The Triple Helix Concept


The Triple Helix concept describes the relations and interplay of University, Industry and Government as a model for knowledge-based economies. The emphasis is on the collaboration across institutions to overcome barriers and to be able to address challenges that cannot be solved by one sphere alone. Furthermore, the roles of partners in such collaborations are no longer fixed in a knowledge-based economy. In an overlay of communications between industrial, academic, and administrative discourses, new options and synergies can be developed that can strengthen knowledge integration at the regional level. The Triple Helix concept comprises three basic elements:

  1. prominent role for the university in innovation, on a par with industry and government in a knowledge–based society
  2. movement toward collaborative relationships among spheres, in which innovation policy is increasingly an outcome of interaction rather than a prescription from government
  3. each institutional sphere also “takes the role of the other” performing new roles as well as their traditional function
    • Knowledge flows and the Role of Universities
      The increased importance of knowledge and the role of the university in incubation of technology-based firms as a source of new firm formation – especially in advanced areas of science and technology – have given it a more prominent place in the institutional firmament. Organizational capabilities to formally transfer technologies rather than relying solely on informal ties are becoming crucial. Furthermore, universities are also extending their teaching capabilities from educating individuals to shaping organizations in entrepreneurial education and incubation programs. The entrepreneurial university takes a pro-active stance in putting knowledge to use and in broadening the input into the creation of academic knowledge.
    • New Organizational Mechanisms
      New organizational mechanisms, such as incubators, science parks, and networks among them become a source of economic activity, community formation, and international exchange. New modes of interdisciplinary knowledge production, involving Triple Helix partners, inspire research collaboration and firm-formation projects.
    • New Institutional Roles and Opportunities
      As firms raise their technological level, they engage in higher levels of training and in sharing of knowledge. Corporations foster intrapreneurship and startup investors as Government acts as a public entrepreneur and venture capitalist, in addition to its traditional regulatory role in setting the rules of the game. The interaction among universities as well as through multi-national corporations and international organizations result in the emergence of an interactive model of innovation. Thereby, Innovation has expanded to an activity that involves institutions not traditionally thought of as having a direct role in innovation such as universities.

In various countries, the Triple Helix concept has been used as an operational strategy for regional development and to further the knowledge-based economy. Prominent examples include Latin America, Sweden and Ethiopia (see below, “The Triple Helix Concept”). The city of Amsterdam, for example, adapted the Triple Helix as its working model for economic development as recently as 2010. (See at

The Triple Helix Concept – A Scientific Overview

The notion of National Innovation Systems (NIS) emerged in the late 1990s and was popularized by the OECD’s work on developing indicators to measure innovation in firms, networks and clusters at a country level on a comparative basis (OECD, 1999). Among the key challenges addressed in the OECD report were how to measure the innovative capacity of firms, their technology inputs and outputs; the proportion of acquired versus developed new technologies; inter-firm relationships; university–industry knowledge transfer and partnerships; public–private sector interactions and knowledge flows in general; and mapping the institutional linkages within geographical boundaries. In terms of policy implications, these studies came to the firm conclusion that there was a clear role for government intervention in building innovative culture, enhancing technology diffusion, promoting networking and clustering, leveraging research and development across sectors, responding to globalization, attracting foreign direct investment and learning from best practices (OECD, 1999; Todeva and Danson, 2016).

Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff (2000) further elaborated the Triple Helix of University-Industry-Government Relations (cf. Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff, 1995; Lowe, 1982) into a model for studying knowledge-based economies. A series of workshops, conferences, and special issues of journals have developed under this title since 1996. In various countries, the Triple Helix concept has also been used as an operational strategy for regional development and to further the knowledge-based economy, for example, in Sweden (Jacob, 2006) and Ethiopia (Saad et al., 2008). In Brazil, the Triple Helix became a “movement” for generating incubators in the university context (Almeida, 2005). In the Latin American context, the Triple Helix model accords with Sa´bato’s (1975) “triangle” as a program for endogenous development of technology and innovation. The emphasis on bottom-up learning processes (Bunders et al., 1999) can help to avoid reification of systems (or states and interstate dependency relations) as barriers to innovation (Leydesdorff, 2016).

The Triple Helix model of university-industry government relations is depicted in Fig. 1 as alternating between bilateral and trilateral coordination mechanisms or – in institutional terms – spheres (Leydesdorff, 2016).


It is clear from the literature that innovation goes hand-in-hand with learning and investment. Although learning can be associated with local education and universities, the sources of investment in R&D are hardly localized, but often globalized. Thus national innovation systems, to the extent they are funded by national governments and by the private sector, are prone to national and global knowledge and resource flows. This creates continuous tension for regional stakeholder initiatives, which are required to attract capital usually from outside the region. In addition, scholars have argued that regional/industry/disciplinary boundaries are constraints to innovation (Moulaert and Sekia, 2003), so the ‘culture of permeability’ is a necessary condition for innovating regions (Etzkowitz, 2012).

Current evaluations of national and regional innovation systems in Europe exhibit numerous elements of the uneven spread of incentives and innovation outcomes across European regional geography (European Union, 2014). In recognition of this, the European Commission, in its economic policy for industrial renaissance in Europe, has placed strong emphasis on implementing specific instruments for regional Triple Helix development in support of innovation, skills and entrepreneurship – as a milestone and a key priority for ensuring growth. Regional policy measures are closely observed, together with smart specialization strategies, regional cluster development and upgrading of innovation and skills – all entangled in Triple helix stakeholder relationships.

Triple Helix practice, particularly in Europe, has predominantly demonstrated a government-led approach in contrast to the model envisaging continuous alterations across the government–industry–university spaces (Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff, 2000). In a study about regional innovation systems, Cooke and Leydesdorff (2006), for example, noted the possibility of “constructed advantages.” Currently, regional and cluster initiatives facilitate the integration of EU firms in global value chains and internationalization.

Further proliferation of the concept can be observed into scientific and political discourses (Fig. 2).


Scientific debate continues along publications in the Triple Helix Journal and open discussions – see the Conference Theme paper.

The conference organisers invite online critical commentary and contributions to the Conference Theme Paper. To engage in the debate, please CLICK HERE – to view the theme paper in Google Docs and participate. The document will be open for contributions until 30 September 2016.

The best contributions to the Conference Theme Paper, made before 30 April 2016 will be selected, and their contributors will be invited to debate at a plenary session at the forthcoming conference in Heidelberg.