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The role of universities in leveraging local change

Universities need to remember that the projects that they develop are not just demonstrating that projects are feasible at a technical or economic scale but are sensitive to the needs of the communities that these developments serve and ensure that are socially inclusive.

Universities are often located in relatively prosperous areas, but they are also to be found in economically challenged places and they can play an important role in providing leadership in regenerating their localities. The role of universities in regional economic growth is well established , as is their role as economic actors in local economies . They employ significant numbers of highly skilled people, draw in young people who add vibrancy to the local economy, engage in urban development themselves, and play an important role in local innovation (often couched in terms of triple or even quadruple helixes). Recognising this, national governments have long tried to push institutions into forging connections between universities and their hinterlands, from the university science parks of the 1980s through to the more recent short-lived Industrial Strategy and Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) . But the contribution of universities varies from institution-to-institution and place-to-place, depending on institutional priorities, their precise capacities, and the strength of ties between civic actors. The economic and social fallout from COVID-19 is already being felt and there is an urgent need for universities to find ways of leveraging their capabilities to aid the recovery process and to ensure that this is done in a socially just and environmentally sustainable way. The potential role of universities as ‘anchor institutions’ has never been more vital; how to achieve this is the question confronting many institutions.

In the case of Keele University, it has in recent years launched various ‘deals’, developed in conjunction with various civic actors, to address challenges confronting the area. The most recent initiative is the Keele Deal Recovery , which is explicitly focused on the role of the University in leading local social and economic change. This portfolio of work is focused on six themes: Innovation and Enterprise, Cultural Regeneration, Digital Futures, Employment, Inclusive Working Futures, Food Security, Health and Wellbeing, Sustainability and Food Security. I work within the sustainability theme and have been drawn into various projects Keele has undertaken to demonstrate new technologies for future low-carbon technologies such as the Smart Energy Network Demonstrator (a system designed to manage various forms of renewable energy in local power grids) and the HyDeploy project (blending hydrogen into the domestic gas supply). Both these projects have essentially used the campus, which contains a mix of student and residential buildings, as a ‘living laboratory’ for pioneering research. While both of these are campus-based developments, there are plans to roll these out to local communities in the years to come. Keele has also sought to focus its capabilities on local communities, such as UKRI-funded research with Engie to develop a ‘smart local energy system’ as part of the regeneration of the town of Rugeley. I am part of the Keele team focused on user-led design, focused on exploring how future development trajectories can be sustainable ones. One of our key concerns is not just that these developments are low-carbon, but that they are also sensitive to the distributive nature of the costs and benefits of these developments.

In seeking to fulfil the government’s mantra of ‘building back better’, universities need to remember that the projects that they develop are not just demonstrating that projects are feasible at a technical or economic scale, though this is, of course, a necessary part of the development process, but that they are sensitive to the needs of the communities that these developments serve and ensure that are socially inclusive. The Keele experience of engaging with industry and local stakeholders to aid recovery has shown the need to ensure that growth must start with the principles of inclusivity and sustainability and to include a mix of academic staff from different disciplinary backgrounds to ensure that the projects flowing from engagement are sensitive to these needs.

Dr Philip Catney is the School Research Director for the School of Social, Political and Global Studies at Keele University. His research is in the areas of urban and environmental politics and he is currently a co-investigator in the ESRC-funded Centre for the Understanding of Sustainability Prosperity (CUSP).


Posted 16/07/2021 10:20

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