The concept of the Triple Helix of university-industry-government relationships initiated in the 1990s by Etzkowitz (1993) and Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff (1995), encompassing elements of precursor works by Lowe (1982) and Sábato and Mackenzi (1982), interprets the shift from a dominating industry-government dyad in the Industrial Society to a growing triadic relationship between university-industry-government in the Knowledge Society.
The Triple Helix thesis is that the potential for innovation and economic development in a Knowledge Society lies in a more prominent role for the university and in the hybridisation of elements from university, industry and government to generate new institutional and social formats for the production, transfer and application of knowledge. This vision encompasses not only the creative destruction that appears as a natural innovation dynamics (Schumpeter, 1942), but also the creative renewal that arises within each of the three institutional spheres of university, industry and government, as well as at their intersections.
Through subsequent development, a significant body of Triple Helix theoretical and empirical research has grown over the last two decades that provides a general framework for exploring complex innovation dynamics and for informing national, regional and international innovation and development policy-making.This substantive body of Triple Helix literature can be broadly seen from two main complementary perspectives:
(i) A (neo) institutional perspective which examines the growing prominence of the university among innovation actors through national and regional case studies (e.g. in Latin America: Mello and Rocha, 2004; Etzkowitz, Mello and Almeida, 2005; Saenz, 2008; Bianco and Viscardi, 2008; Luna and Tirtido, 2008; in Africa: Konde, 2004; Kruss, 2008; Booyens, 2011; in the US: Campbell et al. 2004; Feldman and Desrochers, 2004; Boardman 2009; Wang and Shapira, 2012; in Europe: Klofsten et al. 1999; 2010; Inzelt, 2004; Geuna and Nesta, 2006; Lawton Smith and Bagchi-Sen, 2010; Geuna and Rossi, 2011; Svensson et al. 2012) and through comparative historical analyses (e.g. Etzkowitz, 2002; Furman and MacGarvie, 2009 ). These studies look at various aspects of the university ‘third mission’ of commercialization of academic research and involvement in socio-economic development, such as forms, stakeholders, drivers, barriers, benefits and impact, university technology transfer and entrepreneurship, contribution to regional development, government policies aimed to strengthen university-industry links, etc.
The (neo) institutional perspective distinguishes between three main configurations in the positioning of the university, industry and government institutional spheres relative to each other: (i) a statist configuration, where government plays the lead role, driving academia and industry, but also limiting their capacity to initiate and develop innovative transformations (e.g. in Russia, China, some Latin American and Eastern Europe countries); (b) a laissez-faire configuration, characterised by a limited state intervention in the economy (e.g. the US, some Western Europe countries), with industry as the driving force and the other two spheres acting as ancillary support structures and having limited roles in innovation: university acting mainly as a provider of skilled human capital, and government mainly as a regulator of social and economic mechanisms; and (iii) a balanced configuration, specific to the transition to a Knowledge Society, where university and other knowledge institutions act in partnership with industry and government and even take the lead in joint initiatives (Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff 2000). The balanced configuration offers the most important insights for innovation, as the most favourable environments for innovation are created at the intersections of the spheres.
(ii) A (neo) evolutionary perspective, inspired by the theory of social systems of communication (Luhmann, 1975, 1984) and mathematical theory of communication (Shannon, 1948) sees the University, Industry and Government as co-evolving sub-sets of social systems that interact through an overlay of recursive networks and organizations which reshape their institutional arrangements through reflexive sub-dynamics (e.g. markets and technological innovations) (e.g. Leydesdorff, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2006, 2008; Leydesdorff and Meyer, 2006; Dolfsma and Leydesdorff, 2009). These interactions are part of two processes of communication and differentiation: a functional one, between science and markets, and an institutional one, between private and public control at the level of universities, industries and government, which allow various degrees of selective mutual adjustment (Leydesdorff and Etzkowitz, 1996, 1998). In addition, internal differentiation within each institutional sphere generates new types of links and structures between the spheres, such as industrial liaison offices in universities or strategic alliances among companies, creating new network integration mechanisms (Leydesdorff and Etzkowitz, 1998). The institutional spheres are also seen as selection environments, and the institutional communications between them act as selection mechanisms, which may generate new innovation environments and ensure thus the ‘regeneration’ of the system (Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff, 2000; Leydesdorff, 2000). The interactions between the Triple Helix actors can be measured in terms of probabilistic entropy, which, when negative, suggests a self-organizing dynamic that may temporarily be stabilized in the overlay of communications among the carrying agencies (e.g. Leydesdorff, 2003; Leydesdorff, Dolfsma and Van der Panne, 2006). The interaction is also captured by specific indicators (e.g. bibliometrics, patent indicators) that can provide insights on trends and patterns of public-private cooperation, its geographical concentrations and implications (e.g. Kwon et al. 2012; Tijssen 2006, 2012; Azagra-Caro et al., 2010; Leydesdorff and Meyer, 2010).
The Entrepreneurial University is a central concept to the Triple Helix. It takes a pro-active stance in putting knowledge to use and in creating new knowledge. It operates according to an interactive rather than a linear model of innovation. As firms raise their technological level, they engage in higher levels of training and knowledge sharing. Government acts as a public entrepreneur and venture capitalist, in addition to its traditional regulatory role in setting the rules of the game. As universities develop links, they can combine discrete pieces of intellectual property and jointly exploit them. Innovation has expanded from an internal process within and even among firms to an activity that involves institutions not traditionally thought of as having a direct role in innovation such as universities. The academic ‘third mission’ - involvement in socio-economic development, next to the traditional missions of teaching and research, is most salient in the Entrepreurial University. Collaborative links with the other innovation actors have enhanced the central presence of universities in the production of scientific research over time, disproving former views that increasing diversification of knowledge production loci would diminish the role of universities in the knowledge production process. The Entrepreneurial University also has an enhanced capacity to provide students with new ideas, skills and entrepreneurial talent. Students are not only the new generations of professionals in various scientific disciplines, business, culture etc., but they can also be trained and encouraged to become entrepreneurs and firm founders, contributing to economic growth and job creation in a society that needs such outcomes more than ever. Moreover, entrepreneurial universities are also extending their capabilities of educating individuals to educating organizations, through entrepreneurship and incubation programmes and new training modules at venues such as inter-disciplinary centres, science parks, academic spin-offs, incubators and venture capital firms. Entrepreneurial universities also have an enhanced capacity to generate technology that has changed their position, from a traditional source of human resources and knowledge to a new source of technology generation and transfer. Rather than only serving as a source of new ideas for existing firms, universities are combining their research and teaching capabilities in new formats to become a source of new firm formation, especially in advanced areas of science and technology. Universities increasingly become the source of regional economic development and academic institutions are re-oriented or founded for this purpose.
The concept of Triple Helix Systems of innovation (Ranga and Etzkowitz, 2013) was recently introduced as an analytical framework that synthesises the key features of Triple Helix interactions into an ‘innovation system’ format, defined according to the systems theory as a set of components, relationships and functions. Among the components of Triple Helix Systems, a distinction is made between: (i) R&D and non-R&D innovators; (ii) “single-sphere” and “multi-sphere” (hybrid) institutions; and (iii) individual and institutional innovators. The relationships between components are synthesised into five main types: technology transfer, collaboration and conflict moderation, collaborative leadership, substitution, and networking. The overall function of Triple Helix systems of knowledge and innovation generation, diffusion and use is realised through a set of activities in the Knowledge, Innovation and Consensus Spaces. This perspective provides an explicit framework for the systemic interaction between Triple Helix actors that was lacking heretofore, and a more fine-grained view of the circulation of knowledge flows and resources within and among the spaces, helping to identify existing blockages or gaps. From a Triple Helix systems perspective, the consolidation of the spaces and the non-linear interactions between them can generate new combinations of knowledge and resources that can advance innovation theory and practice, especially at the regional level.