Higher education and society: co-creation opportunities for sustainability and mutual transformation?

Knowledge transfer and innovation should be at the forefront when planning the future of higher education institutions (HEIs), with a growing emphasis on close articulation with different stakeholders, namely with other universities and polytechnics, institutions linked to the health sector and the business fabric through joint project development.

Ana Marta Aleixo

Companies around the world are increasingly expressing their concern about the development of more sustainable practices, either because they believe that this can bring about a greener, fairer society in line with the common goals for this and future generations, or because they realize it allows them to promote the company and achieve greater visibility. Today we frequently hear of these concerns about sustainable development (SD), particularly from large companies, through their campaigns promoting social causes, their presentation and development of more sustainable products, and their increasing involvement in partnerships, notably with polytechnics and universities.

According to Yarime et al. (2012, p. 11), the experience and expertise of the private sector is a crucial ingredient when implementing multi-stakeholder collaborations with the public sector aimed at triggering institutional reforms that foster innovation for sustainability.

Knowledge transfer and innovation should be at the forefront when planning the future of higher education institutions (HEIs), with a growing emphasis on close articulation with different stakeholders, namely with other universities and polytechnics, institutions linked to the health sector and the business fabric through joint project development.  For O’Reilly et al. (2019), HEIs play an increasing role in supporting innovation and facilitating regional economic development through the addition of knowledge transfer activities, also called the third mission.

The business and industrial sector’s search for potential partnerships with polytechnics and universities is well known, and is underpinned by national and international funding (e.g., ANI and Horizon Europe). As cited by Aleixo et al. (2018), these financial instruments could serve to support the implementation of sustainability practices and address the known constraints on conducting research and improving infrastructures. Multi-stakeholder initiatives have emerged as collaborative partnerships in response to serious challenges in which academics act as exporters of knowledge, agenda setters and facilitators who can chose different paths to align their societal mission of systemic co-creation with the broader organizational goals of their HEIs Dentoni and Bitzer (2015). According to Clark et al. (2016) Clark, a transition towards sustainability entails not just knowledge but usable knowledge and this is urgent if we are to meet the challenges of SD. This relationship can help HEIs achieve tangible benefits (e.g., an increase in the revenue accruing from their own budget) and intangible benefits (e.g., attracting new partners for joint projects and enhancing their reputation with the company and society through this partnerships). Trencher et al. (2017) presents the following typology to understand the co-creation of sustainability between HEIs and society stakeholders, namely: (i) social innovation (people-centered approach), (ii) implementing social transformation (high-intensity co-creation), (iii) technical innovation (technology-centered approach), and (iv) knowledge production (low-intensity co-creation).

For Cheng (2020), knowledge transfer is one of the core missions of HEIs and several authors (e.g., O’Reilly et al., 2019) argue that, as public-funded organizations, HEIs should transfer knowledge to different stakeholders from business, industry and education as well as to communities. The transfer of knowledge from HEIs not only boosts the international competitiveness of sectors but brings socioeconomic value for communities (Cheng, 2020). According to O’Reilly et al. (2019, p. 246), knowledge transfer involves engaging with the wider entrepreneurial ecosystem in activities such as licensing agreements for university- generated intellectual property rights, the setting up of spin out companies, consultancy arrangements and the provision of incubation facilities to accommodate nascent spin-out entrepreneurs and enterprises.

In line with the findings of Purcell et al. (2019), partnerships within HEIs and with HEIs can help speed up the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), enabling HEIs to make a fuller contribution to the SDGs.


Aleixo, A. M., Leal, S., & Azeiteiro, U. (2018). Conceptualizations of sustainability in Portuguese higher education: roles, barriers and challenges toward sustainability. Journal of Cleaner Production, 172, 1664-1673. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.11.010

Cheng, E. (2020). Knowledge transfer strategies and practices for higher education institutions. VINE Journal of Information and Knowledge Management Systems, ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/VJIKMS-11-2019-0184

Clark, W. C., van Kerkhoff, L., Lebel, L., & Gallopin, G. C. (2016). Crafting usable knowledge for sustainable development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(17), 4570-4578. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26469391

Dentoni, D., & Bitzer, V. (2015). The role(s) of universities in dealing with global wicked problems through multi-stakeholder initiatives. Journal of Cleaner Production, 106, 68-78. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2014.09.050

O’Reilly, N. M., Robbins, P., & Scanlan, J. (2019). Dynamic capabilities and the entrepreneurial university: a perspective on the knowledge transfer capabilities of universities. Journal of Small Business & Entrepreneurship, 31(3), 243-263. https://doi.org/10.1080/08276331.2018.1490510

Purcell, W. M., Spengler, J. D., & Henriksen, H. (2019). Universities as the engine of transformational sustainability toward delivering the sustainable development goals. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 20(8), 1343-1357. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSHE-02-2019-0103

Trencher, G., Nagao, M., Chen, C., Ichiki, K., Sadayoshi, T., Kinai, M., . . . Yarime, M. (2017). Implementing Sustainability Co-Creation between Universities and Society: A Typology-Based Understanding. Sustainability, 9(4). https://doi.org/10.3390/su9040594

Yarime, M., Trencher, G., Mino, T., Scholz, R. W., Olsson, L., Ness, B., . . . Rotmans, J. (2012). Establishing sustainability science in higher education institutions: towards an integration of academic development, institutionalization, and stakeholder collaborations. Sustainability Science, 7(1), 101-113. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-012-0157-5



* Cover Image Creative Commons License Type

**Please find the portuguese version on the next page

**Por favor, aceda à próxima página para a versão portuguesa da publicação 

Você pode gostar...

Deixe uma resposta

O seu endereço de email não será publicado.

Este site utiliza o Akismet para reduzir spam. Fica a saber como são processados os dados dos comentários.

Pesquisar OpenEdition Search

Você sera redirecionado para OpenEdition Search