Using universities' global networks to bridge the innovation gap

Universities’ international experience is a boost to knowledge transfer beyond national borders, says Baiba Pētersone

September 27, 2019
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At the 2018 World Economic Forum, Farnam Jahanian, the president of Carnegie Mellon University, suggested that although universities still have to retain their “core mission of educating the next generation and cultivating new forms of knowledge, universities must also embrace [an] ever-expanding role in driving innovation and catalysing economic development”. He identified four ways in which universities can achieve this goal: by fostering entrepreneurship, encouraging collaboration with the private sector, promoting diversity and inclusion, and exploring the nexus of technology and society.

Universities are, to some extent, well equipped to perform these roles. They have the research expertise and the potential to approach various issues from an interdisciplinary perspective. In addition to more commercially oriented knowledge generation, they can engage in blue-sky research that may not always lead to profit yet is important to society; they often cultivate inclusiveness and engage various marginalised groups; and most higher education institutions have established ties with stakeholders from various sectors that can be employed to facilitate innovation.

But universities have another strength, developed over the past few decades, that could place them at the forefront of innovation: experience in internationalisation.

This experience includes an understanding about opportunities for innovation beyond national borders, such as grants and programmes, as well as networks and knowledge communities.

International collaborations have prepared universities for innovation-related knowledge transfer from abroad and successful integration of this knowledge into local ecosystems. Universities have also developed partnerships with foreign experts from various fields who can be engaged in boosting innovation.

This international expertise of regional universities may become especially important to local innovators in parts of Europe that are falling behind in innovation.

Although the most recent edition of the European Commission’s European Innovation Scoreboard suggests that innovation performance across the European Union has increased, there are still wide discrepancies among EU member states.

The so-called innovation leaders and strong innovators are located in northern and western Europe, whereas most eastern, central and southern European countries are classified as “moderate” or “modest” innovators.

A university’s international expertise can play an important role in helping to overcome these regional performance discrepancies.

In the case of the continuing international collaboration in the area of health between the European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s Regional Innovation Scheme (EIT Health RIS) and Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) in Latvia, the goal is to enhance the innovation competencies of the players in Latvia’s healthcare knowledge triangle (business, education and research) and to encourage their innovative healthcare outputs.

This goal is especially important for Latvia, which has been labelled a “moderate innovator” and has received low ratings from the OECD on several key performance indicators of its healthcare system.

Like many other universities, some examples of RSU’s strategic resources that can be invested in the activation of innovation include research expertise, interdisciplinary understanding of healthcare issues and educational content that combines knowledge on healthcare as well as on entrepreneurship and technology.

However, to bridge the innovation gap, the university’s international experience may be significant.

Universities can help to create awareness of international opportunities for innovation. This can be achieved through events and other activities aimed at promoting international business creation programmes; training initiatives; pitching sessions, project competitions and other funding opportunities; and access to foreign investors and markets.

Most universities also have strong backgrounds in international project management that can enhance the international competitiveness and success of regional start-ups, SMEs or student and young professional teams through technical or administrative support.

Gaining access to the international networks that universities have built through collaboration with partners around the world and their presence in international innovation settings could be valuable to regional innovators as well. These networks could help provide them with international mentors, advisers or project partners.

And universities can help to integrate local innovators into these global innovation systems by identifying new trends and developments, sharing best international practice and criteria for evaluation.

Universities’ intercultural and foreign language capital can contribute to more productive exchanges between local innovators and international enablers. Institutions can help establish channels of communication with international funding bodies and interpret the organisational cultures of these bodies for local innovators.

Likewise, universities can assist the international enablers of local innovation – bodies such as the EIT and European Innovation Council – through their understanding of the innovators in their own communities, knowing their needs, organisational cultures, power structures and resource deficiencies.

In this way, universities with good ties with both global enablers and their local innovators can be facilitators that provide credibility to international programmes, establish trust between local and international actors, and ensure the long-term sustainability of internationally supported innovation initiatives.

Baiba Pētersone is director of the international department at Rīga Stradiņš University in Latvia.

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