President’s corner


Triple Helix Association

Visiting Professor
Birkbeck, University of London

*email address protected*


Europe’s fragility has been exposed by a succession of crises from the 2008 financial debacle, onwards. Many putative Europeans questioned whether they wanted “less, more or any” Europe, as “Brexit” and similar de-accession movements gained purchase. The “Ecosystem Challenges in the Era of Crises” poster elicits controversy and debate over its Rorshach test-like fragmentation image. Only a few years ago, academic observers hailed the introduction of the euro currency as an augur of peace and prosperity. The monetary union, culmination of an evolution from the early post-war European Coal and Steel Community, was designed to consolidate the achievements of the industrial era. At the same time, integration was expected to suppress chauvinistic nationalist movements and worse that had scourged European Civilization in the early twentieth century. A top down highly bureaucratic overlay on nation states was designed to gradually induce cultural harmony through mobility programs that encouraged intermingling and inter-marriage, hopefully producing new generations of Europeans.


European integration, stalled and backsliding, may be seen as a failure of innovation theory and practice to propel Europe, with notable hopeful exceptions in university towns and cosmopolitan cities into a knowledge-based era of peace and prosperity. Karl Marx, Jena philosophy PhD, New York Herald Tribune journalist, political theorist and activist, in exile, extrapolated the single instance of British chemist Henry Perkins discoveries translated into a German dyestuffs industry, into the thesis of knowledge- based innovation (Bernal, 1937). With science the leading edge, Marx superseded his labour theory of value, turning a substructure superstructure, material base/ideas model on its head. Georg Simmel, a late nineteenth century marginal German-Jewish academic sociologist, developed a largely micro-level model of triadic interactions, with dyads tending towards conflict, mediated by a third element (Simmel, 1955). Just as Marx’s analyses had untapped meso-level implications; Simmel’s micro analyses had unrealized macroscopic potential.

A European Triple Helix existed in potentio, lacking sufficient impetus to unite lateral interactions with, bottom-up-top down dynamics, in practice. Rather, Triple Helix praxis began in New England, the first industrialized US region, in the same era that witnessed the stirrings of National Socialism in Germany. By better understanding the origins of a positive development, such as the New England phenomenon that produced an early working model of the knowledge based innovative region, we may be more likely to replicate the processes that produced its successes. Hannah Arendt produced a magisterial work on totalitarianism that did the job for the negative dialectic (Arendt, 1951; Adorno, 2003). Herewith, a call for the Triple Helix community, through comparative analysis of developments, like the Brazilian communitarian universities that are apparently linked to particular cultural and political regions, to discern their potential for replication and adaptation; much as the New England phenomenon was transferred and partly independently invented in northern California as Silicon Valley.
1. Sources of Triple Helix Innovation

The Triple Helix model originated in 1920’s New England as a creative response to departure of existing industries, inducing worklessness and other debilitating social consequences, a regional precursor to the 1930’s global depression. The regions’ Governors convened the leadership of its remaining institutional resources in a “consensus space” to address the crisis. These representatives included the immobile sectors of the business community, such as electric utilities and banks, and a unique regional resource, the most highly developed tertiary education and research complex of the country. Instead of the usual public-private partnership that often either gravitates towards consensus around a relatively modest incremental innovation strategy or degenerates into a conflicted relationship characterized by misunderstanding of each other’s motives and interests, with potential common ground receding into stasis or worse (Etzkowitz, 2002).

Government-industry-university-interactions took shape through a series of failed efforts to revive the region’s economy that eventually settled on a then innovative strategy proposed by MIT, to scale up a nascent start- up phenomenon. In this particular instance, in part driven by the presence of a third element, academia, the involved parties, impelled by crisis, invented a novel organizational framework for a regional quasi- public innovation organization with long-term private profit potential, that after a highly significant success in generating Digital Equipment Corporation, the founding firm of an emerging mini-computer industry, devolved into a narrower format oriented towards shorter term profit: the contemporary venture capital partnership format.

It took decades to achieve measureable socio-economic effects in post- war Massachusetts, let alone the broader New England region. Northern California’s replication and partial independent invention of the knowledge-based innovation model produced, greater, results under the rubric of Silicon V alley. Contemporary analogues in New Y ork, Berlin, and elsewhere move more rapidly through innovation formats, like incubators, accelerators and science parks. The human and social capital infrastructure required to produce them functioning, requires knowledge and adjustment of the underlying conditions. Well financed innovation agencies rely on methodologies for producing winners, both by renewing old technologies and industries and discerning and supporting potential in advanced research and novel business models, alike. Ideally, both strategies are put in place taking into good account potentialities in regions with varying industrial and research resources, at different stages of development. Difficult choices must be made to focus limited resources and put aside even culturally significant industries or promising R&D opportunities in order to achieve critical mass and produce results from either approach. Allocating resources too broadly or making sub- optimal or unlucky choices may leave innovation projects, mere physical artifacts

II. Will New Triple Helices be Generated?

The question before us: can the Triple Helix model be further expanded, renewed and developed to address crises beyond the economic and closely related social issues. Europe, North and South America, Africa, Near and Middle East as well as Asia face continually erupting crises, global in scale and concatenated in scope. Flint Michigan’s financial crisis morphed into, at best, ignored, and, at worst, suppressed knowledge of brain damage to children from lead in water pipes. School officials in other US regions admit they do not request water tests out of concern that if contamination is revealed, already inadequate funds may be redirected away from education. Brazil’s Zika epidemiological crisis, a consequence of inattention to environments that encourage mosquito breeding, threatens a social crisis as it spreads through broader populations, well beyond the poor pregnant women initially thought to be at risk. Brazil’s construction industry should be mobilized to provide favelas, as well as the Guanabara Bay Olympics site, with water and sanitary systems.

Beyond a superficial crisis of political corruption threatens a social crisis of institutional de-legitimization, even as immediate needs of raising people from poverty are addressed (Habermas, 1975). San Francisco’s rising eviction rate, an unintended consequence of tax breaks to encourage business development in poor neighborhoods, threatens to unravel the City’s social fabric. A “Katrina Effect” that emptied the poor out of New Orleans, leaving them without sufficient resources to return is paradoxically replicated in San Francisco by Silicon Valley’s excess of success.

Relatively simple interconnections, like monetary unions, are threatened by fears of the “other.” Over-concern about relatively superficial problems like public debt are allowed to stifle fundamental efforts to stimulate knowledge-based development that have the potential to earn many-fold and retire that debt (Arthur, 2010). The task at hand for Triple Helix analysts, theorists and practitioners is to show how previous Triple Helix interactions and innovation in innovation accomplishments, often at a local or regional level, may be reconceptualised and repackaged for transfer, thus globalizing Triple Helix innovation that has, to date, largely been limited to a relatively few regions, giving the mistaken impression that it is a limited model.

Rather, the university, in its entrepreneurial format, core element of the Triple Helix innovation model, is becoming more commonplace, raising the potential for social and technological innovation. What is less common is creation of an iterative interactive dynamic, emerging bottom- up from Civil Society, spreading across the institutional order laterally, on critical occasion’s reinforced top down (Etzkowitz, 2014). Novel organizational inventions stimulate scientific discovery, invention and innovation; in no necessary, certain order


Adorno, T. (2003) Negative Dialectics. New York: Continuum.

Arendt, H. (1951) Origins of T otalitarianism. New Y ork: Shocken Arthur, W B. (2010) The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. New York: Free Press.

Bernal, J. (1937) Science and Society, Vol II, No 1, Winter

Etzkowitz, H. (2002) MIT and the Rise of Entrepreneurial Science. London: Routledge.

Etzkowitz, H. (2014) Making a Humanities Town: Knowledge infused clusters, civic entrepreneurship and civil society in local innovation systems. Triple Helix.

Etzkowitz, H and A Rickne. (2014) Citizen Driven Innovation: stem cell scientists, patient advocates and financial innovators in the making of the California Institute of Medicine. Prometheus 32(4), 369-384. Habermas, J. (1975) Legitimation Crisis. Boston: Beacon Press.

Simmel, G. (1955) Conflict and the Web of Group Affiliations. New York: Free Press.