Frugal innovation means a bigger role for engagement

Economic development is all about competitive businesses that create jobs for people and efficient public institutions that can support this. Universities can contribute to both and the changing nature of the process of innovation means their role is becoming increasingly important.

So says John Goddard, emeritus professor of regional development studies at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom.

The traditional, linear approach to innovation in the private sector comes from investing upstream in research and commercialising the results through spin-offs or by signing contracts with big companies. But all this is changing, he says.

In many countries, the key issue is how to improve the capacity to innovate of small, indigenous enterprises whose process of innovation is not usually either traditional or linear.

Many small indigenous companies have knowledge themselves.

“We are moving to a world of the co-production of knowledge – a whole new world of collaborative working between universities and small indigenous companies,” says Goddard. For universities it is not “we have the knowledge and you can use it" – it is all about a model of co-production.

This new method is known as open or frugal innovation. “New universities are good at this,” says Goddard. “They can produce new and more appropriate inventions which can suit the needs of societies and local communities.”

He points to an initiative of the Cape Higher Education Consortium in South Africa, which is bringing older-style research universities and newer, more community-orientated universities together.

“The newer universities and the old elite ones are both very good at what they do but it is the combination of the two different types that can really generate economic development through civic engagement,” he says.

“The challenge for the Talloires Network is to find a way of bringing together the older elite universities with community needs in the co-production of knowledge to the benefit of communities.”