by Tim Bodley-Scott and Ersel Oymak
20th July 2021

A version of this piece originally appeared on the UCL Disruptive Voices blog.

Worldwide, collaborative action through mutually beneficial university-industry-civil society-government partnerships has a pivotal role to play in addressing the profound challenges that the world is facing.

Growing these quadruple and quintuple helix alliances and interactions will be transformational since they will make a significant impact towards achieving the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) that most of the world’s governments have signed up to achieve by 2030.

Our experience developing and executing strategic alliances has shown us that next-generation universities will focus on building relationships that can help tackle global ‘grand challenges’. Such alliances will involve the integration of university, industry, government, civil society and environmental resources to create shared value. Individually, these sectors cannot address the hugely complex challenges we face on their own. Together, such alliances can deliver a positive impact and help build a better world.

These priorities for universities especially are driven by accelerating digital transformation, the decarbonisation agenda, political will and a demand for a more ethical capitalism. Such multisector alliances are marked by deep, long-term shared priorities that focus on global and local (‘glocal’) challenges and achieve complementary business and societal benefits. Local challenges can include tackling regional economic disparities through driving innovation and growth, and are a key focus of the much discussed ‘levelling up’ agenda in the UK. The trend for a co-innovation-led approach to regional economic development is also reflected in the new Wales Innovation Network (WIN) that is being set up by the nine partner universities comprising Universities Wales, following Professor Graeme Reid’s ‘Strength in Diversity’ report.

Forward-thinking universities have the foresight to realise that they must become more entrepreneurial to engage with multifaceted, transdisciplinary and cross-sector alliances that will enable ‘transformational collaborative advantage’ rather than solely competitive advantage. This is a win-win for all stakeholders as well as for people and the planet. Universities have untapped potential to work with global industry, governments and civil society to make a big impact towards achieving the UN SDGs by driving social, organisational and technological innovation.

In the future, academics will need to think more entrepreneurially in all their engagements to leverage new opportunities. This requires serious thought, action and critique beyond conventional left-wing vs. right-wing politics or neoliberalism. It is about making the world a better place for everyone.

Universities increasingly recognise that they must become more open and porous to collaboration with partners, both within their own regions and across borders, particularly between institutions in the wealthy Global North and those in the Global South. Building strong alliances requires like-minded people from across sectors who want to build a better world at different scales (local, regional, national and global) and achieve measurable societal benefit, including solutions to the UN SDGs and sustainable economic growth for all.

The urgency of the unprecedented global challenges facing humanity today requires a new breed of university. These institutions will work more closely together than ever before through research and innovation ecosystems that span the whole planet. They will need to collaborate with their peers as well as their counterparts in the Global South to innovate affordable and workable solutions to challenges such as tackling climate change, biodiversity loss and creating a zero-carbon circular economy. They will take full advantage of our era of digitisation to create new opportunities to collaborate and accelerate progress towards achieving the UN SDGs.

How can universities develop and deliver such world-changing relationships that achieve real societal benefit? In our experience, it is vital to provide mutual gain for all partners, addressing the ‘what’s in it for me?’ question, and convey sustainable business growth in different geographic and R&D contexts. Universities can do this by focusing on the UN SDGs which present a $12 trillion global opportunity for sustainable business growth according to the World Economic Forum and Accenture report ‘Unlocking Digital Value to Society’ (2017).

We have found that universities can engage effectively with corporates who share their vision and have the capacity to co-innovate and find tangible solutions to society’s biggest challenges. Our holistic and blended approach as ‘knowledge brokers’, the connective tissue in the research ecosystem in the emerging ‘third space’ of universities, combines both transdisciplinary programmatic activities (e.g. joint research, co-innovation, executive education) and, once a trusted relationship is established, strategic corporate philanthropy, to build a long-term, challenge-focused strategic alliance. Often these activities are managed by universities through internal silos and most universities currently adopt only a transactional approach to external engagement and philanthropy.

All of these ideas will be extensively discussed in our forthcoming book ‘University-Industry Partnerships for Positive Change: Transformational Strategic Alliances towards  the  SDGs’, to be published by Policy Press. We will cover how universities can achieve huge societal benefit by building and supporting symbiotic university-industry-civil society-government-environment collaborations.

Tim Bodley-Scott is an experienced Strategic Alliance professional, currently working as an Advisor to UCL Computer Science. He has over 16 years’ experience within higher education and local government leading strategic planning and operational delivery of innovative collaborations including setting up the £3.5m SHAKE Climate Change entrepreneurship accelerator, a partnership between Rothamsted Research, Cranfield University, the University of Hertfordshire and the Societe Generale UK Foundation.

Ersel Oymak was most recently Head of Strategic Alliances Directors & Corporate Relationships at UCL (2019–2021) and currently Non-Executive Director & Board Member at London Hounslow Chamber of Commerce (2017-Present), Ersel seeks to develop Transformational Strategic Alliances with key partners to drive a step change for customer-centric business innovation management across the global industry.


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