The Role of Universities in Social Innovation


Panel discussion in the course of the XIV. International Triple Helix Conference

In the course of the XIV. International Triple Helix Conference, Heidelberg, Germany,  25th to 27th September 2016 a panel discussion titled “Social Innovation: On the Roles of Universities” was organised by Doris Schartinger and Matthias Weber from the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology.
The panel discussion took as particular point of departure SI-DRIVE results on the role of universities in social innovation initiatives from the SI-DRIVE report Mapping the World of Social Innovation: A Global Comparative Analysis Across Sectors and World Regions by Howaldt, Schröder, Kaletka, Rehfeld, and Terstriep (2016). (see /?p=2210). This report presents results from the mapping of 1000 social innovation cases, where we can see that most partners involved in the mapped initiatives are from non-profit/non-governmental organisations (46 %), followed by public bodies (45%) and private companies (37%). In 15% of initiatives we see universities in a partnering role (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: SI-DRIVE Mapping Results: Partners

Source: Howaldt et al. (2016). A “project partner””is an individual, group, organisation/institution or network directly supporting the project and the implementation of the solution.

The Triple Helix thesis is that the potential for innovation and economic development in a Knowledge Society lies in a more prominent role for the university and in the hybridisation of elements from university, industry and government to generate new institutional and social formats for the production, transfer and application of knowledge (see
Panellists invited to the session “Social Innovation: On the Roles of Universities” were:

  • Effie Amanatidou/Research & Innovation Policy Analyst at Manchester Institute of Innovation Research (MIoIR), University of Manchester (UK)
  • Attila Havas/Senior research fellow at Institute of Economics at Institute of Economics, Hungarian Academy of Science (HU)
  • Michael Hölscher/ Professor of Higher Education and Science Management at German University of Administrative Sciences Speyer (DE)
  • Adriano La Vopa/Business Process Expert at Innoventually, Philips (NL)
  • Paul Windrum/Deputy Director of Centre for Health Innovation, Leadership & Learning at University of Nottingham (UK)

The inputs and discussion points during this panel session gave a multi-faceted and diverse picture of the different roles of universities and the various angle points of how to view and evaluate these roles.
In most of the contributions the distinction was made between different levels of analysis of universities, thus appreciating the different avenues and roles of universities for the development and diffusion of social innovations. On the level of university researchers in social innovation initiatives, contributions of individuals and/or groups can be the analysis social issues (problems), provision of expertise and/ or ‘counter-expertise’, and the co-production of knowledge with other (non-academic) SI actors. On the organizational level, universities furthermore contribute as financiers (investors in SI), landlords (provider of facilities for SI processes), advisors (on other relevant knowledge sources, potential partners, etc.), and mentors (persuade third parties to adopt SI and/ or invest in it) (please see also Cunha & Benneworth, 2013).
Another viewpoint is that universities themselves can be forms of social innovation. Here, the Barefoot college claimed a lot of attention (, which acted as real world changer in one of the poorest areas in India (Tilonia), built from 1980-1985 by a Tilonian community, and now operates in 1,300 villages in 80 countries worldwide. But also, the Open University was introduced as an example, as from its inception, the goal of the Open University has been to extend Higher Education to working people, and to others who would otherwise not be able to access higher education.
Concerning the expertises and citizens’ involvement in social innovation it was stated that there is much yet to address of how best to develop citizens’ competences. This requires a better understanding of what is feasible, and what are reasonable limits of expertise – otherwise we risk to develop a ‘blame the citizen’ culture. And this is a key issue, to which universities and other Higher Education organisations can contribute.
Knowledge produced by academics adds to the breeding ground that social innovations build on. Often this can be traced specifically, in other cases it adds to a general reservoir of knowledge that social innovations are nourished from. Universities train some of the social innovators, and in various examples also set up course and training programmes that specifically address social innovation and social entrepreneurs.

Cunha, J., & Benneworth, P. 2013. Universities’ contributions to social innovation: towards a theoretical framework. Paper preseneted at the EURA Conference 2013, 3-6 July, Enschede, The Netherlands.
Howaldt, J., Schröder, A., Kaletka, C., Rehfeld, D., & Terstriep, J. 2016. Mapping the World of Social Innovation: A Global Comparative Analysis Across Sectors and World Regions. In S. DRIVE (Ed.), Social Innovation: Driving Force of Social Change.