Grand Challenges of the 21st Century


Paul Benneworth, senior researcher at the University of Twente, explores how new forms of collaboration are essential if we are to find ways of tackling the huge societal challenges that the future will bring.

Clearly the greatest issues that engaged universities must address in the future relate to the Grand Challenges of the 21st Century. Society clearly has high expectations that universities will put their knowledge to good use in solving these serious and pressing problems, including climate change, resource scarcity, demographic aging and urban sustainability. What these very different problems all have in common is that their solution requires system-wide responses to change our social structures and infrastructures. A new kind of innovation is demanded, more co-ordinated, system-building and integrative than current market-based approaches encourage. So my metaphor for the future engaged university is playing in a team working together to solve a jigsaw puzzle.

The ‘puzzle’ here refers to these grand societal challenges, where the solution requires putting many kinds of different knowledge into place to drive large-scale social innovations. To take one example, solving urban sustainability problems does not just require addressing a set of technical challenges, developing appropriate transport infrastructures or urban energy generation. It requires social knowledge – what people want from their housing and transport, and behavioural knowledge of how they react to technical changes. It also requires sociological and geographical knowledge – understanding how technological developments in transport and accessibility leads some communities to be included and others to be excluded. And above all, it also requires the capacity to process and bring together these very different kinds of knowledge into comprehensive responses, and getting those different knowledges out into society and the economy in a range of different ways.

We really don’t know very much about that recombination process and how these new kinds of knowledge flow into society. We’ve got used to thinking about ‘Mode 2’ or the ‘Triple Helix’ as ideas that explain how universities interact with society, but these models are becoming increasingly outdated. And with it, the existing paraphernalia for university engagement of technology transfer offices and commercialisation strategies risks falling behind and orienting itself more to the challenges of the last century than this one. That paraphernalia emerged in the 1970s, with universities orienting themselves over time to deal with the ‘supply-side innovation crisis’. This crisis lay in poor productivity and competitiveness of individual firms, leading to falling standards of living, inflation, unemployment and a prevailing sense of crisis. Universities have since then responded to policy demands by making their technologies available to business, promoting commercial innovation and knowledge exchange to encourage industrial recovery.

But the models we have developed for those processes are based on innovation for competition: solving the grand challenges require innovation for collaboration to build resilient and adaptive modern societies. This systemic innovation is nothing like the oft-quoted ‘football match’ in Mode 2 models, where the aim of the knowledge is to score goals and beat against the other team. But the football mentality has apparently infected every aspect of higher education, from the rise of league tables and rankings, the emergence of elite ‘Premier Leagues’, the rise of the ‘World Class University’ and even the ‘academic transfer market’. And whilst the current competitive commercial university can behave like a football player, giving everything for the victory over rivals, well-engaged universities need to get beyond this simplistic, outdated mind-set.

What universities are gaining over their rivals in these competitive pursuits, society as a whole is losing from their reduced capacity to collaborate meaningfully around these shared societal agendas. Dealing with these challenges is much more like solving a jigsaw puzzle, pulling together all the pieces that exist, seeing the linkages, patterns and opportunities, and ultimately constructing something useful and pleasing for society. And this means people working together effectively – if everyone tries to shove in their pieces at once, without thinking of the others, then all you get a messy pile of pieces.

It is not just that universities have some of the pieces of knowledge necessary to solve these puzzling challenges, but they have also got the people to put them together, and work effectively with the other social partners. Recently, a ‘cult of the manager’ has emerged around universities, a sense that it is all about strategies, structures and sanctions. But it is people that will ultimately contribute to solving society’s problems: people in the universities, people who have been to universities, and people working with universities. The future engaged university will be a special place where people from all walks of society come together to solve these grand puzzles and ultimately make a difference.

Paul Benneworth, Enschede, the Netherlands

What is your metaphor for the future engaged university? Share your views by leaving a comment below.

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