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University-business cooperation – Unlocking excellence and innovation

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is technology driven. It requires organisations to harness technology, people, physical and digital spaces into new products and services to thrive in knowledge-based economies and inclusive societies.

A 2021 PwC report for the World Economic Forum advocates that significant investment in massive upskilling could boost global gross domestic product by US$6.5 trillion (€5.549 trillion) by 2030 and create 5.3 million new jobs.

The report argues that there is a huge demand for jobs that require creativity, innovation and empathy, all to be used extensively alongside new Information Technology skills.

Innovation has been at the heart of European Union (EU) policy for a knowledge society for many years. The Lisbon Strategy (2000) aimed to develop Europe into “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion”.

It was followed by the Europe 2020 strategy (in 2010) as a framework for Europe’s agenda for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.

Nearly two decades later, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced her Agenda for Europe, underlining the importance of research and innovation to tackle the key challenges facing Europe – climate change, technological disruption, health and demography – all accentuated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new European Research Area or ERA was launched in 2020 to enhance the original aims to reach a critical mass of world-class research excellence for global competitiveness to address the knowledge gap.

It proposes four new strategic priorities: investments and reforms in research and innovation to support digital and green transition and Europe’s recovery; access to excellent research and innovation for researchers across the EU; the translation of research results into sustainable economic growth; and increased circulation of knowledge, researchers and technology through stronger cooperation with EU countries.

Yet, despite this strong EU policy focus and support, levels of innovation and economic development have continued to remain at very different levels across EU member states. This has led to additional EU policy interventions to support cohesion and provide assistance to the less innovative countries.

The European Innovation Scoreboard and the Regional Innovation Scoreboard peer learning exercises allow the comparative analysis of innovation and performance in EU countries. They assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of national and regional innovation systems, helping to identify areas to improve.

EU countries fall into four performance groups – innovation leaders, strong innovators, moderate innovators and modest innovators. The scoreboard also shows that EU innovation performance had increased by 8.9% (compared to 2012) and that, at the global level, the EU has surpassed the United States for the second time.

According to a recent report, A Robust Innovation Ecosystem for the Future of Europe, key challenges for innovation are linked to the level of local, regional and global connectedness of stakeholders, competence and talent, and capital, all of which need to be improved to enhance innovation in the complex and diverse European ecosystem.

These challenges point to the key role of University-Business Cooperation or UBC to unlock innovation and establish innovation ecosystems in which multinational corporations, SMEs, start-ups, students, universities and-or policy-makers all cooperate effectively.

Unlocking excellence through open innovation ecosystems

The concept of innovation was originally adopted by policy-makers for new approaches to support economic growth in what have now become wider innovation ecosystems.

In 1995, the American economist Clay Christensen defined disruptive innovation as the means to create new markets and value networks that eventually disrupt existing markets and displace established firms, products and alliances.

According to Christensen, disruptive innovation is about low costs and highly accessible products, low gross margins that at first serve the low end of the market before they expand to larger markets.

Often hard to see coming, they are, at first, not taken seriously before they quickly develop, as was the case with video streaming (Netflix) or LED lights (that truly disrupted the traditional light bulbs).

In the European Open Innovation System, multiple stakeholders co-create through integrated interactions, and generate new ideas and shared values in wide innovation ecosystems.

This is based on the Quadruple Helix Model in which government, industry, academia and civil society cooperate to co-create in order to drive structural changes through the cross-fertilisation of ideas that lead to experimentation in real-life environments.

Social innovation and new social practices have been regaining attention in the past few years following the 2008 economic crisis. Multiple voices from civil society organisations, NGOs, advocacy groups and the public at large have been advocating for more inclusive societal and economic growth, arguing that the benefits of an innovation-led economy can only be fully maximised when these are widely distributed.

HE and business drive local innovation in global ecosystems

Although higher education institutions operate in the global higher education ecosystem, they are also grounded in their own local and regional environments.

The way higher education institutions cooperate with their neighbours has shifted to much deeper relationships with businesses, civil society and policy-makers to ensure education delivers a wider set of skills, competences and knowledge for society. Social innovation is at the heart of such developments.

Universities have been embracing the concept of civic institutions, broadening their mission to produce in order to deliver research outputs and education which is relevant to societal needs, in this way embracing a wider definition of what constitutes excellence. They have engaged in collaborative research and open science practices with non-academic stakeholders in their environment.

In the private sector, the concept of corporate social responsibility emerged in the 1970s and is now gaining renewed attention in the context of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goalsand the way businesses (and universities) are adopting new values and approaches on climate change, social inclusion or social challenges.

There are many challenges to achieve cohesive innovation ecosystems in which different actors collaborate in competitive contexts to balance local, regional and national interests and drive local and global competitiveness and innovation. UBC helps to build such globally and locally competitive sustainable innovation ecosystems.

Unlocking new forms of excellence through social innovation

The EU Green Deal and the Recovery and Resilience package clearly focus on unlocking excellence in the wider sense through collaboration between all stakeholders, from civil society, industry and academia across regions and local communities.

They point to structural collaboration in the Quadruple Helix to scale up the enormous innovative capacity of multiple players in society and turn them into sustainable and inclusive societal partnerships for social value.

Innovations with a social purpose focus on new social practices, processes and new forms of collaboration to meet societal needs and generate value ‘beyond the balance sheets’. The digital platforms that have emerged with the growth of new technologies have given social innovators new tools to scale up initiatives on the global scene.

Yet many social innovation initiatives lack sustainable business models, funding and collaborative organisational approaches to align players in more resilient innovation ecosystems.

Higher education institutions should do a lot more to promote social innovation as a discipline and a criterion for career advancement along other types of academic production. Curricula should offer knowledge to enhance students’ awareness of societal issues and develop their skills and new mindsets to become fully engaged citizens in society.

The European Commission has been supporting social innovation for many years under the Erasmus+ Knowledge Alliances for Innovation, the URBACT programme – which helps cities with good policies for urban development by multiple local stakeholders – or the Structural Funds that support multiple social innovation initiatives around migration, urban regeneration, health and ageing issues.

The guide for social innovation prepared in 2013 by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy and the Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, with inputs from other directorate-generals, highlights the need to upscale social innovation into public policies and to shift from social policy experimentation to sustainable approaches.

The Social Innovation Tournament of the European Investment Bank recognises the best European social entrepreneurs and rewards innovative initiatives that create social, ethical or environmental impacts.

There are, as outlined, many different approaches that can be taken to unlock systemic innovation and excellence through UBC.

Frameworks, methods and practical tools exist as developed by researchers and in the context of EU-funded projects. These can often form the backbone to make the shift from project-based initiatives to sustainable systemic approaches for long-term impact.