Academic innovation for societal renewal

Author(s): Simone van de Wetering & Nora van der Linden, Kennisland

The academic world is in motion. Huge efforts are being made to connect academia with society and to increase the impact of scientific research on society. We encounter a shared urgency to do things differently. To make knowledge more diverse and to construct knowledge through a more inclusive process. What is needed is to connect initiatives that are driven by a shared sense of urgency and start a movement of #academic innovators. We were excited to see the Social Innovation Community working on these and other themes, calling for a conversation on #socialinnovation in science and research. With this article we aim to contribute to the conversation and to start the #movement.

There has been a lot of debate on valorisation of research results and on making academic publications publicly accessible. We still see that research results are often not (immediately) relevant for those connected to the researched issue, such as citizens in a difficult neighbourhood, unemployed college dropouts or patients in elderly care. In addition, it regularly takes too much time for research results to become publicly available, or the results are not speaking to non-academics. In other words, the knowledge developed by academics is not from or for the common public, neither in the research process nor as the results. The construction of knowledge is now mainly an academic practice, a process from which civil society is excluded. This leads to missing out on valuable practical and experience-based knowledge, and on opportunities to make society smarter by participating.

Therefore we argue for the democratisation of knowledge, making the construction of knowledge a more inclusive process with various roles for different actors. We see an important role for universities in new collaborations and new ways of co-creating knowledge that are needed for (academic) research results to better contribute to societal well-being and innovation. In this piece we make an inventory of the Dutch landscape on academic and research renewal: What promising developments do we see happening so far?

Four key developments

When we say the academic world is in motion, what change do we observe? Below, we identify four promising developments within and outside academia:

  1. Co-creating knowledge: academics, students, civil society: The Netherlands knows a comprehensive field of applied sciences that goes further than publishing research results in popular science magazines and using ‘respondents’ only to gather predefined answers to large surveys. There is increasing interest in involving citizens in defining the workfield of the social sciences (what issues should be the topic of research?) and working together on these co-defined issues. Academic knowledge is no longer seen as to be simply handed over to society, but as a co-production between universities and societal partners. Example: the Urban Field Labs of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences
  2. Expanding the scope of data/‘knowledge’: With the involvement of new actors in the co-creation process of knowledge, we see new debates emerging about the construction of data and what is being perceived as ‘valuable knowledge’. Often scientists translate ‘soft data’ like experiences, ideas and emotions into measurable indicators and classifications to enable generalisations and to make comparisons across different groups possible. But it is more and more argued that some relevant data cannot and should not be made ‘measurable’. Instead – or better: in addition – we need stories that can uncover the nuances and exceptions that make up complex social reality. Of course, there is an academic tradition that does just that: ethnographic research. However, there is still a lot of controversy whether this kind of research, in which the use of #stories and the experiences and subjectivity of the researcher are central, is ‘valid science’. Science historian and sociologist Trudy Dehue elaborately explains her fight against the trend of ‘standardising everything’ in this podcast (in Dutch).
  3. Open and accessible science: Although former State Secretary for Education, Culture and Science Sander Dekker stated in 2016 that ‘we will realise open access in 2020’, the majority of academic research stays largely inaccessible for non-academics. Most research articles remain locked in research journals’ databases that can only be accessed by the academic community. Perhaps even more important, the language in which research is communicated works exclusionary for non-academics: because they do not comprehend the knowledge that is developed by academics, they cannot use it in their daily life and work, and cannot participate in discussions about this knowledge and the ways in which it should serve society. But efforts are being made to make research more accessible by spreading academic writings beyond paywalls and by translating academic knowledge to common language. Example: The Young European Research Universities Network, in which Maastricht University is represented, that calls for new quality indicators and evaluation criteria to reflect and reward the contribution to a culture of #openscience.
  4. Impact: The work of universities has traditionally consisted of performing research and educating students. But more and more, universities embrace a third task of generating social #impact. It is increasingly argued that research results, in the form of new ideas or solutions to problems, should have impact when they are implemented in society and contribute to societal renewal and well-being. Academics are still mainly rewarded for their publications in academic (non-accessible) journals rather than for the contributions they make to society, but also here we identify a shift. Example: The Impact Programme of Tilburg University

Towards experimenting with new ways of collaborations

Scanning the Dutch landscape we encounter a shared urgency to do things differently. To make knowledge more diverse and to develop the construction of knowledge into a more inclusive process. But good intentions are not enough. What is needed is to connect these initiatives that are collectively driven by the same sense of urgency and start a movement of academic innovators. We want to create a learning community that explores new opportunities and shares knowledge, experiences and new approaches. We believe there is a permanent role for universities to grow their impact on society and solve social problems in multidisciplinary teams. To use all the knowledge, skills and capacities of academics, but not isolated from other valuable knowledge and experience that exists in society.

Do you have innovative work practices or ideas for new collaborations? Contact us at Kennisland!

This article was originally published as a longread on the Kennisland website.

Orginally published: 12 Mar 2018, on

The SIC project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 693883