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FULLY DIGITAL - NO PUBLIC : PhD Defence Lisa Nieth | It takes two sides to build a bridge - Universities as institutional entrepreneurs in knowledge-based regional development

It takes two sides to build a bridge - Universities as institutional entrepreneurs in knowledge-based regional development

Due to the COVID-19 crisis measures the PhD defence of Lisa Nieth will take place online without the presence of an audience.

The PhD defence can be followed by a live stream.

Lisa Nieth is an external PhD student in the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (Cheps) and the research group Science, Technology & Policy Studies (STEPS). Her supervisor is prof.dr. S. Kuhlmann from the Faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences (BMS). Lisa is employed by Kennispunt Twente ( and part of the Marie Curie Network RUNIN (

There is a widespread assumption amongst regional policy makers and practitioners that successful innovation policies are dependent upon place leadership from coalitions of actors. These coalitions—consisting of actors from different organisations such as regional authorities, companies or universities—are assumed to work together seamlessly and develop as well as enact collective innovation agendas that ultimately lead to regional (path) development. One important actor and contributor to these coalitions is the university due to its key role as a knowledge producer and distributor. However, universities are complex organisations that lack strong singular strategic interests, which raises the prima facie doubt of whether they can contribute in the way(s) that innovation policies expect. In failing to consider this complexity, scholars and policy makers ignore the reality that universities are often not equipped for coordinated action around their knowledge production and circulation.

In this dissertation, I address this urgent gap of understanding by asking the following research question: How do universities act as institutional actors in regional innovation policy arenas? I analyse how the organisational dynamics and particularities of universities influence their participation in these regional coalitions and their contributions to collective regional innovation policy processes. More specifically, I focus on the acts of institutional entrepreneurship of university employees that can have more structural effects and thereby address the institutional thinness of places such as peripheral regions. A qualitative case study approach was adopted to compare three regions—Twente (NL), Aveiro (PT) and North Denmark (DK)—in order to develop a deeper theoretical and empirical understanding of universities’ contributions. The data of this thesis consist of a total of 120 semi-structured interviews with key informants as well as secondary documents and archival records of interest (including, for example, policy agendas, organisational reports and collaboration agreements). This data set was analysed using the theoretical framework established in order to explore the ways in which individual and collective agency via entrepreneurship has led to the more structural effects that have improved the respective regional bases.

I argue that alignment is necessary for the creation of a shared actionable knowledge base and identify two alignment circuits that are essential for institutional entrepreneurs to contribute to regional (path) development: (1) alignment of the diverse regional actors, and (2) internal alignment of university stakeholders (including the strategic centre as well as the functional and academic departments). However, universities have links at different organisational levels and interact with various external partners, thus creating a dynamic and unpredictable framework. This dissertation contributes to debates on institutional entrepreneurship, place leadership and agency by arguing that alignment can be the solution to the problems posed due to the nature of this complex setting. Ultimately, alignment can empower university institutional entrepreneurs to address regional challenges. In contrast to the prevailing tendency to assume that operational logics follow strategic design, I highlight that individuals are shaped by a range of contexts that are not just organisational or operational, but that are built in a complex interplay between the two. I conclude by arguing that debates on regional innovation policies have made a gross over-simplification when referring to multi-stakeholder processes aimed at creating new regional futures.