Unpacking the Triple Helix: Universities, industry and government

This blog was contributed by Helen Lawton Smith, Professor of Entrepreneurship, Director, Centre for Innovation Management Research, Department of Management, Birkbeck.

Nearly 300 people — academics, policymakers and business practitioners — from 35 countries attended the beginning of the 2013 Triple Helix International Conference yesterday.

Why did they travel from across the globe to the three-day event hosted in Bloomsbury by the Big Innovation Centre, Birkbeck and UCL?

The first answer is that they came to be part of the debate on the conference theme: The triple helix in a context of global change: continuing, mutating or unravelling? The conference engages with the challenges for each of the three component spheres, of the triple helix model — universities, industry and government — as they co-innovate to solve global economic and social challenges. Discussions focused on  different contexts and ways of building an ‘enterprising state.’

The second is that they came to network. This is the best bit of every conference. Who knows who you will sit next to on the river cruise, at the dinner at Lincoln’s Inn or in a parallel session or workshop?

The third answer is that they came to hear outstanding speakers. They came to listen to the originators of the Triple Helix metaphor, Henry Etzkowitz and Loet Leydesdorff, and David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, and Will Hutton, the political economist and writer. They also wanted to hear from other distinguished keynote speakers from high-profile organisations, including the European Commission, the OECD, Unilever, EDF, GlaxoSmithKline,  about the relevance of the triple helix model to their thinking and practice.

What three things will they have learned?

1.That the triple helix model is continuing to be central to the economic, social and technology policy agenda in many countries of the world, such as Brazil and Russia, and to international bodies, such as the European Commission’s Europe 2020 Smart Specialisation agenda. Alongside this is an increasing interest in how the impact of actions which follow from the agenda can be mapped, measured and evaluated in order to identify baselines for policy decisions.

2.That the model is not so much mutating but changing the forms it takes in the relationships between actors. Its inter-relationships are key to businesses, such as Unilever. In the cloud industry the basis of innovation in the market place is changing and requires a ‘convergence of capabilities’.  Whether this counts as ‘open innovation’ is a debate that will continue long after this conference. An emphasis on the broader role of universities in the economy includes employability, an agenda which links all three of the spheres. This can take the form of entrepreneurship education, both formal through teaching programmes and through student and alumni support such as Birkbeck’s Enterprise Hub, and the mentoring programmes organised by Birkbeck’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Andrew Atter,  based in the Centre for Innovation Management Research in the School of Business, Economics and Informatics.  Professor David Latchman, Birkbeck’s Master, is himself an entrepreneur and believes that there should be more entrepreneurship.

Changing forms present challenges including the ever-present need for finance for entrepreneurs and innovation, and for universities to maintain their standards and diversify their activities to be more responsive to society’s needs.

3.The triple helix model is also a political agenda. It takes a variety of meanings depending on context for each of the three spheres in an uncertain world, nationally, regionally and locally. Whether the model will unravel will depend on how mismatches between the institutional arrangements in each of the three spheres are resolved. The coordination problems are considerable.  Moreover, it is an issue of prioritisation. How the different stakeholder interests fit with the increasing pressures on universities to recruit students and  enhance their learning experiences is a question yet to be answered.

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