The challenge of restructuring the economy is one faced by many regions, whether due to structural changes in the global economy, loss of competitiveness or climate change. The recession in the wake of COVID-19 has made this more acute, being the straw that may break many declining industries’ backs. To cope with this, regions need to attract new industries and transform existing ones into more competitive and sustainable activities. A complex task, which requires workers, companies, investors and policy-makers to develop new types of skills and competencies. This gives universities an important role to play in restructuring regions.
The University of Stavanger is in a region with a dominant offshore oil and gas industry, which due to both climate change and declining reserves is not sustainable in the long run. The region therefore faces a massive challenge of restructuring its economy towards a more diversified and sustainable industry mix. Besides the challenges imposed by lockdown for many industries, COVID-19 also led to a steep fall in oil prices and a rapid drop in investments in the industry, with many companies going bankrupt or laying off workers.
At the university, we sought to address the short-term consequences of the lockdown by creating new educational offerings for laid-off workers and by collaborating with regional companies on innovation projects to help them find a way out of the crisis.
In the longer term, we recognise that restructuring the regional economy also requires a concerted effort, which must involve the university. Green restructuring is therefore the main headline of the university’s strategy for the next ten years.
“The university needs to be an active partner for the region in the development of new industries and the transformation of existing ones.”
Many universities and regions look to Stanford and Silicon Valley for inspiration on how to do this. And the credentials of Stanford in the development of the IT and biotech industries are impressive indeed. But we are not sure this is the best approach for a university and a region such as ours. Most regions are not like Silicon Valley, and most industries are not like IT or biotech. Hence, new industry creation is only very rarely the result of new scientific breakthroughs. More often, it is the result either of internal processes of branching from related industries in the region, where knowledge from different industries is combined in new ways, or of the region attracting new activities from outside.
In these processes, we see the university as a connector across different stakeholders and as a magnet for new talent. The university can be a neutral arena, independent of industries and between the private and public sector. We can enable collaboration between diverse actors to stimulate new combinations. We are also embedded in global knowledge networks which can bring knowledge from the outside into the regional innovation ecosystem. All these roles require broad and meaningful engagement with society.
Alongside this support function, we also need to provide an arena for critical reflection on the consequences of restructuring. Economic restructuring can be a painful process, and its costs are not evenly distributed. The university must also do research on how to manage restructuring fairly and with regard for its social costs.
This adds up to a multi-faceted role, involving technical as well as social sciences and humanities research, education, innovation and outreach activities. Mobilising all branches of the university will therefore be crucial for the success of the university and the region in this process.
Rune Dahl Fitjar is the Pro-rector for Innovation and Society at the University of Stavanger. He has been a Professor in Innovation Studies at the UiS Business School since 2013. Fitjar received his PhD in Government from the London School of Economics in 2007. He was the project leader for the EU-funded network on The Role of Universities in Innovation and Regional Development (RUNIN) from 2016 to 2020.