Insights from our partners Fostering entrepreneurship inside universities through ‘interstitial spaces’
To successfully be engaged, it is important for universities to go beyond the traditional idea of research and education as their sole missions. Often, universities see these two missions as something separated by the so-called Third Mission, encompassing those activities through which universities generate impact (economic, financial, social, cultural) for the surrounding society at large. Universities are not isolated from society. With the goal of collaborating with external stakeholders, universities can increase their impact and improve their primary two missions (i.e., research and education).
For this reason, in the last decades, many universities have acknowledged the opportunities that being entrepreneurial provide them. Several researchers investigated various aspects of this topic: academic entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial universities (Klofsten and Jones-Evans, 2000; Etzkowitz et al., 2019), engaged universities (Breznitz and Feldman, 2012), internal and institutional factors (Teece, 2018; Guerrero and Urbano, 2012), and entrepreneurial teaching and learning (Fayolle and Gailly, 2015).
One of the problem that would-be entrepreneurial universities have to face is related to promoting internal interactions among diverse stakeholders, and bringing them together to collaborate and generate innovation. Most of the time, academics, administrative staff and students interact constrained by role expectations. They do have few occasions to meet each other, lacking opportunities for new ideas generation and knowledge spillover.
It is known that innovation comes from diversity more than similarity. Logic heterogeneity creates a fruitful basis for developing innovations and accessing complementary knowledge across different boundaries (Nooteboom et al., 2007; Villani et al., 2017). Each actor brings peculiar skills, perspectives, resources and competencies that, complementarily with those brought by other actors, are able to create an adequate base for new knowledge creation. Inside universities, knowledge is created in a diffused manner (Moser et al., 2017) following loose patterns of organising (Gulati et al., 2012; Osterloh and Frey, 2000), with minimal coordination mechanisms (Lifshitz-Assaf et al., 2021) and self-organisation principles (Majchrzak et al., 2021). Internal and external stakeholders get together to work on time and space-bounded projects: contests, hackathons, open innovation programs, etc. To do so, universities equip themselves with structure and activities that, chaotically, create and share knowledge. However, these initiatives are emerging in dispersed (i.e., within the same organisation but in different departments) and often accidental (i.e., not coordinated but product of individual academics’ efforts) ways (Knudsen et al., 2021).
A solution to this lack of structure is the creation inside the university of interstitial spaces (Furnari, 2014), intended as spaces where academics, students, administrative staff, and external actors can interact on topics of common interest. By creating interstitial spaces such as fab labs and co-working areas, universities can strengthen their Third Mission, fostering knowledge sharing and entrepreneurial mindset and behaviour.
An example of an interstitial space inside a university is Almalabor.
Almalabor is a co-working and make-space area created by the University of Bologna. Since 2016, the governance has adopted a strategy that strengthens the university’s entrepreneurial identity and position in its innovation ecosystem. The goal of Almalabor is to foster innovation, collective knowledge creation, and an entrepreneurial identity among the different actors. To be as more interdisciplinary as possible, Almalabor is completely centralised under the university Knowledge Transfer Office (KTO). In this way, it avoids all possible department dynamics that can lead to compartmentalisation and simultaneously integrate the valuable impact that the administrative personnel can have in the process.
To know more about almalabor: https://site.unibo.it/idea/en/our-idea/activities-and-initiatives/almalabor.
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Teece, D.J., 2018. Managing the university: why “organized anarchy” is unacceptable in the age of massive open online courses. Strategic Organisation, 16 (1), 92–102.
Villani, E., Greco, L., and Phillips, N. (2017). Understanding value creation in public‐private partnerships: A comparative case study. Journal of Management Studies, 54(6), 876-905.
Blog editors: Fleur Schellekens and Alexandra Zinovyeva
Header image by UNIBO (image taken from video)