The pathway to a sustainable future society requires new ways of learning and a new approach to acquiring knowledge and applying it in practice.
Changes resulting from the digital revolution
Access to, and distribution of knowledge, change dramatically fast in our digital society whereas its importance remains unchanged. These days, universities no longer own the traditional monopoly with regards to generating knowledge. The private sector and civil society institutions have caught up and provide different education pathways enabling practical knowledge generation and its transfer into society.
Expert knowledge sharing to resolve specific and individual needs and challenges becomes more and more important with regards to accessing information, not only taking place in local communities but more and more through virtual communities across the globe. With regards to universities, that means re-defining their role and truly opening up their education system and integrating a diversity of stakeholders into their daily activities, thereby following their “Third Mission“. Further, the future role of universities will be to handle large volumes of information and to integrate the ever growing diversity of mass communication into sensible contexts of teaching so that applicable knowledge and competences are nurtured and created in both, local and virtual communities. Although information is continuously generated and saved (Big Data), its relational contexts often remain in closed forums or are being discussed on exclusive panels only. Consequently, knowledge silos remain. And yet today‘s societies face complex challenges and changes that can only be tackled and resolved peacefully by bundling expert knowledge and finding responsible solutions.
The changing role of the university
To date, universities see their main job as central education provider. However, in future they will need to take on more and more responsibility in educating entrepreneurial minds that understand the entire spectrum of societal challenges, students that are willing and capable to live up to these challenges on a daily basis. To do so, universities will need to embrace innovative ways of teaching. Knowledge provision surely remains important (through journals, services and work-ready graduates etc.). However, universities additionally need to contribute greater value to society by driving a new approach of knowledge generation through decentralized, yet communal, “living labs“. This shift of purpose of a university will be essential to resolve urgent problems, “grand challenges“ talking in terms of the European Union. Excellent research by itself obviously does not help overcome societal challenges. Despite its great success, research for ecologic efficiency did not lead to a decrease in petrol consumption nor emission rates. For society to enhance, great research results need to be integrated “real-time” into the “real-world” – making sure user perspectives and dependencies to other areas of life stay in focus.
Mechanisms of change
For this approach to succeed, universities will need to re-structure. Institutional change would need to start with a mindset change – away from “administrative thinking” towards an “entrepreneurial mindset” which is typical for the start-up scene: Recognizing opportunities, demonstrating the ability to act quickly and precisely, following brief iteration cycles when developing promising fields of action.
A second step must be to gain access to a flexible and supportive infrastructure. Centers that do not depend on any faculty, instead relying on relevant stakeholders from the commercial and public sectors, political and civil society institutions (“Quadruple-Helix” partners), enable the implementation of co-creation processes. In-house infrastructure would arm itself with a flexible architecture and open access points so that stakeholders connect and communicate easily during workshops, open space events and all entrepreneurial activities. In practice, several activities take place that encourage the exchange of all “Quadruple-Helix” partners about the progress and do-ability of existing transfer processes, sharing best-practices as well as general Q&As. Relevant stakeholders are brought together in “living labs” to jointly think through and tackle challenges that are rising in particular fields of society and/ or having an impact on specific regional areas. In particular, transfer projects, interdisciplinary forums or qualification activities and events could take place.
The change of universities from knowledge monopolists to places where know-how is gathered and created by a multitude of knowledge owners, shared openly and transferred into practice will pave the way into a sustainable future.
Universities will make a concrete local impact in their respective regions and ensure new acquired knowledge and best-practice is distributed globally, too, so that other parts of the world will benefit as well. Whether that means students will need to remain on campus to study or may have the opportunity to build up competencies in international university networks or virtual spaces, time will tell.
Prof. Dr. Klaus Sailer is professor for Entrepreneurship at the Munich University of Applied Sciences and CEO of the Strascheg Center for Entrepreneurship (SCE). He is a co-founder and on the board of the “Social Entrepreneurship Akademie” and is also on the board of Munich Network. Klaus Sailer is spokesman for the think tank “Denkfabrik Gründerhochschulen” as well as part of the think tank HEInnovate. Klaus Sailer holds a Ph.D. in physics from Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, and did his Ph.D. at the Research Center for Environment and Health. At Infineon AG, he was responsible for project management and marketing of new semiconductor technologies. In 2000, he co-founded a communication technologies company with partners in the area as its chairman. He successfully established this company as a major market player, and was able to realize his innovative ideas further with various start-up teams.
Mirko Franck works as an entrepreneurship educator focusing on new qualification programs, and as a lecturer at Munich University of Applied Sciences. After finishing his diploma in Business Administration, Mirko received his MA in Entrepreneurship from Hamburg University. Prior to his job at SCE he co-founded a multimedia advertising agency, thus acquiring an in-depth knowledge of entrepreneurship.