Beyond “Triple Helix” – towards “Quad Helix”

by Christer Asplund on March 22, 2012

In this blog post, we present our views on the challenges with the Triple-Helix model for innovation system development and we present the Quad Helix approach which we have found to be more efficient and true to real life challenges. The ideas in the blog post are developed by Christer Asplund and Jörgen Eriksson in our consulting projects and we were also inspired by a brief paper written by Ernest J. Wilson III at the University of Southern California.

triple helix

In the photo above we can see triple helix spiral stairs from the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. They all start on the ground floor and lead to different places. The photograph illustrates the real-world difficulties of making the business sector, the academic sector and government understand each other and cooperate.

The traditional Triple-Helix

Triple helix modelTriple-Helix is a model which describes the crossing of three worlds; academia, business and government.

in the model, the business segment operates as the locus of production; government as the source of contractual relations that guarantee stable interactions and exchange; the university as a source of new knowledge and technology, the generative principle of knowledge-based economies.

The increased importance of knowledge and the role of the university in incubation of technology-based firms gave the model a prominent place in the institutional firmament in the 1990s.

The model was developed in the mid-1990s and has often been used to explain the inner workings of regional innovation systems and clusters. However, the construction of Triple-Helix comes from the vocabulary and models of central planning and institutional and traditional patterns, which –  in our opinion – no longer works.

The world in the 21st century is dynamic and is in continuous flux, due to globalisation and hyper competition. These are trends which will not be reversed. The traditional Triple-Helix model does not consider entrepreneurs and place managers, irrespective of their sectors. The consequence is that individual resourceful persons and brilliance of ideas are not addressed.

For many years we have struggled with the oversimplification and even basic faults of the Triple-Helix model. The starting point is that dynamic innovation processes are not really compatible with the Triple-Helix jargon.

Repeatedly in reality, we have witnessed that real world situations are much more complex than the model and we have concluded that Triple-Helix needs rethinking.

The Triple Helix concept comprises a prominent role for the university in innovation, on a par with industry and government in a knowledge–based society.

However, when you act yourself as a mediator or catalyst in place development, between the three stakeholders, you often notice that there are at least two missing links in the model. Especially, the complex world of place management needs context and driving negotiators who are capable to maneuver between the reefs and hurdles.


1) The first missing link can be described in terms of an absence of “context management” in trying to find the common denominators between the highly institutionalized stakeholders in the classical Triple Helix model.

Instead of inbuilt “context management” the various parties are defining “their” respective agendas according to their own directions and well defined interests The daily work often resembles a number of parallel but separated drain pipes as in the illustration below.

drain pipe

Successful place development, may it be a cluster, a science park or a whole city, can never thrive on an organisational set up where the traditional institutional borders look like the drain pipes. Instead, an open and innovative cross fertilisation is the winning recipe. In summary: a “context management” is a prerequisite.

2) The second Triple-Helix dilemma is the missing link to strong individuals who are resourceful, not in their capacity as legitimised role players in either of the three Triple-Helix organisations, but rather as resourceful individuals who are less well organised and normally not appointed by at least the classical institutions.

The informal role of the resourceful individuals might be the reason why the model of Triple-Helix has survived so many years in the highly institutionalised European societies. You know that something is missing but it has been difficult to formulate an understandable alternative model.

The Quad-Helix

Recently, we came across a brief paper written by Ernest J. Wilson III, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California.  The paper was called How to make a region innovative and can be downloaded here:

Immediately we understood that we had found the inspiration for rethinking the Triple-Helix jargon.

Ernest J. Wilson underlines in his paper that especially in the context of innovative clusters it is critical to involve resourceful persons, not as representatives, but as resourceful entrepreneurs. He focuses on talented people who are open minded and capable to combine complex and disparate factors, irrespective of their heritage or birthplace.

Ernest J. Wilson call these persons “quad leaders”, which we have used as the forth corner in the “Quad Helix” model, see below.

The Quad Helix

The Quad-Helix model recognizes that the drain pipe approach is not competitive (but unfortunately common). It also illustrates the key importance of the central context management, connecting the civil society with talented people irrespective of their home base.

The prime background is if the resourceful individuals are capable to connect diverse facts, curiosity and sometimes even economic resources of their own or via their networks.

There is a fascinating correlation between Ernest´s definition of the Quad talents and what has been presented in our recent book Place Management – New Roles for Place Managers in Rebuilding European Wealth.

We would stretch it so far that we argue that the introduction of “Quad-Helix” is an important step to move beyond the trap of “Triple-Helix”, and we look forward to present this further in our next book on Talent Attraction, planned to be released in 2013.

About Christer Asplund :