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Higher Education supporting urban social innovation: A collective sense-making approach

Déspina Kortesidou
Bottom up view of a modern building with glass windows and plants on the facade

In an increasingly uncertain world, urban ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to the ripple effects of the current social, environmental and economic crises. UIIN got to grips with this very topic as part of the Erasmus+ Urban GoodCamp project, where we worked on supporting Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to tackle pressing urban challenges across six different European cities by engaging their local stakeholders in urban communities.

As part of this collective research project, we would like to invite professionals involved in sustainable transition and public-purpose innovation projects to participate in meaningful discussions about the future of our urban spaces through a series of online events, including a webinar, fireside chat, masterclass and workshop, among others on 28-29th November 2023.

Our collective sense-making around the future of urban learning

As part of this series, we are hosting the workshop “Collective sense-making of the higher education’s support to urban social innovation” on November 29th. During this workshop, participants will be invited to brainstorm and help shape our vision of how HEIs can support four key directions for urban social innovation. These four directions emerged from the project’s research activities and include: 

  1. Transdisciplinarity in research and practice that pushes the borders of what makes urban centres more sustainable.
  2. Multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder testing beds for urban innovation in the form of urban living labs.
  3. Advocacy actions that amplify just messages and approaches to pressing urban problems, including communication campaigns.
  4. Civic participation initiatives that give the very citizens of an urban ecosystem a seat on the decision-making table.

Here, we look at some steps HEIs can adopt to empower, support and enable each of the four directions. These insights and more will be further developed during the sense-making workshop.

1. HEIs suporting transdisciplinary research and practices

HEIs are challenged with cutting across urban challenges to evolve as knowledge institutions. This changing landscape of higher education demands a reimagination of educational programs, such as incorporating students’ contributions in transdisciplinary and impactful projects. Empowering students to self-initiate and implement projects fosters a mindset of agency and ownership. HEIs can also support transdisciplinary practices by encouraging their academics and researchers to clearly illustrate applicability to students.

Educators should demonstrate to students that every theory, tool, and model they learn in class contributes to a regenerative approach to urban problems in the real world.

2. HEIs enabling urban living labs and other experimentation platforms

In the pursuit of multi-stakeholder and multi-disciplinary experimentation for urban innovation, HEIs have stimulated the development of living labs on their campuses. One such example is Utrecht University and its UULabs. According to Marko Hekkert, Professor in Dynamics of Innovation Systems, they use their UULabs to “make the science of sustainable development visible and […] bring academics and business operations closer together, to contribute to a sustainable campus[i]. For others, like the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, the living labs approach is a way to bridge methods and experiences together. With living labs, they can identify how to engage diverse stakeholders, establish shared visions, design and perform experiments, and, most importantly, facilitate collective learning in the urban context.

3. HEIs committing to advocacy actions for the amplification of just causes and approaches

As part of the research phase of Urban GoodCamp, UIIN interviewed researchers and practitioners applying urban innovation projects. The suggestion emerged from these interviews that HEIs could be more active in disseminating social innovation projects to maximise impact beyond the academic sphere. HEIs’ communication offices can bring greater attention to impactful projects developed by their researchers, students, and staff. HEIs can also provide exhibition space on their campuses to help promote projects, e.g., through performances, installations and pavilions. Moreover, academic staff and researchers can collaboratively organise different knowledge exchange programmes across HEIs’ departments like seminars and reading groups for open discussions with non-academic audiences.

4. HEIs supporting citizen engagement and participation

The role of HEIs in supporting citizen engagement initiatives varies. Professors and researchers who share similar objectives with urban planners and governmental civic servants can often facilitate and support civic participation projects more readily and easily than organising support on an institution-wide level.

Academic knowledge can be the starting point for re-approaching the ways civic servants engage with civilians.

Through such collective relearning sessions, the nuances of civilians’ relations with their community are acknowledged and considered for future projects. On an institutional level, when HEIs are seeking the input of local residents for decisions of local significance, e.g., expanding the universities’ buildings into a public space, in-house university experts should also be invited and consulted, as such decisions require expertise beyond that solely of university management.

These insights emerged through our research on the roles of HEIs in amplifying, supporting and enabling four directions for urban social innovation. Join us in expanding these insights and help collectively shape an equitable and just future of urban developments during our collective sense-making workshop on November 29th.


[i] Hekkert, M. (n.d.) UULabs Utrecht University. https://www.uu.nl/en/organisation/uulabs

Ready for more?

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Déspina Kortesidou (author) is a Senior Consultant at UIIN and holds an MSc in Behavioral Neuroscience and a BSc in Molecular Biology. In her work, she supports institutions on topics relating to social innovation, institutional transformation and strategic partnerships.

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