The Role of Universities in Building Dense Triple Helix Ecosystems in Sparse Regional Environments

Salomaa, Maria and Fonseca, Liliana and Nieth, Lisa and Benneworth, Paul (2021) The Role of Universities in Building Dense Triple Helix Ecosystems in Sparse Regional Environments. Preprint / Working Paper. RUNIN, Enschede, Netherlands. (

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University-industry-government relationships driving regional innovation are often discussed by using the shorthand of the 'triple helix', referring to any arena where these partners come together. This rapid expansion of the idea's use risks it becoming a 'policy concept' whilst potential tensions of collaboration can be ignored. Instead of 'happy family stories' of well-functioning regional partnerships, we seek to explore how triple helix mechanisms may stimulate regional innovation systems in places that have traditionally not had a long history of collaboration. Whilst universities are often dominant drivers of innovation in these 'sparse' regional innovation ecosystems, they may not be fit to respond to the identified regional needs. We address this by using empirics from five regions with relatively sparse triple helix environments and present evidence on the ways in which the universities have sought to play the role of tertius gaudens — honest broker — helping to address the stalemates that emerge between partners with very different goals, norms, values and intentions around regional innovation. We identified several processes through which universities can play this role and thereby contribute to densifying sparse innovation environments, increasing agglomeration and diversity whilst helping to address the tensions and problems that densification brings.