Public Participation in Developing a Common Framework for the Assessment and Management of Sustainable Innovation

The hidden catalysts of the Knowledge Triangle Integration

The hidden catalysts of the Knowledge Triangle Integration
29.06.2017 | Eli Shtereva


The knowledge triangle integration (KTI) concept has been in the core of the European Union’s (EU) action line towards becoming the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy. Although a clear-cut definition of the concept has not been established, it can be explained as the constant interaction between its three key actors and corners of the knowledge triangle - higher education, research and business[1], aiming to overcome the fragmentation in each field, thus overcoming the perceived failure of European countries to translate scientific advances into marketable innovations – a challenge known as the European paradox.

Since its emergence, the concept, and more specifically, its practical implementation has been the topic of discussions due to its complexity and so far, unstable and diversified implementation within the different member-states.

As the KTI functions as the cornerstone of the successful transformation of the scientific potential into commercially viable innovation, the current blog post will briefly aim to point out the main challenges faced by the different actors in practically implementing it. Furthermore, it will introduce the beneficial role intermediate actors such as NGOs might play in effectively integrating the knowledge triangle.

It should be noted that the blog post does not attempt in any way to impose a one-size-fits-all model, nor to introduce a generally recognised idea. It rather attempts to introduce an intriguing suggestion that such intermediate actors in some cases can be beneficial in implementing the KTI model and if deemed successful might gain recognition and support in their endeavour.

Introducing the key actors in the KTI and the main challenges they are facing

The novelty within the KTI concept is that it replaces the ‘traditional’ one way transfer of knowledge (i.e. from higher education institutions (HEI’s) towards the industry) by a both ways flow between the corners of the KT, meaning that its sides are more important than its corners[2].

The central idea of the KTI is that creating new knowledge from research institutes and HEIs is in itself not enough to gain prosperity and economic growth (Stam et. al, 2016). A constant interaction between the main actors of the KT is needed in order to make economically viable innovation possible. In other words, not only to accumulate brilliant research only for the sake of the knowledge but to transform this knowledge into tangible innovation from which the society can sustainably benefit and use its potential to the fullest. A specific focus is put on entrepreneurship as a channel to diffuse knowledge and innovation generated and to foster greater societal engagement. Furthermore, the KT framework recognises the need for institutions themselves to innovate within institutions in order to better articulate and carry out their different missions[3].

Theoretically embedded within the Lisbon agenda and its successor the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, the purposeful and practical implementation of the KTI started with the initiation of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) in 2008.

Nevertheless, as it is the case with most newly introduced theoretical concepts, it is more easily said than done. On ground, different barriers in achieving the KTI are observed within all of the three key actors of the triangle, which logically obstructs the important flow of action and information on its sides.

There is an important gap between the points of view of HEI’s and research institutes on the one hand and of business on the other, about how could or should they contribute in implementing the KTI. Numerous barriers exist from all sides: universities seem unable to provide their graduates with the expected skills for working in industry, graduates have no or little idea of what is waiting for them outside university and European industrial companies do not invest enough in R&D, as compared with their international competitors[4]. Another barrier pointed out to is the limited funding universities have, leading to limited incentives its staff has to participate in such KTI practices as additional financial sources for such practices are not available. The overly academic communication of the university staff, the fact that industry interests are not universities’ prime concern, and that universities suffered bad experiences during previous collaborations with the industry can be perceived as other blockages[5].


Finally, and probably most importantly, there is still low prevalence of the “knowledge triangle” concept outside policy circles, meaning that the KTI is still not recognised even by the main actors participating in it[6].

It could be argued that there is a principal-agent challenge embedded within the struggle of putting the KTI into action. First a top-down one where the concept is still not adequately disseminated within the main actors implementing it. Second a bottom-up challenge where the KTI faces multiple barriers built between and within the actors responsible for its implementation on ground.  This can be seen as the knowledge triangle integration paradox.

Current models of KTI

As pointed out a one-size-fits-all model cannot and should not be introduced in order to make the KTI a successful reality. This said a variety of different methods have been presented in order to implement it. The leading initiative of the EU in this direction is the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT). A brief introduction to the EIT is needed in order to make its work better understood.

The EIT is an independent body of the EU working towards resolving the EU’s paradox by nurturing entrepreneurship and strengthening Europe’s ability to innovate through integrating the KT.  This objective is practically operationalised through physically bringing companies, universities and research centres - the three main actors of the KT, together, forming dynamic cross-border partnerships called Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs). It is worth mentioning here that the actors forming the KICs are collaborating together towards commercializing and spurring innovation in physically established Co-Location Centres (CLCs).

Besides the EIT’s model of the KICs, establishing long-lasting partnerships, which is crucial in succeeding in achieving a knowledge-driven economy, other additional models of KTI have been introduced. Models such as open innovation platforms, science-tech parks, regional conferences engaging the relevant stakeholders, physical innovation hubs and others.

A key actor which is not well-defined in the KTI, but is rather added on its periphery is the role public authorities play as a key driver of the KTI. It should be recognised that government is crucial in steering the wheel towards this direction, through strategies and fund allocation.

What remains hidden under the surface and insufficiently explored is the role intermediate actors such as non-governmental organizations can play in stimulating the KTI, by taking the aforementioned into account and facilitating not only the flow of activities within the sides of the KT but stimulating its better understanding and integration within its three key actors.

NGOs - The hidden catalysts of the KTI

The idea of the beneficial role intermediate actors can play in the KTI is not novel as the EIT recently launched the initiative of regionally established hubs which will serve as an entry point for interacting with local players, mobilising and internationalising local networks and facilitating its KIC efforts in fostering KTI[7].

What should be pointed out here is the specific role NGO’s as intermediate actors can play, as these organizations function successfully in three main directions, crucial for operationalising the KTI:

  1. As mediators and catalysts of the KTI in the context of the knowledge triangle.
  2. As open innovation hubs, in the sense of the CLC’s where the three corners of the knowledge triangle can work together and spur innovation
  3. Finally, NGO’s can play a key role in translating the KTI concept in the national context and therefore play a catalysing role in turning the Smart Specialisation Strategies (S3) of leveraging innovation within the different EU member states into tangible results.



Catalysing innovation through the model of the knowledge triangle integration is undeniably the logical continuation of the jointly efforts of the relevant stakeholders.  Its proper implementation on the other hand is still yet to be refined. The current article aimed at briefly introducing one possible solution to the challenge in the face of the NGOs, functioning as mediating and catalysing actors in the KTI process. Starting in 2018 the EIT is introducing a similar solution in this direction through its EIT Hubs, but the focus is put rather on an entity functioning as an ‘interaction point’ between the KICs and local actors within a member state. The undeniable value of an NGO as an active player within the KTI can be seen in its freedom to act and in its individuals’ and organizational unified mission and values – key drivers for progress in today’s fast-moving world. 



 Co-author: Maria Alexandrova, Cleantech Bulgaria 


[1] EIT at a glance, Retrieved at:

[2] Sjoer, E., Nørgaard, B., & Goossens, M. (2015). From concept to reality in implementing the Knowledge Triangle. European Journal of Engineering Education, 41(3), 353-368. doi:10.1080/03043797.2015.1079812

[3] Source:

[4] Sjoer, E., Nørgaard, B., & Goossens, M. (2015). From concept to reality in implementing the Knowledge Triangle. European Journal of Engineering Education, 41(3), 353-368. doi:10.1080/03043797.2015.1079812

[5] Ibid.

[6] Enhancing the Contributions of Higher Education and Research Institutions to Innovation [PDF]. (2016, September 15). Paris: OECD. Retrieved from

[7] EIT Regional Innovation Scheme Implementation Guidance Note 2018–2020 (Rep.). (n.d.). EIT.

Relevant themes: Public participation, Sustainable innovation
Relevant tags: Social innovation, Technological innovation, Eco-innovation, Circular economy


  • Eli Shtereva - Cleantech Bulgaria

    Eli Shtereva

    Eli Shtereva is a project coordinator at Cleantech Bulgaria. As such she is responsible for the development and conduct of national and international activities with the strategic focus of boosting innovation capacity and nurturing entrepreneurship. Prior joining Cleantech Bulgaria she has been involved in the wide portfolio of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s (EIT) activities. As a trainee at the EIT she has supported the unit responsible for the EIT-KIC relationship and internal capacity development at the headquarters in Budapest. She has an MSc in International and European Governance from Leiden University (the Netherlands) and a BSc in Political Science from Sofia University (Bulgaria).