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Two-directional university knowledge transfer

Balones-1The traditional view is that universities must transfer their knowledge in order to foster innovation. This is a one-way direction. My argument is that a two-dimensional view is needed, acknowledging that economic and societal actors engagement with universities’ knowledge production is equally crucial.

“How can we encourage the commitment of universities to knowledge transfer?” This was the main question for a panel debate in The Times Education Summit of Young Universities, held in Barcelona on April 5-7th. An excellently organized panel with a highly relevant debate, asking many different related questions around this topic.

As I see it, there are two different dimensions of to this matter, and both of them are equally important. The first one has to do with the internal and sociological aspects of the universities themselves. This refers essentially to issues like the incentive structures in academics’ careers, the degree of entrepreneurship culture among university faculty and students, the presence of specialized administrative support inside universities to support knowledge transfer and exploitation, and very crucial as well, the vision and strategic choices from the universities’ leadership regarding how to put the university Third Mission into life. All of them inside the university dynamics.

The second dimension has to do with the contextual aspects of knowledge transfer. Here the most relevant aspects refer to the nature of the local innovation eco-systems in which the university is geographically embedded, the availability, size and expertise of venture capital in the local economy, and the pro-activeness of local/regional philanthropic foundations in approaching and supporting universities’ knowledge production and societal diffusion.

My main point is that this second dimension, the outside-in or contextual dimension, is often disregarded. Most discussions about knowledge transfer tend to look at one-directional dynamics of knowledge produced internally at universities being transferred to the economy and society. This view puts the burden in the universities’ organizational dynamics, asking for universities’ strategic response to the demands from the economy and society. However, it might be rather difficult for university researchers and their leadership to respond to the demands if these are not clearly articulated. This is why the second dimension, the outside-in engagement of societal and economic actors into university is so important.

The issue of knowledge transfer needs a two-way  dimension perspective, addressing simultaneously the inside-out dynamics from university to the external context, as well as the outside-in dynamics from the context towards the university. How can this be expressed more concretely? Creating a wide diversity of incentive structure for firms, business associations, societal stakeholders, civil servants from various public sector areas, NGOs, to engage more actively with universities. Oftentimes their demands for new knowledge are not clearly articulated. Hence the need to stimulate that. This should receive far more attention in the discussions about improving knowledge transfer.

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