Why Do Universities Have a Rather Limited Contribution To Social Innovation?

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The world has been witnessing an escalation of societal problems such as climate change, growing pressure on resources and environment, food security and gender inequality that are commonly referred to as ‘grand challenges.’ The complexity of these challenges requires new ways of cooperation and organizing structural changes. There are a growing interest and belief that social innovation can help achieve it. Mulgan et al. (2007) describe social innovations as “innovative activities and services that are motivated by the goal of meeting a social need and that are predominantly developed and diffused through organizations whose primary purposes are social”.

Universities have increasingly been expected to contribute to social innovation in their geographic vicinities, due to their knowledge-generating capacity and human resources that can be mobilized in tackling grand challenges. Nevertheless, a recent study by Howaldt et al. (2016) demonstrated that out of 1005 social innovation cases analyzed, universities have contributed to only 15 % percent of them. This raises the question of why universities have had a rather limited contribution to social innovations so far. To answer this question, we conducted a study with one of my advisors, Paul Benneworth, and decided to employ the concept of institutional logics to delve into organizational dynamics of universities and explore whether there are institutional logics that are conflicting with contributions to social innovations as an institutional goal.

Thornton and Ocasio (1999) define institutional logic as “socially constructed, historical patterns of material practices, assumptions, values, beliefs, and rules by which individuals produce and reproduce their material subsistence, organize time and space, and provide meaning to their social reality”. Previous studies showed that an organizational field of an institution can be dominated by a single institutional logic. However, Reay and Hinings (2009) pointed out that more than one institutional logic can (co-)exist in institutions. These logics can be compatible or conflicting, and along these lines exploring the logics of universities can help us better understand why their contribution to social innovation has been limited so far.

We wanted to explore this issue in universities where we work, the University of Aveiro (UA) in Portugal and the University of Twente (UT) in the Netherlands. These are two young, entrepreneurial and technical oriented universities that either claim that they are contributing to social innovations substantially, or for which engagement with social innovation is a strategic institutional goal. We have conducted 36 interviews with rectors, academic staff, and administrative personnel in both universities and further looked at their strategic plans to have a wider organizational perspective.

In UT, the organizational field is dominated by two institutional logics, i.e. high technology and global excellence. With high technology logic what we mean is a belief system and ways of organizing the university environment so that it is conducive to the development of an organizational identity based on high-tech research and innovation. One reflection of this can be seen in the changed university motto in 2010 from “entrepreneurial university” to “High Tech Human Touch”. This logic presupposes greater deployment of resources into high technology-related research, ventures and entrepreneurship. The global excellence logic emerged earlier in the 2000s due to the changing research funding regimes and increasing competition between higher education institutions and rankings. This logic expects higher education institutions to be world-class universities with greater prestige and a better position in university rankings. The two logics are quite strong and they tend to marginalize contribution to social innovation as social innovation projects do not necessarily entail high technology elements or generate income/publications that are useful in moving up in the university rankings.

In UA, two institutional logics, the engineering and the design, occupy the organizational field. With engineering logic, we refer to a belief system that regards contribution to regional engagement in traditional ways such as contract research, industry collaboration, student placements in firms. This logic believes that increasing both quantity and quality of such activities is the answer to tackling grand societal challenges and there is skepticism towards social innovation as perceived by academics mostly in engineering departments. The design logic, on the other hand, can be seen as agents of social innovation in UA as many social innovation projects are coordinated by academic staff who have expertise in design and design thinking. Design logic assumes that grand challenges must be tackled by social innovations that aim at structural changes in societal systems, and design should be at the heart of social innovation projects. This causes conflict between the two logics. Since engineering logic is much well established and older than design logic, it emerges as the stronger logic in the field. Engineering logic does not block design logic completely but rather slows down its progress inside the university.

These two cases display that the problem of universities’ limited contribution to social innovation is more deep-seated than we think. The problem lies in mainly three areas: a) social innovation is not a university activity that has yet gained full organizational legitimacy b) stable academic identities, that support regional engagement, have mostly done that through traditional third mission tasks, c) the social, economic and political dynamics, that have recently surrounded universities, require them to make decisions that result in short term benefits and fulfill their urgent needs. Therefore, any attempt to encourage a university to play a key role in social innovation should focus on these three dimensions, i.e. legitimacy, academic identities, and urgency.

Ridvan Cinar, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow and PhD Candidate in University of Aveiro, Portugal