Transdisciplinary Entrepreneurial Ecosystems Can Support SDGs


Abdul Razak Esakjee (right) and Professor Saurabh Sinha


The role of universities has continuously evolved in response to stimuli such as technological advancements, industrial needs and economic conditions. As a result, the function of a university may now be crystallised as creating new knowledge through research, distributing established knowledge through teaching and learning, and, more recently, including society in university activities.

Academics and practitioners refer to these three functions as the three missions of a university.

In recent years, there has been growing recognition of the importance of innovation and entrepreneurship in driving economic growth and development. Universities are increasingly seen as vital hubs for fostering innovation, creating jobs and addressing societal challenges.

To achieve this, there is a pressing need to design transdisciplinary entrepreneurial ecosystems, we write in the chapter, ‘Designing a Transdisciplinary Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in African Universities’, in the book, Creating the New African University.

Concurrently, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) has arisen as a driving force behind developing workable and long-lasting solutions. With 4IR unveiled to the world as the beginning of a new era, nations have mobilized to take advantage of the myriad of emerging opportunities by establishing task teams led by governments in cooperation with business, academia and civil society.

Additionally, many nations have included the United Nations (UN) sustainable development goals (SDGs) in their national strategic plans.

Academics, professionals and business leaders commonly acknowledge that science, technology, and innovation (STI) are the most influential forces behind economic growth. How, then, should universities approach innovation, entrepreneurship, social development and educational reforms in the requisite transdisciplinary manner?

The need for ecosystems

The utilisation of several disciplines as vertical lenses at the same time to discover answers for complex situations is known as transdisciplinarity. Since a transdisciplinary approach enables the application of a combination of knowledge bases rooted in their respective fields, it is more effective than a multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary approach when addressing societal and environmental challenges.

Entrepreneurship incorporating transdisciplinarity creates economic and societal value that could have long-lasting repercussions. It teaches those involved how to reframe presumptions and manage any misconceptions to also foster empathy and reciprocal learning between culturally varied groups.

For many countries that experience high unemployment rates, the youth account for a significant percentage of this statistic, often despite implementing political and socioeconomic reforms.

Such reforms can be accelerated by using higher education institutions to develop value-driven solutions using 4IR. For instance, universities in Africa are suitably positioned to produce digital data on the indigenous knowledge, languages, cultures and traditions necessary to create Afrocentric artificial intelligence (AI) systems.

The integration of these AI systems worldwide will reaffirm an authentic African identity. To this end, Africa can use its resources, demographic dividend and intellectual capital to uplift its people sustainably and inclusively by embracing transformative leadership and education rooted in the ideology of ubuntu.

Positioning universities within a transdisciplinary entrepreneurial ecosystem to spearhead innovation relating to social development and sustainability will provide opportunities for value-creating relationships between actors across systems, which will work toward achieving the UN’s SDGs, while still maximising stakeholder value.

This will also provide opportunities to improve the work-readiness of graduates by augmenting existing university curricula with service-based and problem-based learning. As a result, exiting graduates will leave with theoretical knowledge blended with real-life experience, narrowing the experience gap, and improving employability.

Furthermore, despite universities in emerging economies often operating within resource-constrained environments, they possess a wealth of untapped talent, knowledge and potential.

Transdisciplinary entrepreneurial ecosystems can harness these assets and bridge the gap between academia and industry, leading to mutually beneficial outcomes.

Collaboration and knowledge exchange

Transdisciplinary ecosystems emphasise collaboration between academic disciplines, departments, and external stakeholders. This collaborative approach promotes knowledge exchange, enabling researchers and students to work together on projects that have practical applications.

Universities actively aligned to their third mission – playing a civic role in society – create opportunities for their students to contribute and engage as enablers in the third economy. By refocusing existing resources and working with other universities to take advantage of comparative advantages, universities can utilise their knowledge product to address social and economic needs.

Positioning universities as enablers of entrepreneurial activities is possible through rearranging resources, thus establishing a university-led entrepreneurial ecosystem.

In keeping with the three missions, such an ecosystem can benefit graduates in terms of self-employment and employability in the existing labour markets. In both cases, a graduate who has gained experience from the entrepreneurial activities housed within the university ecosystem will easily transition into meaningful and productive work due to the enhanced knowledge, skills and experience obtained.

In a real-world setting, the value of a graduate lies in the ability to apply acquired knowledge to solving problems. For a university graduate, gaining experience from the problem-solving aspects associated with entrepreneurship can increase the value of the qualification and lead to closing the gap in skills mismatch between industry and universities.

Universities can also be pivotal in nurturing an entrepreneurial mindset among students and faculty. By exposing them to real-world problems and encouraging them to develop innovative solutions, universities empower individuals to become entrepreneurs and change-makers. This shift in mindset is crucial in addressing regional challenges and fostering economic development.

Incubators and accelerators

Transdisciplinary ecosystems often include incubators and accelerators within the university environment. These support structures provide aspiring entrepreneurs with essential resources, mentorship and networking opportunities.

While these facilities are positive contributors to the success of start-ups, they are often costly to establish and operate. By reconfiguring the utilisation of existing buildings, workshops and laboratories, universities with such assets within their environment could make them available for purposes other than teaching and internal research, such as during university holidays or off-peak periods.

Effective planning and allocating of resources would be needed to facilitate this process. As these may be deemed activities outside of university staff employment agreements, graduate job seekers who are competent to operate these facilities might be appointed on temporary or visiting contracts.

Access to funding

One of the primary challenges for start-ups is access to funding. Universities can serve as intermediaries, connecting start-ups with investors, venture capital and grant opportunities.

For many listed companies, investor pressure to include disclosures regarding environmental, social, and governance (ESG) activities in annual shareholder reports has increased. For these companies, corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes are one way that ESG commitments are manifested. There is a chance for universities to collaborate with such companies in creating cutting-edge solutions in line with their CSR objectives, thereby boosting shareholder confidence.

Universities could be positioned as the executors of these projects through social innovation, given that many listed companies contribute funding to CSR initiatives.

To ensure confidence and assurance, university administrators would need to set up governance frameworks that specify the necessary degrees of accountability and responsibility. In addition, the institution’s governance structure might be improved by exploring the factors that raise a company’s ranking on the Social Responsibility Index.

Community engagement

The demand for social development has been created by historical events and circumstances. Universities could invest resources into establishing inclusive relationships with communities and societies to deliver knowledge products with communities rather than for communities.

A low-hanging fruit that may serve this purpose is to award scholarships to eligible students who reside in such communities. This may also serve as a mark of pride and honour for the community while motivating younger residents towards similar aspirations.

Engaging with the local community and industry is a cornerstone of transdisciplinary entrepreneurial ecosystems. Universities can partner with local businesses, NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and government agencies to address regional challenges and co-create solutions. Such partnerships often lead to job creation and economic growth.

A further essential element would be the provision of support services, since many operations will require expertise that does not fall within their existing skill set. Establishing Technical-Knowledge Intensive Business Services, or T-KIBS, and Professional-Knowledge Intensive Business Services, or P-KIBS, as SME firms to provide support services could offer far-reaching benefits to knowledge-economy graduates.

These could include experiential training, short-term employment, sustainable revenue generation, and matched economies of scale. In addition, the prospects of an incorporated ‘gig economy’ might appear lucrative to tradespersons, artisans, occupational workers and general workers. In doing so, universities could progress further into fulfilling their third mission.

Economic strategy

Designing transdisciplinary entrepreneurial ecosystems in universities is a strategic imperative for economic development. These ecosystems foster collaboration, promote entrepreneurial mindsets, provide vital support structures and engage with the community to address pressing challenges.

By embracing innovation and entrepreneurship, universities can become catalysts for positive change, driving economic growth, job creation and societal progress.

The journey toward building these ecosystems may be challenging. Still, the rewards are immense, offering a brighter future for emerging economies and their people.

The diversity of people across the globe should be regarded as one of its most valuable assets. Such diversity enables the generation of innovative solutions that can contribute towards the progress of humanity.

Universities may serve as the conduit to social justice through strategic positioning as leaders in innovation and entrepreneurship, thus unlocking the potential to realise the UN SDGs and ultimately create an inclusive, productive and poverty-free world.

Abdul Razak Esakjee is a professional engineer and entrepreneur who gained most of his experience in the rail industry. He specialises in finite element analysis and material science for material performance and optimisation. He served as a commissioner in the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or PC4IR, and is working towards a PhD at the University of Johannesburg. Professor Saurabh Sinha is the executive dean of the faculty of engineering at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. He served as the deputy vice-chancellor for research and internationalisation at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is also a former director of the Carl and Emily Fuchs Institute for Microelectronics. This article is the third in a series based on the chapters of the 2023 book, Creating the New African University.

2023 University World News



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