Disruptive Approaches to Combat Rigid Structures

„Next Generation University“ Copyright: © David Beecroft

The "Next Generation University" initiative faces up to the challenges of the science and innovation system


How can universities attract the very brightest talent? How can they achieve more diversity and inclusion in the transfer process? And how can they remain relevant despite societal changes? These three central questions were the focus of the Next Generation University initiative workshop on November 7, 2023 at the Kunstfabrik Schlot jazz club in Berlin.

The NGU initiative was formed almost as an echo of an international science evening on the 150th anniversary of RWTH Aachen University, in which the manifold challenges facing universities and the science and innovation system as a whole were addressed. The purpose of the initiative is to bring together designers of the university of tomorrow and beyond. It comes at a time when global ecological, social, economic and, most recently, geopolitical developments are demanding the greatest efforts from our knowledge society.

Universities have a special responsibility in this regard. After all, the changes will only succeed if the players in this system show themselves to be self-critical and capable of change and focus all their actions on solving global problems. In view of the structures and attitudes that have developed at universities over decades, this means nothing less than a small revolution in our own organizations.

The above questions are among those that concern universities all over the world. The challenge here is that there are many conceivable solutions. There are many good ideas and innovative approaches – this became impressively clear at the workshop organized by RWTH as part of Berlin Science Week.

However, there is also a central problem: the structures in academia are often all too traditional and rigid. "We obviously have a problem with the system," said Anne Schreiter, Managing Director of the German Scholars Organization and member of the NGU Board. Her Board colleague Ena Voute, Vice President of TU Delft, concluded with a twinkle in her eye that a new university would have to grow on a site beyond all existing conventions.

But as long as this solution remains an illusion, we need creative ideas based on existing best-practice approaches and the collective intelligence of those who want to shape the system: as researchers, as science managers, as innovators from the science system and its environment.

So, how can universities attract the very brightest talent? How can they achieve more diversity and inclusion in the translation process? And how can they remain relevant despite societal changes? Of course, by creating space for more diversity of thought, by focusing more on needs rather than regulations and, last but not least, by being able to offer their researchers the freedom to pursue their own paths in research and to provide them with a forum away from the typical academic assessments that come with publishing in journals.

So far, so good. But all of this requires time and resources. And these are not just available at the touch of a button. It was agreed that the matter needed to be rethought. One possible approach: pure management or transfer days for researchers – also for dialogue with society. "We need such disruptive approaches," emphasized NGU Board member Professor Frank Piller, a Director of the Institute for Technology and Innovation Management at RWTH Aachen University. The "Next Generation University" initiative aims to provide these by creating the necessary space for collective intelligence.


"Next Generation University"