Last week, I was in Montréal speaking at an international conference on the subject of regional innovation. The event coincided with half a million people – many of them aged under 16, including the activist, Greta Thunberg – taking to the streets of the city to call for action to address the climate emergency.
Whilst in Canada, I heard of some ground-breaking studies and policies on local and regional research and innovation processes. Coupled with how science and expertise is shaping public opinion on a theme as substantive as climate change, my visit to Québec re-emphasised to me the importance we should attach to universities building and sustaining effective relationships with local communities and the wider public, as well as business and governments.
Engagement with higher education institutions takes different forms – and there are no right or wrong approaches – but a balance should be struck between specific methods and their associated geographical scales of action, two of which I will highlight here. First, the weight of scientific expertise about climate change has generated the robust evidence base that is demonstrating to people all over the world that we face a potential existential crisis, but that particular interventions could provide a meaningful response. We are now witnessing increasing numbers, drawn from all generations, taking steps to change their own behaviour and pushing governments to enact real change.
Second, whilst in Montréal I learned of an increasing number of cases where universities are working with local people to manage and address challenges faced by neighbourhoods from across the socio-economic spectrum. Although academics have been perceived initially as the sole source of specialist, technical capacity, in these examples members of the public had also shown real expertise in identifying particular solutions. Taking a lead with the support of universities and other institutions, including local government, communities had made the case for investment in projects and programmes that are providing cities and towns with new green and public spaces, training and job opportunities and innovations that are improving citizen health and well-being.
In a previous blog I argued that research and innovation can be both globally-significant and locally-relevant. Adopting a place-sensitive approach, underpinned by intellectual excellence, recognises the value of connecting research and innovation to ‘real-world’ economic, social and environmental issues, and encourages the co-production and diffusion of knowledge between universities and local places. Such a blended approach contributes towards reaffirming the public value of universities as actors that exist to increase knowledge and understanding of, and help society anticipate and adapt to, the complex changes being felt in many communities and the economy at large. It also articulates the broader civic role of higher education to the towns, cities and regions in which universities are located. This can only be a positive outcome.