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Is there an Industry-Science Mismatch in the Brussels Capital City Agglomeration?

Evidence from knowledge spillovers in innovation active SMEs in knowledge intensive business services (KIBS)

Editor's notes

This is the press release related to the article from Peter Teirlinck, published on February 20, 2017

Unlike the United States, the abundance of knowledge in universities and public research organisations in Europe does not lead to innovations in the business sector. The question of relations between service and industry stakeholders on the one hand, and the world of research on the other hand, is therefore one of the most important priorities of economic policies. Brussels is no exception. The available empirical data show a gap between the world of research and industry: universities and public research organisations play a limited role in providing ideas which fuel innovation in companies, and universities are approached much less often for collaborations.

The apparent conflict between the importance of Brussels in the area of university and public research, and the low level of use by companies of the knowledge produced there, should therefore be analysed. But it is not necessarily a straightforward matter in the Belgian institutional context, where research data are published within a community framework, and those related to the economy, in a regional framework.

Peter Teirlinck, professor of innovation management at KULeuven (Brussels campus), has been able to examine the issue by focusing on innovative small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the area of knowledge intensive business services, such as those for engineering firms, IT service providers or management consultants. By breaking down the data from a survey on innovation between the large urban areas in Belgium, his results show several specificities in Brussels as regards the transfer of knowledge to the business world, where it has the great advantage of going beyond the traditional regional and community comparisons which do not take the urban reality of Brussels into account.

Firstly, one of the reasons for the limited interactions may lie in the differences between Brussels and the other major cities in Belgium in terms of economic structure. In Brussels, SMEs are bigger on average and are therefore able to internalise certain processes, including applied research. As the Brussels economy is centred more on services than on industry, SMEs are more involved in innovation related to the development of new products. In the service sector, innovations are related to processes or organisational arrangements more often, and knowledge is transferred via people and expertise rather than via patents and technical infrastructures. Consultants – and even the scientific literature – may therefore be intermediaries exempt from a formalised partnership with a university. Let us also note that SMEs in Brussels operate more at national level, thus leading to a relationship with their environment which is based less on proximity, including in the area of research.

But above all, Brussels offers a wide range of resources. Companies are therefore forced to make trade-offs within a wide range of knowledge, of which universities are only one of the components. And in certain cases, the trade-offs are not in favour of partnerships with universities due to coordination costs, for example to align the agendas of academic researchers and companies. Paradoxically, in Brussels, SMEs which are active in sectors requiring knowledge intensive services may therefore be better informed about the resources to use and where to find them, and therefore use the university “entry door” less often. Increased externalisation in the innovation processes of SMEs confirms this point of view: universities are faced with strong competition due to the density of potential providers.

The author therefore suggests that policies to support innovation and applied research should be adapted to the specificities of Brussels, while underlining that the work to be done is probably at metropolitan level rather than regional level. While the economy of the Brussels-Capital Region is centred mainly on services, its hinterland (in the Walloon and Flemish Regions) is still significantly industrial.

Peter Teirlinck, “Is there an industry-science mismatch in the Brussels agglomeration? Evidence from knowledge spillovers in innovation active SMEs in knowledge intensive business services (KIBS)”, Brussels Studies [Online], General collection, No 108, 20 February 2017. URL:

Benjamin Wayens, Senior Editor: bwayens[at]

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