Universities and innovation: beyond the third mission

The increased focus on innovation as a key driver for our societies is influencing every single university mission. As project-based learning and co-creation in research move into the mainstream of university activities, the third mission (service to society or outreach) becomes increasingly an integrated part of both the research and education missions.

The new EUA report “The role of universities in innovation ecosystems” gives clear examples of this trend. It is based on nine in-depth case studies from around Europe and more than 170 interviews with students, researchers and university leaders, as well as industry and government representatives.

The examples from the report show the success stories particularly of open innovation in the wake of the financial crisis. Many regions have had to reinvent themselves when big, central companies were hit by the crisis. They did this by creating space for new innovators and embracing innovation models that focus on sharing knowledge between researchers, students, start-ups and large companies. This would in many cases mean less focus on contract research and intellectual property and more on cooperation.

There is a confluence of dynamics, which connects this new economic model with developments that are clear elsewhere. This is highly apparent in the area of learning and teaching. The 2018 EUA Trends Report documents the importance of learning and teaching reform across Europe, and especially points to the success of project based learning. In the report about innovation ecosystems these changes are evident in the way that innovation has been integrated in learning and teaching. Many universities in the study underlined how they had changed their learning and teaching to create projects with challenges from real life, for instance from local businesses, and they promoted interdisciplinary learning in groups. Often, these reforms were driven by the students themselves. Here, the aim to introduce innovation in education activities merge education and engagement with external stakeholders and creates a large common ground between the two missions.

Likewise, in research, the new report points to a shift from a linear transfer of knowledge from research to external users towards co-creation. This means that the model by which a researcher produces knowledge, makes a patent, or transfers it towards higher “technology readiness levels” is complemented with a model by which a researcher and potential practical user work together from the start. This can take the form of researchers or students being active in start-ups in which learning, research and application come together. Here, the university and the region create spaces for encounters between different people and ideas. It can also take the form of contracts between a university and a large company that span many years without aiming at solving a particular problem, but to explore the frontiers of knowledge in order to make the next disruptive discovery. Moreover, the rise of citizen science, in which research takes in the participating citizens from the beginning, is another part of this co-creation trend. This rise has been discussed by EUA’s members in an event on public engagement, and at the last EUA Conference in Zurich. It will also be a major part of this year’s Annual Conference in Paris.

As with learning and teaching, the results of the report about innovation ecosystems take a detailed view on a number of case studies, but the results speak to much larger trends in the university community, where the systematic engagement with society plays an ever-increasing role.

The EUA Report “The Role of Universities in Innovation Ecosystems” is written by Sybille Reichert. It is also protagonist of an EUA event taking place on 8 March in Brussels on “Open innovation ecosystems: universities connecting the dots.”

The participating universities are: Aalto University in Finland, Sorbonne University in France, University of Manchester in the UK, Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, Technical University Munich in Germany, Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, University of Minho in Portugal, University of Warsaw in Poland, and Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya in Spain.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Thomas Jorgensen

Thomas Ekman Jørgensen is Senior Policy Coordinator at the European University Association


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