Openness should be the defining characteristic for collaboration in the 21st century, and the values and practices underlying successful business-university-government collaboration should be shot through with collaborative principles.
The underlying platform is obvious: the internet, worldwide web, 5G, unlimited data, and artificial intelligence (AI) are meshing together at speed to create unprecedented capacity for openness. But there is a serious glitch in the technology, a persistent snag in the force, a cacophonous noise in the system. Namely, the creators of openness are habituated to closedness. They are tribal and insular creatures: they are us. And we must be overcome.
Since the 17th century, many of those of a liberal persuasion had been persuaded that once the barriers to knowledge collapsed, the elites held to account, and access to wisdom became unfettered, then humanity would reach a democratic equilibrium. To paraphrase Marx: once we reach true openness, society can inscribe on its banners from each according to their research, to each according to their development.
And yet, our true state is far from open. Globalised and democratised social media defenestrates logic and reason: the president of the United States megaphones tweets in an echo chamber while others join digital hands in exclusive mutually preening cliques, and here in the UK our negotiators need to work out how to develop an open knowledge economy with our continental neighbours.
And yet, and yet, the dream lives on. Openness is the grail, the discovery of which may drive enormous economic, social and political progress.
Success in openness is well documented, if diffuse. The Linux operating system, for example, is the product of the Free Software Foundation where everyone has the right to code and programme, and which is explicitly established to stop proprietary vendors denying “users basic rights, leaving them susceptible to the whims of owners and vulnerable to surveillance”.
Of course, there is a stubborn problem at the heart of such altruistic openness. Us. We are not all coders, most of us have no interest in paying back what we took out, many developers want financial reward for their work, and, frankly, Windows and the Apple operating system are easy to use compared with a gazillion Linux distributions.
And there we have the core problem with openness – knowledge is not equally distributed shared, or learned. Or, to put it another way, some people are experts and others aren’t; some are free riders and others hard-yarders; some deploy capital, and others consume value. Some – let’s call them academics – spend 20 or 30 years trying to figure out some of the hardest problems on the planet, and others – let’s call them tweeters – spend 20 seconds relaying their views in 140 characters.
To be truly successful as a model, particularly for business, openness must have symmetry and mutuality at its heart. Jürgen Habermas (a quintessential optimist in my view) thought deeply about how to achieve coordinated success. The participants, he argued, must believe that the goals are worthy of merit, and that consensual communication and action will enable them to achieve individual and collective ambitions.
"Open innovation" is one form of consensual activity. This idea, codified by Henry Chesbrough, argues that firms must be permeable in the ways in which they engage with R&D and innovation, buying in people, firms, patents and licenses where they can’t originate, or trading out licenses, joint ventures and spin-offs when they can’t successfully exploit or fund them internally.
Unlike, say, open source, this is an attempt to reach profitability in a complex globalised world of knowledge, capital and asset exchanges. Open innovation is underpinned by profit rather than altruism, and businesses, large, medium and small are looking to universities as possible sources of open knowledge, which means that we must reduce the tendency to closedness on both sides, whether in behaviour, language or attitude.
If we start from the shared goal, we may reach shared solutions.
Furthermore, the emerging focus of many big corporations is what might be called "profitable altruism", which again is underpinned by the grail of openness. Massive global pressures are gathering speed to create transformational explosions of opportunity and challenge. The United Nations' sustainable development goals, the fourth business revolution, the uneven and unequal flow of globalising benefits, and the continued onrush of digital technologies are transforming the rules for growth.
Investors, clients, consumers and employees (particularly millennials) increasingly look for more than a return on financial investment as the main measure of growth. They want a clear, transparent and accountable commitment to societal challenges and sustainable development embedded in a commitment to purpose.
In a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of CEOs, 63 per cent of chief executives said their company’s purpose made a positive contribution to their revenue growth; 83 per cent expressed confidence that purpose served as a valuable guide for the business decisions they made; and 96 per cent said instilling values that can affect how employees behave is critical to their company’s success.
The findings echo Deloitte’s 2014 Core Beliefs and Culture survey, which found that focusing on purpose rather than profits builds business confidence and drives investment. In this environment, business executives, policymakers, and university leaders must work together to develop a new purpose for open business-university partnerships.
The challenge of openness is that, paradoxically, it implies something closed. Unity leads to the exclusion of those unwilling to subscribe to the new rules and we must battle to overcome exclusion.
For 20 years or more, universities have been clambering down from ivory towers to look for partners. It is absolutely imperative now that businesses join them on the plain, whether in orderly markets or disorderly bazaars, to share knowledge, information, ideas and intellectual property.
At the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), on behalf of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), the Research Councils and our membership, we have been building digital marketplaces in which businesses and universities can find new partners for collaboration, and where employers and students can find opportunities for secondments and placements.
It’s up to all of us to ensure that the UK is the most open innovation economy in the world.
David Doherty is chief executive officer at the NCUB.
This article was commissioned by Times Higher Education in partnership with Jisc as part of the Jisc Futures series. Jisc is the UK's expert body for digital technology and resources in higher education, further education, skills and research.