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What is the impact of KTH research and education on the community. An investigation has dug deeper into the question and developed a strategy. (Photos: Jann Lipka, Håkan Lindgren)

Finding new ways to make a difference

Published Apr 14, 2015

Research and education which makes a difference to society must have higher status at KTH. New career openings and more money are available for those who commit themselves to this undertaking, according to a proposal under the new strategy.

The duty of universities to work closely with the society in which they operate has formed part of Sweden’s Higher Education Act since the 1970’s. But this obligation and the success it has engendered have varied. Now KTH wishes to raise the status of this interaction and to ensure that it leads to measurable social impact.

“Previously, the mere fact of interaction has been considered sufficient. But we need to focus more on the effects in terms of real impact or influence on the wider community, something we promised in the KTH Vision 2027. It’s essential to monitor the results of what we achieve for our society,” says Johan Blaus, Business Liaison and Chair of the working group that drew up the proposal.

Johan Blaus

The field is an extensive one, according to members of the working group. It encompasses everything from research breakthroughs and innovations to seats on boards of directors, policy evaluation, technical standards and activities in the social media. There is a clear link to the university’s ranking, points out the working group.

To survey the effects of this interaction is all the more important – both in terms of scope and quality, believes Folke Snickars, Professor of the School of Architecture and the Built Environment (ABE) and the Faculty’s representative on the working group. The social impact of the accomplishment must be both deep and enduring and have sufficient projection to be counted.

Just as KTH collects information on published research articles so it would be a good idea to build up systematic databases with interaction activities, in his opinion. This may cover the consequences of consulting work, representative posts, patents and media breakthroughs and coverage.

A track record of social interaction is persuasive in CVs

The quality of the output is investigated, for example, through case studies; a systematic documentation that follows the path of research results and education activities in society.

“It’s essential to choose the right method when one evaluates the results and not just assess that which is easy to estimate. Above all, we should measure what demonstrates a valuable outcome,” Blaus says.

Documentation of high quality is decisive; making a difference, under the latest proposal, should be as well documented as a record of achievement within research and education. A CV with a track record of proven social outcomes will acquire greater weight in the case of appointments, promotion and the distribution of internal funds.

The fact that outstanding research delivers far-reaching social payoffs has been shown by new British studies, according to Emma Källblad, researcher at the ABE School, who has monitored international experiences within the impact area selected by the working group.

“KTH has an advantage in Sweden through the work in connection with the Research Assessment Exercise 2012,” she says.

The impact strategy covers all research areas at KTH. Even the most theoretical parts of physics and mathematics, for example, can be assessed on the basis of social impact, in the view of the working group, referring here to the experiences of British investigators in this field.

“On the other hand, one must be careful when one compares different disciplines with one another. They obviously have different preconditions,” Snickars says.

Develop administrative services

Raising the status of activities that can have an impact on society may be seen as an adjustment to a more modern engineer’s role, believes Susanne Nilsson of the School of Industrial Engineering and Management, a member of the working group. The solutions to many of tomorrow’s global challenges require collaboration across borders and dialogue between different community stakeholders, the enquiry points out.

The KTH strategy follows international trends. More and more higher education centres are equipping their organisations with specialist support in areas such as research support, collaboration with commerce and industry, communication and innovation. KTH too needs to develop its administrative organisation in order to be able to accomplish the raised ambitions where its social impact strategy is concerned, the investigators believe.

They wish to see new specialist services and a closer collaboration between departments within the administration. A centrally placed think tank is proposed as KTH’s contact interface with the outside world and to coordinate the work in the different Schools.  The joint efforts of the Schools in this area shall be led by special impact champions or leaders.

It is recommended that a well-functioning support organisation shall be in place as soon as possible, not least to prepare KTH for the higher demands that are expected to come from research funding providers, asserts Susanna Pehrson from the Research Office. Vinnova (Sweden’s innovation agency) and The Swedish Research Council are currently developing new models to evaluate track records within the social impact agenda. Around the corner too is the next Swedish research bill for 2016.

Christer Gummeson

Examples of meritorious social impact: Contract education for professionally active persons, implementation plans for research projects (how society can apply the research in practice), communication of research findings to the relevant sector, development of legislation, representative positions, challenge driven student projects in developing nations, running of learning activities with placements, initiation of political debates in the media, use of the campus as experimentation site for a sustainable society, media exposure, activities in social media, expert roles, participation in collaborative bodies.

KTH’s strategy “Science and art for a brighter future” has been drawn up by a working group led by Arne Johansson, Vice President for Research and Margareta Norell Bergendahl, Vice President for Collaboration. The working group also includes Johan Blaus, Business Liaison Department, Folke Snickars (ABE), Susanne Nilsson (ITM), Emma Källblad, (ABE) and Susanna Persson, Research Office.

The strategy has been developed within the context of the project Impact 2.0 funded by Vinnova. The next step in the strategy implementation work is called Impact 3C, which stands for create, capture, communicate. This relates to how KTH’s Schools are to realise the ambitions incorporated in the strategy.

In the work of preparing the KTH strategy the group has been inspired by the following: lunch seminars at KTH, interviews with School Deans, the directors of Centres of Excellence and collaboration partners in strategic alliances. Furthermore, inspiration has come from inter-university collaboration with Cambridge, England and higher education institutions in the Netherlands.