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The Changing Roles of Higher Education in Innovation Ecosystems

Yuzhuo Cai, Jinyuan Ma, Qiongqiong Chen, and Kejin Zhu


While higher education has been considered as both an ‘engine’ for innovation and a ‘catalyst’ for sustainability development, the integration of both the ‘innovation engine’ and ‘sustainability catalyst’ roles are discussed in a recently published special issues on the theme of Higher Education in Innovation Ecosystems for the journal of Sustainability.

Based on 16 articles contributing to the special issue from various perspectives, the special issue editors have developed an overarching framework about the relations between higher education and innovation ecosystem. In the framework, we re-define the concept of innovation ecosystem and identify emerging roles of university in developing sustainable innovation ecosystems.

Re-conceptualization of innovation ecosystems

In the editorial of the special issue, innovation ecosystem has been defined as:

innovation ecosystems are co-innovation networks, in which actors from organisations concerned with the functions of knowledge production, wealth creation and norm control interact with each other in forming co-evolution and interdependent relations (both direct or indirect) in cross-geographical contexts, and, through which new ideas and approaches from various internal and external sources are integrated into a platform to generate shared values for the sustainable transformation of the society.

Compared to most commonly cited definitions of innovation ecosystem, our definition highlights three new aspects of interactions in co-innovation networks, namely ‘cross-sectoral’, ‘transnational’ and ‘indirect’, drawing insights from the literature of innovation, geography, and biology studies.




The roles of universities in innovation ecosystems

The emerging roles of universities in innovation ecosystems are as follows: 1) The role of university is changing from being a central player in technology transfer to being an anchor in knowledge exchange; 2) The university is taking a new role for trust-building between actors in innovation ecosystems; 3) The university is not merely an entrepreneurial university but also an institutional entrepreneur in the innovation ecosystem. The three emerging roles all indicate that universities are becoming the catalyst for sustainable development in innovation ecosystems. Knowledge exchange is crucial for suitability; trust is the foundation of the sustainable networks; social entrepreneurship is indispensable to sustainable social change.

Evidences in wider contexts

44 authors from 10 countries have contributed to the discussions on the changing roles of higher education in innovation ecosystems from varying perspectives. Meanwhile, they also report transformations within higher education and universities’ responses to both external and internal transformations. When addressing these issues, the studies make both theoretical and methodological contributions in the research on higher education in innovation ecosystems. The 16 articles can be generally put in four categories: 1) New demands for universities arising from the transformation in the society towards innovation ecosystems, 2) Transformations within higher education responding to emerging societal demands, 3) Dynamics of the interaction of university with other innovation actors in a transnational context, and 4) Academic and student mobility for higher education innovation.

Calling for a new research agenda

While the societal changes demand broader roles of universities, it also calls for, and leads to, substantial changes within the internal fabric of the university. The innovations in both the society and universities call for our renewed understanding of higher education in society, which becomes a new research agenda in studies on innovation in higher education. We hope our special issue will inspire and encourage more scholars to join the research area.

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