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Pitasi, A. (2004) The Triple Helix of University–Government–Industry Relations. In: Riegler, A. (ed.) Radical Constructivism Paper Collection. Available: http://www.univie.ac.at/constructivism/papers/

The Triple Helix of University–Government–Industry Relations

Andrea Pitasi interviews Loet Leydesdorff about his book: A Sociological Theory of Communication: The Self-Organization of the Knowledge-Based Society. Parkland, FL: Universal Publishers.

1) What are the foundations of your sociological theory of communication?

Unlike other communication systems, social systems of communication provide the information with meaning and the meaning can again be communicated (Luhmann, 1984). Human language can be considered as the evolutionary achievement that enables us to communicate both uncertainty and the meaning of an uncertainty. The meaning is reflexively provided from the perspective of hindsight. Thus, this operation reduces the uncertainty, but an interaction terms between the two layers of communication is also generated. The interaction terms provide the meaningful information (Leydesdorff, 2003).

The two processes of information exchanges and meaning exchanges can be coupled to varying extents. Providing the (Shannon-type) information with meaning generates value. This reflexive operation is recursive. For example, some meaning can further be codified into knowledge, that is, a meaning which makes a difference. Thus, the subsystems of communications become functionally differentiated in terms of the codes of the communication. For example, the value on the market can be expressed in terms of a price. Symbolically generalized media of communication which define different values (e.g., in science, in the economy, in politics) enable us to communicate more efficiently.

In summary, the communication system of society is both horizontally and vertically differentiated. Horizontally, the different codes can operate upon one another using translations: the information is then selectively provided with new meaning. Vertically, the symbolically generalized media exert control on the lower-level exchanges among agents. Thus, one can not buy the truth of a statement on the market. The systems tend to be closed in terms of their operations, but a complex systems can be expected to remain nearly decomposable (Simon, 1969). For example, one sometimes can bribe a judge.

The self-organization of the (sub)systems of communication is disturbed because these systems have to be organized in the historical instantiations. The states which occur phenotypically are less complex than the phase space of possible meanings (Husserl, 1929). The meanings develop in a non-equilibrium dynamics, while the observables are based on seeking equilibria between actions and reactions.

2) What is the function of empirical research in your theory?

The globalized system remains structurally coupled to its historical manifestations. For example, the knowledge-based economy can be studied in terms of a triple helix of university-industry-government relations, that is, institutional agencies. However, what these relations mean can only be specified in terms of the fluxes of communication which are enabled and constrained by these networks. Thus, the phenomena provide us with values for the variables (x and y), but we are interested in the fluxes (dx/dt, dy/dt).

Shannon’s (1948) mathematical theory of communication provides us with a calculus for the case of discrete events. Unlike most social science statistics this calculus enables us to combine the multivariate perspective of studying complexity at each moment of time with the longitudinal perspective (Leydesdorff, 1995; Theil, 1972). Furthermore, the relational perspective (graph analysis) has to be combined with the positional one (factor analysis). Meaning is provided positionally, while the communication systems operate in terms of relations. A network is constructed in terms of relations, but it can be expected to contain an architecture. Reflexively, this architecture can be reconstructed and the events can then be positioned (Burt, 1982).

Empirical studies are selected in relation to the systems-theoretical questions. For example, one can ask when the European monetary system emerged (Leydesdorff & Oomes, 1999) and then also to which extent European network systems can be considered as self-organizing (Leydesdorff, 2000). The non-equilibrium dynamics of self-organization add globalization to the previously stabilized systems. However, neither the stabilization nor the globalization of communication systems can be taken for granted on a priori grounds. Empirical studies enable us to assess, for example, the extent to which the self-organization of a knowledge-based society has taken hold in history.

3) Could you describe the Triple Helix of university-industry-government relations?

A knowledge-based economy has to recombine three functions in the dynamics of communication: (1) economic exchange relations, (2) novelty production upsetting the equilibria of the market, (3) political (public) and managerial (private) control at the interfaces between the first two mechanisms. The functions are carried by institutions like governments, industries, and universities. The networks of relations can be studied in terms of how the communicative functions are fulfilled. When all the functions operate the system can be integrated, but in a distributed mode. A system of three fluxes has no center, but an overlay of communications can function as a hypercycle sustaining problem solution and innovation at lower levels.

Problems can be expected to emerge at interfaces both horizontally and vertically. The problems provide challenges for further development and innovation. For example, the functional layer may be differently organized from the institutional layer. Industries may sometimes take the role of universities, and vice versa. Insofar as interfaces can be optimized, transaction costs can be reduced and niches with competitive advantages can be maintained in an otherwise complex environment. For example, Italian industrial districts have been considered from this perspective (Biggiero, 1998).

4) How does your theory interpret the global changes of our time?

The systems of communication and control remain structurally coupled to human agency, but the codification in the communications include and exclude people in terms of their communicative competencies. Thus, one can be excluded from the economic exchange mode because one is poor. But one can equally be excluded from scientific exchanges because one fails to have the education required for the participation. The communication systems develop eigen-dynamics using their codes of communication. These non-linear dynamics are stabilized in organizations as quasi-equilibria, but the control mechanisms are at the level of the fluxes of communication. Thus, the self-organization leads to resilience of patterns of communication which cannot be steered without reflection. This requirement of reflexivity makes all systems increasingly knowledge-based.

In terms of the philosophy, the advantage of this sociological theory of communication is that it considers Husserl’s (1929) intentionality of the intersubjective system as analytically different from the intentionality of the subjective agents. Both systems process meaning, but one expects a very different dynamics. The historical instantiations are in both cases organized. However, the individual strives towards an identity, while the social regime remains distributed. The globalized expectations and the stabilized manifestations can no longer be mapped without a reflexive position in the sociological discourse.

Loet Leydesdorff
Amsterdam School of Communications Research (ASCoR)
University of Amsterdam,
Kloveniersburgwal 48
1012 CX Amsterdam, The Netherlands


Biggiero, L. (1998). Italian Industrial Districts: A Triple Helix Pattern of Problem Solving. Industry and Higher Eductation, 12(4), 227-234.

Burt, R. S. (1982). Toward a Structural Theory of Action. New York, etc.: Academic Press.

Husserl, E. (1929). Cartesianische Meditationen und Pariser Vorträge. [Cartesian Meditations and the Paris Lectures.]. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973.

Leydesdorff, L. (1995). The Challenge of Scientometrics: The Development, Measurement, and Self-Organization of Scientific Communications. Leiden: DSWO Press, Leiden University; at http://www.upublish.com/books/leydesdorff-sci.htm

Leydesdorff, L. (2000). Are EU Networks Anticipatory Systems? An Empirical and Analytical Approach. In D. M. Dubois (Ed.), Computing Anticipatory Systems – Casys’99. Woodbury, NY: American Physics Institute, pp. 171-181.

Leydesdorff, L. (2003). The Construction and Globalization of the Knowledge Base in Inter-Human Communication Systems. Canadian Journal of Communication, 28(3), 267-289.

Leydesdorff, L., & N. Oomes. (1999). Is the European Monetary System Converging to Integration? Social Science Information, 38(1), 57-86.

Luhmann, N. (1984). Soziale Systeme. Grundriß einer allgemeinen Theorie. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp.

Shannon, C. E. (1948). A Mathematical Theory of Communication. Bell System Technical Journal, 27, 379-423 and 623-356.

Simon, H. A. (1969). The Sciences of the Artificial. Cambridge, MA/London: MIT Press.

Theil, H. (1972). Statistical Decomposition Analysis. Amsterdam/ London: North-Holland.

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