EUA’s newly published Innovation Agenda will help to mobilise and boost the university sector’s innovation capacity for greater strategic engagement to tackle societal challenges, writes Sergiu-Matei Lucaci.
As a much-touted benefit to industry, economy and society, innovation is now ubiquitous across policymaking, business planning and institutional development. Such broad-based recognition is welcome, but also indicates a tendency for each sector to pursue its own notion of novelty, as well as who it should benefit. Depending on the audience, innovation can mean deep tech, social entrepreneurship or effective governance. In regions where the Covid-19 pandemic added to the heavy toll of brain drain and deindustrialisation, it can simply mean crisis management.
Most universities already have innovation strategies in place. Therefore, in developing a four-year innovation agenda, EUA’s aim was not to propose yet another sector-specific notion of innovation. Rather, our concern was whether universities can fulfil their innovation ambitions when decision makers and stakeholders do not agree on a comprehensive concept of innovation that recognises and enables the contributions of all sectors. Added to this is a general paucity of discussions about how the top-down pursuit of marketable products can crowd out interdisciplinary blue skies thinking, and how innovation does not always reflect the needs of end users. These concerns are not new, but their persistence signals the need for a more strategic approach to mobilising the university sector.
First and foremost, the EUA Innovation Agenda 2026 states that innovation can be plagued by insularity in political and economic initiatives which muddle the key role of higher education and research in producing novelty. Policy makers and other stakeholders often see fundamental research as too tedious. At the same time, their perception of innovation chiefly revolves around whether Europe can dovetail the latest technology trends and geopolitical tugs-of-war to boost its strategic autonomy. Last year, the launch of the European Commission’s New European Innovation Agenda showed just how deeply entrenched such thinking is, prompting EUA to underline that innovation is a process of co-creation rather than a finite outcome of product design. Unless this is understood, policy initiatives will keep pursuing innovation through ever narrower paths of technology optimisation favouring market deployment over the co-creation of new ideas. In other words, the competitive over the collaborative. This significantly hampers the role of universities as public knowledge stewards with a civic role to ensure that society as a whole can benefit from new goods, services or ways of organising.
Innovators include a wide assortment of companies, public authorities and individuals. And while each pursues its own commercial or political imperatives, they must all acknowledge the need for creativity, intellectual freedom, and a varied skill set for the people who devise new ideas. This is why, in connection to promoting a broader conceptualisation of innovation, the EUA Innovation Agenda also prioritises building innovation capacity, competence and culture at universities. For instance, the skill set that enables universities to foster entrepreneurship depends on opportunities for staff to gain such skills outside of academia and then return to integrate new content into the course curriculum. But when opportunities are limited and when career assessment does not reward non-academic achievement, then intersectoral mobility risks being one-way. This is typically to the benefit of the private sector and the detriment of students who need entrepreneurial training to be future innovators. Hence, a reformed career assessment system and more support for mobility and exchange are critical in maintaining a steady feedback loop from research and education to innovation and vice versa.
Throughout history, universities have enabled their local communities to thrive due to the free and dynamic circulation of people and ideas. This commitment has been steadily maintained even as societies have grown more complex, and political and economic power have spread more widely. But as many more interest groups and constituencies now vie for influence, the stakes are raised for universities to remain impactful while emphasising that science is not just another opinion or lobbying pitch. To achieve this, the EUA Innovation Agenda argues that universities should more prominently embody their role as an honest broker. This involves bringing together perspectives from ethics, politics, technology and regulation, and devising independent advice to mediate between different interests and communities. Universities’ innovation mission is thus a way to solidify their central place in society by ensuring that new ideas and their applications fulfil the expectations of both their developers and users and showing that market exchange does not fully capture the value or impact of innovation.
The shared nature of societal challenges like the green transition requires innovative solutions that chime with the value and belief systems of all the parties concerned. Regrettably, this is not yet clear enough in public discourse. Rather, we often see the narrative that if some key industries are global front-runners, then everyone will eventually gain. This ignores that societal welfare draws on many more sources than just the market competitiveness of European goods and services. Herein lies the urgency for a proactive role for universities as agents of change in the face of major challenges, particularly when citizens’ needs are not well articulated or heard. The third priority of the EUA Innovation Agenda is thus to reconnect innovation processes with end users as part of an Open Innovation paradigm where citizens are fully integrated, not just engaged. This is where universities’ unique role as knowledge custodians and as partners and mediators across sectors and borders can produce more holistic perspectives on the long-term future of their communities. It is also where ample resources are required to give universities an adequate convening power for sustained dialogue with citizens and civil society.
Taken together, the EUA Agenda’s three priorities underscore that enhancing university innovation capacity in tandem with promoting more comprehensive and socially beneficial innovation is also a proxy to understand and serve the needs of many other sectors and stakeholders. As such, it is an opportunity to pursue sustainable development while using universities’ valuable achievements in fundamental research, interdisciplinarity and transfer of knowledge and skills.
Technological capacities and policy imperatives are major drivers of innovation, but they alone do not guarantee that innovation benefits all of society. Truly transformative novelty has to focus on the needs of citizens and end users, and it is the university sector’s role as honest broker to foster this change in mindset.
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All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.