefan Bartke of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig.
He is in charge of the DE-US.net Smart City Network – a collaboration between German and US-American experts – where, from the start, scientists collaborate with developers from SMEs as for example the engineering and urban planning offices JENA-GEOS®, quaas stadtplaner, StadtLand UG, and the Kommunikatisten.
Dr. Kersten Roselt, CEO at JENA-GEOS®, explains the strategic role that SMEs play within the DE-US.net network: “Innovative SMEs are market-driven to search for new solutions and, from the outset, focus on the practical exploitation of project ideas. It is in this way that they prevent research facilities from carrying out research in joint international projects, for instance, that is not practically relevant.”
Dr. Stefan Bartke, who heads the network, adds: “Collaboration with SMEs makes it hugely more probable that the developed prototypes will find practical applications in the real world. We need companies that are firmly grounded in reality. The city of the future is not going to be designed in an ivory tower but is being developed on a daily basis and locally with the help of residents, administrations and – at its core – with the help of the expertise and services provided by specialist businesses and consultants.”
A win-win situation for both sides: The SMEs also benefit in many ways from networking and collaborating with the research facilities that operate within the DE-US.net network: “SMEs are able to realise research projects more easily when they work with partners from the field of science. In this regard, we must always measure ourselves against the cutting edge of research. This aspiration helps us renew our processes, products and services on the basis of the latest findings, which in turn facilitates our ability to create new market and innovation potentials.”
It is also possible for prospective new network partners, e.g. interested companies in the USA, to subsequently draw on the added value created in this way. It allows them to benefit from the practical experiences gained by the German SMEs and enhance their activities through cooperation with German companies in other international markets.
Do the network partners from the SMEs and research facilities cooperate on an equal footing? Almost, says Dr. Kersten Roselt. “The SMEs' participation in research collaborations is limited by the level of what they are able to contribute to them. It should also not be forgotten where international cooperation projects are concerned that SMEs in Germany still frequently face language barriers when they wish to enter into international collaborations – although these are often overcome through dedication and authenticity.”