The Third Mission (universities, research and higher education entities)

Communication aimed at adding value to the relationships between universities, young people, and the working world must be able to assist all the subjects involved to find the right path to deal with our times. Starting from a radical rethinking of degree courses, internships, doctoral studies, and the way research is conducted and communicated; but also about how to do business, to interpret professionalism and how to favor innovation within various organizations and agencies.


The CfGC has always been dedicated to developing communication that is capable of improving the relationships between education and research, and considering the socio-economic needs of a territory. We started out this way when CRAIAT was founded in 1992. In recent years, the research group has supported the activities of those working in technological transfer and the building of relationships with the territory and with the world of enterprise.

Organization and communication: a pairing to be rebuilt

Starting from the understanding that communication is intrinsically systemic, when we speak about the Third Mission and communication we’re referring to the way in which knowledge is produced inside the university and how communication flows outward to the socio-economic reality.

For this to be effective, we need to go beyond sectorial communicative actions and rethink the relations that exist between the Third Mission and all the other university activities: from how training is carried out (didactically, internships, theses, etc.) to the way research is approached and undertaken.
In this sense it’s necessary to re-examine the organizational and administrative communication that governs the university and work on the relations between career building and the outside world. In other words, on the network of connections between internally produced knowledge--whether it’s research or teaching--and the knowledge that’s requested but that’s also produced by that social, economic, and cultural territory to which a given university system refers.

Looking beyond “territory” as a pre-established entity

A socio-economic territory is not simply a nearby physical, economic, or preexisting administrative space, objectively established as an exclusively pertinent area in which knowledge, expertise, and more or less advanced practices are shared and transferred. On the contrary, it is an active subject in continuous transformation that interacts on a daily basis with research and education and in turn poses its own questions, manifests needs, and thus offers and creates knowledge. The three dimensions of cultural, social, and economic activity--i.e. territory, education, and research--unceasingly interact and can hide resources that often remain concealed or unexpressed. There is a great need for a communicative paradigm that can generate and sustain this web of creative and innovative interactions. No enterprise or other organization, small or large, can become stronger unless there is continuous dialog and exchange of views with the knowledge that only research and education can provide.

Thus, communication is naturally called on to work in the immense and unexplored in-between terrain that is the product of uninterrupted interaction scientia atque usus, as stated by a great ancient Roman strategist. Good scientia (science) is not only scientia but also adequate usus (use); just as good usus, if it is indeed good, has within it good scientia.

The Third Mission concept was introduced and formalized in Italy by the National Agency for the Evaluation of Universities and Research Institutes (ANVUR) as recently as 2011 with its Evaluation of Research Quality - VQR 2004-2010 exercise. This was the beginning of a new, even if still partial path toward assessment of the work carried out by universities and research centers to transfer research products to the social and entrepreneurial fabric.

This setup is the daughter of a broader cultural movement born in 1963 at the University of California, Berkeley under the Chancellor at the time, Clark Kerr. It was only in the early 1990s that it arrived in Europe in conjunction with an important acceleration by the European Union to activate strategies--first of all political strategies--to promote a new economic model based on knowledge.

This need to redefine the relationship between the world of research and production was already anticipated by the CRAIAT, the Laboratory di Strategie delle Comunicazione Generative, and finally, by the Communication Strategies Lab.

The research projects and experiments we conducted in the years before the birth of the CfGC, in fact, ushered in a way of interpreting research as a functional tool to develop innovation by fostering interaction between knowledge, competence in the world of research, and the needs of business, institutions, and citizens. In this way, all CfGC projects fit into the larger framework of the Third Mission.


The CfGC approach to

"Third mission (universities, research and higher education entities)"

The Third Mission as a way to strengthen universities

Teaching, Research, Third Mission. Through these three spheres the university today aims to respond to the needs for innovation in social and entrepreneurial areas. Three “services”--if we can define them as such--that often encounter difficulty finding the synergy necessary to rewrite the mission and role that the university can and should play in society.

In fact, the Third Mission risks being seen as the last product of the university; a further step beyond the first (teaching) and the second (research) missions.
The CfGC’s basic assumption is, on the contrary, that there is a need to rethink the relationship between Teaching, Research, and Third Mission. And the place to start is with a redefinition of the Third Mission itself as a tool that offers the opportunity to listen to the needs of our social and productive fabric. Only in this way will it be possible to revolutionize the current model of Universitas Studiorum and activate an exchange and constant dialogue between the university and society. This interaction can be all the more functional if it brings into discussion and redefines both the university’s educational offerings and the way it does research, putting at the center of this model both mid- and long-term needs of society, whether they’re expressed or unexpressed.

Moving toward the construction of new synergies between Research, Innovation, and Territory

The university must go back to fulfilling its mission with a greater presence in the territory, re-examining the current communicative model of knowledge transfer that is exclusively top-down and one-directional. For these reasons, universities as institutions are called upon to play a fundamental role on an organizational and management level as well as a scientific and technological level through communication strategies that ultimately certify the quality of what they produce and, above all, of processes that distinguish them.

On an organizational level, universities need to ever more frequently position themselves as a nerve center able to:

  • involve all the different stakeholders--whether they’re political institutions, organizations, associations, or individual citizens--in truly innovative processes;
  • promote a participatory model that invites everyone to offer their own abilities, expertise, and experiences to the working group;
  • constantly stimulate participation and manage the system together with all the players involved;
  • identify--through analysis, study, and reflection--the real needs of single stakeholders and acknowledge the particularities of the territory in question in order to bring the elements that distinguish its cultural and social identity to the surface.

Instead, with regard to scientific and technological aspects, universities are called upon to conceive of and plan communication strategies that:

  • analyze and monitor new inclusive organizational models that allow all interlocutors to express and offer their unique features to the system;
  • promote and substantially contribute to creating innovative processes and products while constantly collaborating with the various stakeholders;
  • activate and incentivize experimentation and research;
  • disseminate the obtained results and describe models where communication within the product is privileged as opposed to communication about the product.

A new idea of innovation and territory: needs and creativity at the center

Universities are called upon to respond proactively to both the need for answers to problems that affect the immediate social and entrepreneurial fabric and to drive development of innovation on the mid- and long-term. The reasoning, in fact, is not simply that of stimulation-response--for example, problem X is followed by solution Y--but rather that the university needs to be in a position to identify what the difficulties and critical points of tomorrow may be and work toward avoiding them. Or, at least, to be prepared for the moment when such difficulties reveal themselves.
Real innovation, therefore, is possible only when discussion and cooperation between all the actors in the territory are promoted and incentivized. This is how a community is created that can nurture and place at the center of the process the needs and identity of the subjects, and their creativity and ability to interact with other stakeholders and with other social organizations. This is a community able to appreciate the expertise and knowledge of the individual in relation to the group to which they belong.

The contract as a communicative matrix object

The CfGC’s research interests are also directed toward contractual forms that formalize collaborations between the university and the social and entrepreneurial fabric. Every form of collaboration--whether it involves financing or it’s at zero cost--cannot exist without a form of contractualization.

In this context, especially with regard to technological transfer, one of the most delicate areas is the protection and management of intellectual property rights of products from research that result in licensing and patents.
Any form of agreement is, for all intents and purposes, an act of communication that formalizes the modality for collaboration, the roles of the parties involved, and the terms for success of the project in question. For this reason, from the CfGC’s perspective, contracts are the first Communicative Matrix Object to consider when redefining collaboration models between enterprises, universities, and the social fabric.