Do we need universities to be innovative and entrepreneurial?

If universities are meant to create a greater public good for society in terms of research and educated individuals, should it be entrepreneurial, and if so, why?

Johanna Kalliokoski works as a research assistant at InnoLab. She is a public management Master’s student at the University of Vaasa and is currently writing her Master’s thesis on the public sector’s role in innovation ecosystems.

First, it is important to understand that “entrepreneurial” doesn’t have exactly the same meaning in the contexts of business and academia: businesses are entrepreneurial in order to create profits and to outdo competitors, but universities can benefit from an entrepreneurial mindset in order to meet the demands of a changing society and economic life. An entrepreneurial mindset can also be valuable to students, helping them in learning to lead themselves, thinking creatively and developing throughout their future careers.

The European Commission and the OECD have joined  forces to create HEInnovate, a self-assessment tool that higher education institutions can utilise to explore their innovative and entrepreneurial competences and targets for development. HEInnovate is about change: figuring out where a university is right now and where it wants to be in the future. The goal of HEInnovate is to provide a context for everyone inside the university to think with an open mind and from a larger perspective.

The HEInnovate process was carried out at the University of Vaasa during the months of October and November in 2018. After completing the HEInnovate self-assessment and taking part in the workshops, I have been reflecting on the concept of the entrepreneurial university. In what areas could it be an especially useful perspective? Here are some things that I came up with:

1. Societal shift from industrial to technological

Societies are moving from the industrial era to a new technological paradigm. Universities are not exempted  from such changes : they need to stay in step with technological progress and the changes it brings to society, individuals and economic life. These changes can be viewed as both challenges and possibilities. The challenges include, for example, increased competition, privacy issues and ethical questions considering AI and the use of technology.

Possibilities, on the other hand, can create a significant competitive advantage if firms and universities seize the opportunities new technology brings, for example, in the form of new products or social innovations. Universities can  lay the basis for new businesses and innovations with their research and knowledge creation, alone or in cooperation with outside firms. For example, in the context of the University of Vaasa and energy cluster companies, saving energy and tackling climate change are two meaningful issues that we can work on together.

2. The university’s important role in regional innovation ecosystems

As Henry Etzkowitz recognized in his Triple Helix theory, universities play an important role in regional innovation systems; the research and education they provide are the main sources of new information and future leaders. Universities can produce new technologies and innovations and bring them to society through scientific papers, spin-offs, start-ups and joint ventures with firms and with other institutions.

An innovative and successful region requires a proactive university that cooperates with its external stakeholders, such as companies and the government, and that can swiftly convey its contributions to the community.

3. Global challenges

Innovations are needed to face global challenges and to create solutions to them. Slowing down global warming, improving energy efficiency and creating a circular economy all require innovation. These and other ‘wicked problems’ require collaboration between different sectors and organizations; no one can solve these problems alone.

Universities play a key role in this collaboration and co-innovation because they have the ability to create a better understanding of these problems through research and to bring together different actors to work on them.

4. Global competition

Cities, regions and universities are currently competing in a global race when it comes to success. Attracting investors, corporations  and bright individuals is no easy task, and cities need to up their pace to avoid lagging behind. Universities are no stranger to competition either. Whether they like it or not, they are constantly being observed, for example, in regard  to their quality and relevance of research, their activities, societal contributions and offerings to students.

Successful regions and cities benefit not only the  surrounding area, but also the nation in which they are located, as growing and flourishing regions bring new jobs, innovations and income to a country. The university and local companies and government can work together to make a region an attractive choice for both people and firms by ensuring that all the components for a good life are present: high quality living conditions, top-notch studying opportunities and great job opportunities.

To conclude, an entrepreneurial and innovative university is an institute with a culture  that fosters risk-taking, encourages creativity, seizes new opportunities and is not afraid of change. It provides tools for its students and staff to create start-ups and spin-offs based on their research and innovations. This mindset also includes active collaboration with external stakeholders as well as corporate partnerships.

An innovative and entrepreneurial university helps students think creatively from different perspectives and prepares them for the complex work life ahead of them. Changing the university’s mindset to an entrepreneurial one does not mean abandoning all the values a university’s activities are based on, but rather creating the conditions to act flexibly and to become a dynamic organization that supports innovations both inside the university and in the innovation ecosystem around it.

Imparting knowledge and the ability to think critically are still the foundations on which universities are built, but we also need new skills, such as the capacity to learn quickly, the ability to think differently and ways to act creatively to solve complex problems.

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