Insights from our partners University-territory engagement

Green mountains.

Engagement is crucial for universities, especially when it comes to interactions with the local territory. A university does not lie in an empty space. There is a mutual relationship between the territory and the university. One shapes the other and vice versa, modelling ecosystem’s relationships.

Yet, Lambert’s Report (HM Treasury, 2003: 14) was right by saying that “companies and universities are not natural partners“. Universities and other societal actors have different goals, structures, bureaucracies, and cultures. This misalignment is, in principle, a great opportunity, but most of the time results in tensions and conflicts. Universities, businesses, municipalities, and other social entities are complex institutions. Their interaction is affected by the necessity of both “hard” and “soft” infrastructures (i.e., networking, knowledge transfer, human capital) (Colapinto and Porlezza, 2012). Often, these actors do not possess the motivation or the skills to collaborate effectively. They even do not know how or why they should engage with others.

Universities are the core of knowledge production in contemporary society. In order to keep their position and be fully legitimated in their role, it is crucial they cooperate actively with the local ecosystem. By understanding others’ needs, universities can understand their own needs, how they can allocate resources effectively, and which strategic directions are worth being undertaken. An engaged university is a university that has developed an organisational structure able to coordinate different stakeholders and oriented toward collective knowledge creation. In any case, this is not enough to get a successful relationship: also, external business and societal actors need be open to collaboration and knowledge exchange (Johnston et al., 2010). Indeed, most of the conflicts among the different stakeholders are caused by misalignment in specific individual and organizational factors: training, culture, and incentives (Bercovitz and Feldman, 2008; Link and Siegel, 2005) and individuals’ ability to engage (O’Shea et al., 2008).

The ability to strategically manage the ecosystem and the presence of appropriate governance structures at the local and institutional levels are as important as creating a shared culture of collaboration and cooperation (Carayannis and Rakhmatullin, 2014; Hidalgo and Albors, 2008; Plewa et al., 2013). Intermediaries such as Knowledge Transfer Offices, Partnership Offices, and Networks of Communication can improve connections and integration (Etzkowitz, 2003; Roxas et al., 2011; Gredel et al., 2012).

PhD students can be intermediaries as well. Companies would be more competitive and innovative due to the new competencies and resources their highly specialised employees would acquire. Furthermore, collaboration in PhD programs would strengthen long-term partnerships between the university and the company, providing them with the opportunity to know each other better, cross-contamination and new talent valorisation.

A short presentation of characteristics and benefits of PhD programs is available at this link:

A key actor in the territory is the municipality. A continuous dialogue between the university and its city helps them to coordinate their efforts, improving the lives of students, researchers and citizens. Moreover, it would improve the management of public spaces and enhance a shared congruous identity inside the ecosystem. Municipalities can act as the bridge between SMEs and universities.



Bercovitz, J. and Feldman, M. (2008) Academic entrepreneurs: organizational change at the individual level. Organization Science, 19, 69–89.

Carayannis, E.G. and Rakhmatullin, R. (2014) The quadruple/quintuple innovation helixes and smart specialisation strategies for sustainable and inclusive growth in Europe and Beyond. Journal of the Knowledge Economy, 5, 212–239.

Colapinto, C. and Porlezza, C. (2012) Innovation in creative industries: from the quadruple helix model to the systems theory. Journal of the Knowledge Economy, 3, 343–333.

Etzkowitz, H. (2003) Research groups as ’quasi-firms’: the invention of the entrepreneurial university. Research Policy, 32, 109–121.

Gredel, D., Kramer, M., and Bend, B. (2012) Patent-based investment funds as innovation intermediaries for SMEs: in-depth analysis of reciprocal interactions, motives and fallacies. Technovation, 32, 536–549.

Hidalgo, A. and Albors, J. (2008) Innovation management techniques and tools: a review from theory and practice. R&D Management, 38, 113–127.

HM Treasury (2003) Lambert review of business-industry collaboration. Available online: (accessed 29/07/2022).

Johnston, L., Robinson, S., and Lockett, N. (2010) Recognising ‘open innovation’ in HEI-industry interaction for knowledge transfer and exchange. International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behaviour and Research, 16, 540–560.

Link, A.N. and Siegel, D.S. (2005) Generating science-based growth: an econometric analysis of the impact of organizational incentives on university–industry technology transfer. The European Journal of Finance, 11, 169–181.

Miller, K., McAdam, R. and McAdam, M. (2018) A systematic literature review of university technology transfer from a quadruple helix perspective: toward a research agenda. R&D Management, 48, 7-24.

O’Shea, R.P., Chugh, H., and Allen, T.J. (2008) Determinants and consequences of university spinoff activity: a conceptual framework. International Journal of Technology Transfer, 33, 653–666.

Plewa, C., Rampersad, G., Johnson, C.R., Baaken, T., MacPherson, G., and Korff, N. (2013) The evolution of university-industry linkages–a framework. Journal of Engineering and Technology Management, 30, 21–44.

Roxas, S.A., Piroli, G., and Sorrentino, M. (2011) Efficiency and evaluation analysis of a network of technology transfer brokers. Technology Analysis and strategic Management, 23, 7–24.


Blog editors: Fleur Schellekens and Alexandra Zinovyeva

Header photo by Willian Justen de Vasconcellos on Unsplash