17 Jun 2016

Research and innovation networks diversify

Increasingly research and development is created in innovation ecosystems, collaborating in a triple helix consisting of public and private sector organizations, and research and education institutes. The fourth dimension of societal actors is alas not always included, but in some regions this is promoted.

This type of triple helix collaboration in knowledge development can be seen on the local, national and international level where individual actors persuade diverse big parties to invest in joint development. Resources in the network can be identified, for example, facilities such as laboratories. On the level of a facility there can be joint ownership by some partners, or for a project or event there can be collaboration by a larger number of actors, or on the higher level of transnational networks collaboration can be created either in new legal entities or by working in a more loosely coupled network where the partners each devote time of their personnel, and other resources.

On the one hand, this is a positive way and flexibly open to initiatives, on the other hand, this may occur rather outside of other e.g. political structures and there may be a dominance of big investors. All these networks open opportunities for innovation, and at the same time form their own societal order, a world within this world.

In the area of security (there will be similar developments in other areas) networks are formed, for example, at the level of Safety & Security Clusters that bring together a large group of related but diverse local and regional actors such as rescue organisations. The clusters -in general- intend to stimulate the local economy and work as a motor for employment and quality improvement. They can be very large and comprise thousands of security-related organizations, combining efforts of large corporations, SMEs, governments, and -of course- also research and education institutions, focusing on for example rescue and (cyber)security.
The regional clusters collaborate with other clusters in the same country but also across borders to create an international Knowledge Innovation Community. There is no national actor as a go-between and the activities of any cluster depend on the activity of its local members. There are some funds that facilitate exchange of insights or travel, but largely the work in networks is divided by those that form the network. One region may focus on different sectors than another, but this may not be an official policy but rather an outcome of local activities. The sectors may have very different ways of organizing themselves, for example, the way in which health care innovation is facilitated by networks may be very different. Depending on the spearheads of a university it will need to monitor and interact in many different networks.

In such clusters the partners invest by time of personnel. If the university wants to be part of such clusters and follow developments, in turn it also needs to support such participation. Nowadays, universities need to participate in many different kinds of innovation ecosystems, networks that may have different legal structures. One might argue, that it is not so much the university but rather individual scholars that together co-create such triple helix collaboration networks and thus making the spearheads a result rather than a starting point.
Is the university aware of the importance of monitoring such sector-specific networks by their personnel and ensuring that such activities are facilitated and linked to the choice of its spearheads? It seems impossible to ‘manage’ such activities top to bottom, and thus there should be space for this also bottom up. Monitoring and being open for exchange are keywords, whereas institutionalizing such collaboration in a fixed format is hardly effective, as the networks by definition are dynamic.

28 Apr 2016

Think tank on conflict prevention

In the last three days I had the pleasure of following the Security Jam 2016, an open online conference 25-28 April (see http://www.friendsofeurope.org/  for more information). Reading the many interesting contributions of this 'think tank', it comes to mind that the recommended approach for radicalization and conflict prevention needs to be a balanced portfolio of various different elements.

Clearly hardcore criminal activity needs tough measures, especially now that we know that criminal networks intermingle with terrorism networks. We need to limit the destructive functioning of such networks. We also need to understand what brings people to the brink of such activities and what withholds people even at a late stage of actually using explosives.

A mixed approach is needed as other people’s needs need to be addressed also. Some groups feel frustrated and neglected, where lack of hope may for some turn into hatred. In this jam some experts reported experiences of turning anger and isolation into empathy and connectedness. What makes other groups that are also frustrated and possibly even more vulnerable, refrain from violence and look for other ways to improve their situation? In the Jam it was suggested to positively support this and amplify such values. In conflict areas one might want to empower local people to act, enabling defensive responses. But how to prevent changes in power structures to lead to new violence?

Violent individuals or groups operate in a context. They may be helped, ignored or counteracted by other people in the neighbourhood. Recently, some terrorists were known to have been hiding out for weeks in Belgium. What makes people report or not report the presence of such dangerous individuals in their neighbourhood to prevent further harm? In a different case, it happened that foreign authorities were tipped by locals about an immigrant who voiced critique on a head of state but had the nationality of the host country and was acting according to its laws.

Large groups of citizens may have a mild view on current risks and developments, but may still need background to grasp changes in society. Critical views in society need to be listened to also, while avoiding destructive polarization. Some people in this jam suggested value education. Democracy is not about getting most votes to do as one group pleases at the cost of others, but about finding balanced solutions taking multiple groups into account. In the meantime trust in politicians is waning, because common views are difficult to create in time and taking blame for unfavourable measures is avoided. Some developments may be hard to manage either way, while likely measures may work out to be counter-effective. Can more people live with grey-tones, and not fall for seemingly simple black-and-white rhetoric?

All of this calls for collaboration of different kinds of organizations. Some in this jam explained that the police, next to attention for crime, also needs to further develop soft approaches. Others stressed that available budget also needs to go to relatively cheap preventive work by other organizations. A portfolio of activities is required but we also need to further strengthen collaboration across very different kinds of actors that all can contribute to an inclusive and secure society.

20 Feb 2016

Acquiring funding becomes an increasingly difficult balancing act

Acquiring funding becomes increasingly complex as various policies and goals have to be taken into account. Foremost, the policies of the funder are decisive. This does not only include identifying calls but also understanding their policy background. In the case of the EU, the Horizon2020 programme consists of strings of related calls. Most of the calls link to previous and future ones. As one call may get a follow-up in later calls, the latter need to integrate earlier project results. Compared to previous funding programmes like FP7, writing a project proposal needs a better insight into earlier calls and related policy documents. The EC has distinct views on what is aimed at in the calls, and to ensure that this is understood attending the brokerage events organized is imperative.

     For most calls a consortium of partners is formed, and all of the partners have their own project history, strengths and policies for future development. Aligning these with the call and the EC policies is quite a puzzle. Finding partners calls for networking, for example, through the regular scientific conferences. Nowadays, networking requires broader networks as most of the EU and national innovation funding concerns multi-disciplinary research requiring collaboration of scholars from different fields.

     Most of the calls do not just ask for validation of result, but emphasize higher degrees of implementation such as industrial uptake. As a consequence of this, it is no longer enough to include end-users that can verify if a solution or product developed is suitable for practice, but the project should demonstrate that it adds employment through creating business and innovation. There is far less space for public merits, such as clever and cheap solutions for public use. Most of the security calls, for example, now include developing technology that can be marketed. If one would like to serve the public good as well as provide commercial value, this takes an even more complicated balancing act of combining goals.

     On top of this, there are various networks that also align their activities in order to increase their chances of getting funding. Big is assumed to be beautiful. Next to academic institutions also many private businesses currently have specialized personnel that monitors funding opportunities. Many kinds of organizations and networks have geared their activities towards the funding instruments. The funding is structurizing knowledge development, and the space to deviate from this is getting small. 

     A research group needs the weight of the organization as a whole to get proper support by Research and Innovation specialists, and this constitutes a chain up to the funder, including also the national contact points of EU research funding. In addition, a whole market of companies providing advice, training and project coordination has been created, all geared towards EU funding. This gradually has changed the nature of the game, and begins to show next to chances also negative features.

     International and national funders arrange preparation meetings and participative processes in which topics are developed and network collaboration initiated. Placing topics on the research agenda has become a long term process, involving intricate networking along the lines created by the funder, but also along regional lines. Many cities and regions have created innovation networks called triple helix because they combine public and private organizations next to academic institutes, and sometimes also civil society input. The latter intends to improve collaboration and higher quality of innovation by the different partners. However, it is obvious that all these networks also create a lot of overhead and bureaucracy.

     For research coordinators, such as professors, it becomes increasingly difficult to connect the large scale networking to the needs of their research group. They need to apply for a portfolio of calls to combine some high risk and gain options with safe and solid funding sources. They need to lobby through different discipline, region, national and international networks. And they need to ensure that their funding portfolio provides the policy and commercial interests of the funders, next to delivering the academic output for their performance as a scholar. Finally, they also need to arrange for the funding of doctoral students and postdocs that individually need a suitable combination of projects to get to the next stage in their career. For example, many EU projects have a duration of three years, whereas a doctoral student needs four years to finish a portfolio of publications. Matching all these different interests is exciting but also very challenging.

     Horizon2020 is very different than the previous funding programme FP7. The EC marketed the programme enormously and the number of proposals has risen accordingly. For individual applicants the chances of getting funding have dropped dramatically. Although this EU programme comprised a larger budget, at the same time many countries lowered their budget for national funding. Because there are so many proposals, also many new reviewers were recruited with less experience than the initial group, and often lack own experience as partner or coordinator. Universities note that winning budget needs better support, and much attention structurally. End users cannot just be users with good knowledge of the field anymore, but are increasingly replaced by an international group of users helpful for taking the product into use and creating employment impact.  For country comparisons in Horizon2020 see also: www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20151029192346710  and for Fins only:  www.tekes.eu/globalassets/tekeseu/nyt/tilastot/h2020-suomi-10022016.pdf

     Funding has created its own intensive circus. We need to reflect on the positive and negative consequences of the increase of scale initiated by changes in the structure of research funding.