In this article, we discuss what ‘impact’ means for universities of applied sciences in general, and for Laurea in particular; and how impact can be generated via projects. The focus of the article is especially on Laurea’s research, development and innovation (RDI) activities, particularly projects.
‘Impact’ may seem a difficult or even intimidating term, since it is often used in abstract contexts and with different meanings by different people. Moreover, in higher education sector it is still a relatively recent term. The good news is that there is nothing to be afraid of, and our intention is that after reading this article, you will have a better understanding on impact and how Laurea can generate impact, especially via RDI projects. Impact is a normative term and different organizations and professionals are expected to have an impact in accordance with their roles. For example, bus drivers are expected to be always on time, researchers to produce scientific breakthroughs, parents to provide love and guidance for children and so on. One of the challenges related to impact is that it is always easier to tell retrospectively who has been successful in providing impact. It is easy to point out that e.g. Albert Einstein definitely made an impact as a scientist, Teemu Selänne as a hockey player, and Martti Ahtisaari as a President and a diplomat. In general, impact means making a difference, or changing the world for better. Generating impact usually requires time, and it can also be challenging to measure the impact. For example, an immediate impact of a RDI project can be that the participants have new knowledge and competences, but larger, systemic impacts may realize themselves only over several years.
Laurea is one of the universities of applied sciences in Finland, and we adhere to expectations of the Finnish Government and consequently, the Ministry of Education and Culture. Universities of Applied Sciences Act (932/2014; 1368/2018) defines our mission (4 §) as follows:
- The mission of universities of applied sciences is to provide higher education for professional expert jobs based on the requirements of working life and its development and on the premises of academic research and academic and artistic education and to support the professional growth of students.
- They shall also carry out applied research, development and innovation activities and artistic activities that serve education in universities of applied sciences, promote industry, business and regional development and regenerate the industrial structure of the region. In carrying out their mission, universities of applied sciences shall provide opportunities for lifelong learning.
The mission above clearly states that Laurea is expected to provide value for working life, students, industry, business and regional development. Briefly, this is the impact Laurea is expected to deliver. This legislative background is deeply integrated into Laurea’s current strategy, which states that Laurea’s strategic intent is to become an international developer of competence and vitality in the Uusimaa region by year 2030. To this end, five critical needs have been defined in the strategy, and one of them is to increase the impact of RDI activities and boost competitive funding. Obviously, with more funding we can expect to deliver more RDI activities, and more impact for the world too. Money as such does not imply impact, but with 20 M€ more impact can be expected than with 0.2 M€.
In order to gain more funding and more impact, a critical change project has been launched. The actions of the critical change project include increasing the amount of applications and broader utilization of various funding sources, as well as aiming for more ambitious and larger RDI projects.Laurea constantly develops services supporting applying for funding, and for example, three Grant Writers have been recently hired. Since publications are not only a direct means creating impact, but also one of the criteria determining the amount of ‘basic funding’ granted by the Ministry of Education and Culture, it is important to write and publish more. Next we discuss the other part of the critical need in the strategy, namely how to increase the impact of RDI activities.
IMPACT OF RDI ACTIVITIES
Laurea’s International Advisory Board (IAB) visited at Laurea in January 2020, and the topic of the visit was the impact of RDI activities. It was discussed with the IAB that there are various ways of how RDI activities, particularly projects, can generate impact, or beneficial consequences for the society. A project’s impact may manifest, for example, as follows:
- Interaction with and communicating results from RDI activities to external stakeholders;
- Influence on education, learning, and the skills of the graduates;
- Making RDI results available for application in products, processes, and services;
- Influence on stakeholders or societal procedures;
- Influence on debate and decision-making in the society; and
- Activities making RDI results widely known.
Each RDI project is a unique case and a project’s impact may have several features from the above list. A good way to understand better the varieties of impact a project can generate, is to familiarize oneself with different ongoing and past projects. Among other things, two of Laurea’s RDI projects were presented to the IAB. One of them was the KEIJO project that provides experts-by-experience training for people with a background in crime and substance abuse. The project’s goal is to develop an education model that supports employment, drawing on experience-based expertise and its use for professional purposes. The project obviously has an important societal impact, since it empowers and gives new competences for the participants, and develops the Finnish correctional services and healthcare system as well as contributes to education content at Laurea and the skills of Laurea graduates. Another case presented to the IAB was a project ICT Enabled Public Services for Migration (MIICT) that addresses the challenge of migrant integration through the co-creation of improved ICT-enabled services with migrants, public sector services and non-governmental organizations. Again, the societal impact is obvious since the project supports the integration of migrants into the European society by providing them with useful skills and know-how.
Both projects discussed above are publicly funded, and therefore the expected impact is at least partly defined by respective call texts. However, the two presented projects are excellent examples of Laurea RDI activities, because they employ a network of partners working together, utilize the method of co-creation, have a strong emphasis to create value for end-users, and involve students too.
ENHANCING IMPACT OF PROJECTS
In this final section, we briefly discuss how to plan a project to enhance its impact. First of all, the key is to focus on the project’s outcomes and deliverables. In general, impact stems from outcomes or impact can be characterized as a overall outcome of the project, a kind of systemic change. For example, when developing a vaccine, the desired and final impact is eradication of the disease in question, but to achieve this several outcomes have to be reached first, such as completing the development of the vaccine. Thus, a natural starting point is to clarify for oneself what kinds of outcomes and impact is expected from the project by the funder. Public funders vary in how clearly they specify the expected impact. For example, the European Commission’s Horizon2020 programme has been exemplary in specifying in each call what a project is expected to deliver, whereas Business Finland generally emphasizes the value created for the Finnish economy and companies, and the calls of the Strategic Research Council (SRC, managed by the Academy of Finland) give more freedom for the applicants to define the outcomes and impact.
Based on the expected impacts listed in a call, you should define the outcomes to be achieved within the project. When the desired outcomes are crystallized, then it should be planned what kinds of resources and competences are needed to reach the outcomes. At this point, it often becomes clearer who should be involved in the project as partners and stakeholders. Collaboration is also about taking into account everyone’s needs when planning a project. In other words, the final list of a project’s deliverables is often formed in a co-creation process with all partners and stakeholders.
The Figure 1 below provides a practical tool for defining a project’s impact. Think about the project’s current partners and associated competences and resources, and start figuring out what kinds of outcomes and impact they could generate. It is often easier to start from the potential short-term benefits, and then widen the scope into the long-term gains. (More about this and other tools: Talvinen 2020.)
As impact can also be understood as value created for different stakeholders, it is crucial to determine the key beneficiaries of your project results. It is important to define the scope of the project carefully, in other words, not try to include everything into a single project, but instead concentrate on results valid to your key beneficiary groups. It is however good to mention other potential beneficiaries and list the impacts relevant to them, too.
Since the impact of a RDI project occurs over time, there must be follow-up procedures in order to show verifiable impact of a project. One simple way to carry out this is to ask for feedback from the stakeholders involved and find out what kinds of benefits they gained from a project. The British model, REF (Research Excellence Framework), used in the evaluation of higher education institutions, includes impact case studies, where institutions compose concise stories showing the impact of projects. This is a convenient way to make impact of projects visible and create ‘impact awareness’ among institutions’ personnel. Laurea Societal Impact Report uses similar approach to describing cases and their impact mechanisms. In addition to this, several projects of Laurea have already told about their success and outcomes in the pages of this journal, and we would love to see even more of them in the future!
In conclusion, impact is about making a difference and creating value – or providing benefits – for various stakeholders in the society. There are various ways for generating impact via projects, but already currently many projects of Laurea utilize just the right tools. Namely, collaborating with various stakeholders and networks, utilizing the method of co-creation, involving students and focusing on the needs of end-users is an almost perfect recipe for impact.