‘Living lab’ applied research ‘the basis for’ local engagement

Summit also hears how successful universities can drive damaging gentrification in their cities

September 1, 2021

Universities can engage best with local neighbours through applied, “living lab” research that solves the problems those communities need solving most – but must continue to be aware of how their success can drive damaging gentrification.

A session at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit, on “Universities and cities: partners in resilience and innovation”, heard from university leaders and innovation experts.

“It is clear that applied research is really the basis for super-meaningful engagement with the city around us,” Katherine Fleming, provost of New York University, told the event, held in partnership with the University of Toronto.

She cited a longitudinal study on the use of opioids in local populations by NYU’s School of Global Health, along with work on HIV in immigrant populations in the Bronx carried out by its Silver School of Social Work.

NYU’s most successful faculty hires are not people who “are wanting to be here for lifestyle reasons”, but those who want to be in New York for research reasons and see the city as a “living laboratory”, Professor Fleming said.

But also highlighting the potential tensions between universities and their communities, she noted that NYU used once to be surrounded by neighbourhoods of struggling artists, musicians and writers doing “experimental work”.

One of the “paradoxical outcomes of having become a tremendously successful university” is that the university has been “responsible” – but not solely responsible – for the fact that “this neighbourhood is no longer one that can be home to populations of that sort,” she continued. “It has become tremendously expensive.”

Within a short walk of her office are shops such as Prada and Fendi, Professor Fleming said. “These are not stores that are reflective of a neighbourhood that has lots of people doing experimental work or are partially employed,” or is home to bohemian or countercultural activities, she added.

“That really is a shame” as such populations are “important to the ambient quality of a university’s urban life”, she continued.

Urban universities had helped drive similar changes in other cities such as Paris, Professor Fleming observed. “That is something which has really been lost with these great urban universities: what used to be an environment that was very compatible…One of the things that was appealing about university life was that it would bring you to a space where you could also interact regularly and ambiently with public intellectuals. That [loss] is just one of the many negatives of having been successful as an urban university.”

Oriol Amat, rector of Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, said it was key to remember the purpose of a university: knowledge creation in research and transmission of knowledge through teaching, but also transference of knowledge to society.

Hiring and promotion criteria were often too centred on research quantity and quality, and not enough on transference of knowledge to society, he argued.

Kellee Tsai, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, highlighted its status as a living lab in its smart sustainable campus project. “When universities serve as a living lab for new ideas, we share the risk with start-ups that are testing new ideas on campus,” she said.

And she added: “The best way for universities to be helpful to their communities is to solve problems that they actually want to have solved. The more we solve various social, economic and governmental problems, the more we will be perceived as problem solvers, rather than disengaged or inaccessible intellectual elites.”

Maryam Mohiuddin Ahmed, founding director of the Social Innovation Lab, said there was a “tremendous opportunity for universities to function as living labs”, which could move them in a “more just and equitable direction”.


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