systems change: strategies to engage university stakeholders for ecosystem transformation

systems change

Innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems can be powerful catalysts to solve the world’s greatest challenges. However, many university innovation ecosystems are structured in ways that can make introducing broad-scale change difficult or slow-moving. Developing and integrating frameworks of strategic systems change can help ensure that the resources, programs, and networks that make up a university innovation ecosystem can better incorporate new priorities and urgencies. Systems change approaches can also help university innovation ecosystems expand and grow dynamically, and become more accessible to early-stage STEM entrepreneurs in equitable and inclusive ways.

At this year’s OPEN conference, we gathered expert panelists for the Systems Change to Support Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Examples from Higher Education plenary session on advancing systems change to support innovation and entrepreneurship in higher education.

  • Lauren Gase (moderator), Colorado Evaluation & Action Lab at Denver University
  • Almesha L. Campbell, Assistant Vice President for Research and Economic Development at Jackson State University
  • Rich G. Carter, Professor of Chemistry and Faculty Lead for Innovation Excellence at Oregon State University
  • Cindy Cooper, Program Officer at The Lemelson Foundation

understanding the systems change model

Systems change enables stakeholders to address the root causes of a problem—rather than its symptoms. Using FSG’s framework, plenary moderator Dr. Lauren Gase defined systems change as changing the conditions that are holding a problem in place. Systems change is about fundamentally altering both the explicit structures and implicit assumptions about how a system operates and its limitations or possibilities. By beginning the process at the root issues causing obstacles in a university innovation ecosystem, administrators, faculty members, and other stakeholders can better understand the needs of their system and the steps required to achieve positive change.

Systems change can be achieved within three levels: structural, relational, and transformative change.

  • Structural change refers to retooling the policies, practices and resource distribution that makes up a system, like restructuring how university funding is allocated to student entrepreneurs. 
  • Relational change focuses on reshaping the power and communication dynamics between people working within a system, like creating new opportunities for cross-departmental collaboration. 
  • Transformative change seeks to shift the mental models, biases and frameworks that system stakeholders operate within, which often occurs over time and can ultimately look like a university-wide cultural shift towards innovation and entrepreneurship pathways.

identifying and learning from the right stakeholders

To achieve systems change, it’s crucial to accurately identify the university ecosystem stakeholders and engage them in ways that encourage collaboration and open discussion. Cindy Cooper of The Lemelson Foundation shared from her experience conducting hundreds of interviews with university stakeholders for the Engineering for One Planet initiative, which seeks to embed environmental sustainability into the core of engineering higher-education curriculum. She emphasized that engaging stakeholders is not limited to the beginning of the process—it’s vital to continually listen and learn from stakeholders while building a plan for systems change. When identifying stakeholders, Cooper suggested reaching out to a variety of stakeholders, including potential industry collaborators, and importantly, to hear from university stakeholders who “had a broad understanding of the landscape and who were known to be looking to have an impact beyond just their own institutions.”

Systems change can include expanding an innovative initiative, sometimes in university spaces outside of one’s immediate network—in these cases, buy-in early on is vital. When Dr. Almesha L. Campbell of Jackson State University saw a lack of infrastructure for technology transfer and commercialization at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), she helped launch the Engaging Researchers and Innovators for Commercialization at HBCUs (EnRICH) program, a “pre-accelerator” initiative that trains students and faculty members to evaluate new healthcare innovations for commercialization potential and guides them through the technology transfer and intellectual property process. As the EnRICH program expanded to other HBCUs, Dr. Campbell noted how important it was to find supporters on each campus as early as possible who could leverage their own networks and ease the integration process; these early adopters were most often students and junior faculty eager to participate in a new program.

“Once we had the buy-in of junior faculty and students and we knew they were going to be early adopters, we worked with the administration and found that champion on each of the campuses that we wanted to target,” she explained. “Once we found those champions, whether they were the dean level, the associate VP level, or even if it’s just a faculty level, we used those connections to help recruit more participants into the programs.”

engaging stakeholders in flexible and comprehensive ways

In order to ensure that the plan-of-action ultimately creates change at the fundamental level, it’s important to deeply understand the university space in questions and the specific challenges stakeholders face. Once stakeholders are convened, the structure, content, and approach of the interviews and conversations can play a huge role in the takeaways for those seeking to shift university systems. Dr. Campbell highlighted the importance of flexibility throughout the process; there aren’t one size fits all solutions, so systems change teams have to be ready to adapt their model quickly. 

Dr. Rich Carter of Oregon State University, who spearheaded the launch of the Promotion and Tenure – Innovation and Entrepreneurship (PTIE) initiative, a national coalition supported by VentureWell that seeks to change how entrepreneurial and innovation work is valued and recognized during the promotion and tenure process, suggested meeting in small groups to encourage open conversations.

“We didn’t ask [university stakeholders] to commit to adopting the change, we simply asked them to be a part of the conversation which gave them the comfort level to be able to speak freely and share the challenges they’re dealing with at their own institution.” Dr. Carter described. “What was really exciting for me to see is that once they had that freedom, we actually very quickly coalesced around a lot of key points.”

The PTIE meetings were also designed with specific end-results in mind, without sacrificing flexible communication. “We have a very structured setup where [stakeholders] are given reading materials and homework, and there are very specific outcomes in the meetings, which are then reported back to everybody so they could comment,” he described. “We iterated on that [process], which allows everybody to stay connected and communicate throughout the process. I think when you’re doing systems change, putting that work in early on is so important.”

The panelists also mentioned another essential takeaway: from the very first conversation to the day a new program or strategy is launched, systems-wide collaboration is the lifeblood of systems change.

“We took the approach from the very beginning that we don’t have all the answers, no one person does.” Dr. Carter said. “That’s why you do systems change — it’s because, together, we can solve that problem.”

Systems change can help university innovation ecosystems address challenges embedded into their structural foundations and shift to more positively impactful models. As the panelists shared, engaging with stakeholders across the university system in intentional, collaborative ways is an essential part of the process. 

Thank you to all of our panelists, and a special thank you to The Lemelson Foundation and our other valued sponsors and partners for their support of OPEN 2021.

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