Disjunctive external and internal ideas on the university's role in regional innovation systems

Thorbjörn Swenberg
Dalarna University

Johan Kostela
Dalarna University

Sigrid Saveljeff
Dalarna University

Regional innovation systems are recurrently presented by model figures. The purpose of such figures is to monitor certain ideas regarding each presented system. The topic of this paper is the role of the University represented through such model figures, and what ideas such figures are created to promote. In analysing the models, a visual communication perspective is paired with network notions.
The current objective is to discuss what politics can be found behind the idea promotion, when figures created within a university is compared to figures created outside of it. The aim is to clarify core differences between motives underlying the engagement of a university in its associated regional innovation system, by taking on the research question: How should we understand the disjunctions between model imagery on the University’s role in a regional innovation system used by people inside and outside of the University, respectively?
The research method used in this pilot-project, focusing on the Dalarna region of Sweden, is an analysis of policy documents in combination with interviews. The policy documents come from universities, as well as from other institutions engaged in regional innovation systems. Primarily the model figure of the regional innovation system presented by Region Dalarna (http://www.regiondalarna.se/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Mobilisera-for-tillvaxt-Innovationsarbete-och-smart-specialisering.pdf [p.18]) is compared to Dalarna University’s model figure of its regional collaboration self-understanding (https://www.du.se/sv/Samverkan/ [Förstudie kring Högskolan Dalarnas roll i det regionala innovationssystemet; p.11]), and analysed in regard to policy documents on the Dalarna innovation system. Semi-structured interviews are also made with regional innovation system executives, university innovation officers and leaders, as well as university research group leaders, 14 interviews in total, spread across four (4) different Swedish regions.
The results are several: there are commonalities in the understanding of the university’s role in the Dalarna innovation system, inside and outside of Dalarna University, but also several disjunctions:
(1) It is a common understanding that there could be cooperation between the university and others based on research, and/or through education.
(2) One disjunction regard whether the university should act as one centrally organized hub for such collaboration, or function through a more scattered and self-organized set of units, in accordance with specific knowledge areas, where collaboration takes place.
(3) Another disjunction appears concerning the university’s role in regard to innovation, whether it should be expected to be involved in the very innovation processes, or be an external part in support of innovation by providing resources and expertise for those that innovate.
(4) A third disjunction concerns the university’s regional engagement, whether its prime efforts should be focused inwards the region, or if it is more important to function as a network provider and facilitator towards other regions as well as globally.
(5) The fourth encountered disjunction regards weather the university should take on the intermediating role as a (strategic) knowledge broker that connects and encourages parties to innovation collaboration, or, yet again, the active role as the (leading) driving force in collective innovation processes, covering entire strategic areas of intervention.
(6) A more delicate disjunction, the fifth, is the different views on knowledge, where the external expectations on the university is to deliver configured pieces of knowledge, from research or education, ready to exploit into innovation and business, whereas the university’s internal understanding is that knowledge should be developed during the collaborative process, jointly with the external parties.
The implications of these results are that (1) the common attitude of the possibility for the university to be involved in the regional innovation system which constitutes the vital starting point for such involvement to be achieved in a systematic and meaningful way. The disjunctions are in that sense topics for negotiation: (2) how much the university should centralize its innovation system involvement must be balanced against the benefits of free and active collaboration with external parties on the level of units and individuals within the organization; (3) to what degree supportive functions for an innovation system should be expected from a university, or from others, and what actual innovation activities the university should be involved in, or not; (4) weather the university should have a more operative engagement within the region, or rather emphasize its capacity as a bridge towards other regions and countries through its networks; (5) in what regards it is useful that the university has a more strategic or leading role in terms of broking knowledge, or driving innovation processes; and (6) what are the goals and terms of collaboration – exploitation of existing knowledge or mutual development of new knowledge?
We see, as the main outcomes of this study, that the outset for a university to engage in the regional innovation system is affirmative, when involvement is recognized as possible in both research and education, from within as well as from outside the university. The existing disjunctions regarding a university’s role in the innovation system, though, present a challenge for negotiation, which, if not taken seriously, risks a collapse of collaborations and a failure of the involvement.