Universities and responsible innovation

by Kim

The Government’s recent Industrial Strategy Green Paper marks a change from the previous administration’s trend towards a less interventionist approach to innovation and industrial policy.


However, according to an event the Hub attended recently, the strategy in its Green Paper form leaves a large area of freedom for scope.

Aligning with a responsible innovation strategy

Last Thursday, 16 March, Nesta hosted an event in partnership with UCL, “Responsible innovation and the role of universities”. The conference gathered together a panel of representatives from several universities and innovation experts from across the country, including:

  • Melanie Smallman, Deputy Director, Responsible Research and Innovation Hub, UCL
  • Richard Jones, Former Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research & Innovation, University of Sheffield
  • Sarah Chaytor, Director of Research Strategy and Policy, UCL, and
  • Sophie Howe, Future Generations Commissioner for Wales

They came together to discuss how universities could make themselves more aligned with the innovation landscape. The event also tackled the need to ensure that universities engage in innovation responsibly, to ensure a more favourable long-term outlook.

The panel agreed that it is laudable that the importance of institutions within a local sphere was emphasised in one pillar. However, a lot of work is needed to ensure that this element of the Industrial Strategy was integrated across the other nine pillars. Nonetheless, this integration is already occurring across the country, with local actors ensuring that universities and other institutions have a real impact on local growth.

Universities in their place

Universities tend to be a major employer within any region, which places them at the heart of their local area. Therefore, universities have a responsibility to their local communities, according to the panel, especially with regard to civic engagement and establishing a larger identity for their region, locality, or LEP.

Institutions also have the unique ability to be able to apply wider policy with established knowledge of any given local area’s nuances, this is especially important with regards to the Industrial Strategy. The ability to help integrate the 10th pillar – local institutions – into every part of the government’s industrial plan, is somewhere universities can really embed themselves as a central actor.

The facilities to grow

This can manifest in many ways. Universities have the facilities and resources to provide an excellent base for co-production and start-up offices for local SMEs. This allows for community involvement within the university, as the work and research conducted in this manner has real-world applicability.

It is here where universities can also offer alternative routes into higher education, such as apprenticeships – again, applying real-world principles and skills to higher educational learning.

However, they must also consider the importance of allowing cross-departmental work internally. In fact, applying the same attitudes as a start-up to how a university operates can really drive innovation forward. For example, allowing information exchanges can lead to new avenues being explored, and expertise being applied in different ways that can be applied to real-world situations.

Universities can also provide access to wider expertise across the HE institution network that is not currently being used in the most effective manner. Educational systems need to include real world needs, and to apply them in a comprehensive and effective manner to their local area in order to kick-start the growth needed to drive the country forward.

Next steps with the Hub

The Smart Specialisation Hub recognises the importance of place-based growth; it is core to what we do. The role that our excellent universities play in local development could be pivotal to its success. The Hub has excellent and growing relationships with universities across the country and is working increasingly closely with LEPs.

Through our involvement with SIAs, we are helping to shape how innovation and growth interweave with local plans and the emerging Industrial Strategy. We will continue to work with our higher education and research institutions to strengthen their involvement with their local economies.

If you would like to discuss the Hub’s involvement within the local innovation sphere, or you would like to discuss the Hub getting involved in your region’s local innovation projects, please get in touch with our team.

About the author

Kim is the Digital Communications Officer for the Smart Specialisation Hub.

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