Regional HEIs and the future of innovation

Regional HEIs and the future of innovation

Innovation is the key to mastering diverse challenges in a rapidly changing world. Creative ideas, scientific expertise and research outputs are relevant sources, but to turn them into societal and economic value in the form of new products, processes and services, forward-looking entrepreneurs are most important. Even if exciting developments quite often happen off the beaten academic tracks and many successful executives of world’s leading tech-companies do not have a university degree, most of the famous leading universities play a central role in those few global centres where innovation is highly concentrated. But what about the numerous regionally-anchored higher education institutions that play an important role in their communities regardless of global university rankings?  

What about small and medium-sized cities and rural areas in which still a large part of the world's population lives, even in these times of urbanisation and globalisation, and which contribute significantly to cultural identities and quality of life? What about regional innovation ecosystems that are so important for those small and medium-sized enterprises that make significant contributions to resilient and sustainable economic output, and are particularly important for human-centric, challenge-based innovation?

The importance of innovation

As we know, top-ranked scientific universities act within a global competition in a digitally connected world. Thus, they are usually linked to urban centres, focus on scientific publications and other established academic performance indicators, and collaborate with global ventures rather than with regionally-anchored SMEs and engaged citizens within their regional communities. There is evidence that innovation tends to be higher in more urbanised regions, particularly capital city regions, as R&D expenditure and highly-skilled experts are concentrated in urban regions. Future-oriented concepts and great efforts are therefore required to close these existing innovation gaps. Regionally-anchored universities should play a crucial role in overcoming these challenges. However, they must increase the exchange of knowledge and experience and join forces in international alliances in order to be able to achieve the necessary critical mass, sufficient resources, visibility and recognition that are necessary for a sustainable impact.

Of course, an increasing number of universities has begun to embrace the importance of innovation and the creation of economic and societal value for their regional communities. Thus, entrepreneurial education has gained more attention in recent years. Entrepreneurs often combine a wide array of competences under the umbrella of ‘future (work) skills’: creativity, agility and adaptability, analytical thinking, problem-solving and implementation competences, the ability to learn, the power of change-making, teamwork, leadership etc. However, the entrepreneurial spirit of passionate, open-minded, future-oriented personalities is most important.

Entrepreneurial education, which teaches just a set of skills in various courses, is therefore no longer sufficient to close the innovation gap. Rather, inspiring learning environments are necessary to promote entrepreneurial thinking and action in a variety of ways. Future universities should serve as platforms for collaborative innovation. They commonly not only attract ambitious and smart individuals and interact with a wide variety of institutions, but also assemble various disciplines that deal with societal and economic challenges from various perspectives. Engaged experts from different areas of the knowledge square (education, research, innovation and service to society) substitute the all-knowing professors as coaches and share their knowledge and practical experiences in challenge-based settings.

The role of regional HEIs

Regionally-anchored higher education institutions are usually closer to their stakeholders, interact in a variety of ways with industry and society, and can usually react more quickly and flexibly to emerging challenges. However, they need to join forces with other partners to achieve the critical mass, cross-cultural diversity and sufficient resources needed to make a relevant impact. Some transnational university alliances, such as those funded within the framework of the European Universities Initiative or the EIT HEI Initiative, are exemplary of this.

For instance, E³UDRES², the Engaged and Entrepreneurial European University as Driver of European Smart and Sustainable Regions, not only connects its members to a European multi-campus university, but also strengthens their regional innovation ecosystems and interconnects them across Europe. The distinctive focus on smart and sustainable regions is in reference to their importance in driving bottom-up innovation, the major contribution of SMEs to the European economy and labour market as well as the role (rural) regions play in supporting European cultural identities and maintaining a high quality of life.

The E³UDRES² Entrepreneurship and Innovation Network for Smart and Sustainable Regions (E.I.N.S.), which is funded as one of the first pilot projects within EIT HEI Initiative, co-creates advanced support for innovation and business creation and intends to enhance collaboration between education, research, innovation and service to society with various actors of regional innovation ecosystems. It is particularly important to support and empower ‘Ent-Re-Novators' (entrepreneurs, researchers, innovators and educators) as those passionate changemakers who intend to collectively create social and economic impact. E³UDRES² has established a new academic ‘i-culture’, in which the ‘i’ stands for inclusive, international, inspiring, innovative, interdisciplinary, intercultural and interactive. With stakeholders from regional innovation ecosystems and partners from the European networks, E³UDRES² runs living labs, hackathons, bootcamps and rural residencies for students and ‘ent-re-novators’ to co-create innovative solutions for current challenges. Open calls for startups have been launched to co-ideate new pathways of interaction and collaboration between start-ups, universities, and European regions, which have so far been explored in open lectures, inspiring chats and a growing open collection of good practice. In November 2022, the first E³UDRES² Regional Stakeholder Forum brought together stakeholders from nine European regions to discuss common challenges and opportunities for a closer and more efficient university-industry-collaboration within and across European regions.

The variety of these activities is intended to establish an innovative learning environment that promotes regional anchoring and European networking in equal measure, enables new approaches to entrepreneurial education and supports (regional) innovation ecosystems. A close and intensive cooperation, an open exchange of experiences and a joint use of existing resources are not only necessary prerequisites, but above all the key to success for an exemplary engaged and entrepreneurial future university.

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Hannes Raffaseder
E³UDRES², AustriaHannes Raffaseder is the Lead Coordinator for European University, E³UDRES².