As pointed out in the introduction, HEIs and especially research universities are placed under tremendous pressure by a variety of societal trends, creating an environment of enormous complexity [50
]. Following the rationale of systemic development and Clare W. Graves’ [10
] assumptions, this should lead to minor and major updates to the prototypical worldview of a given HEI. In order to deal with the increasing complexity, HEIs are likely to adopt more and more postmodern and integrative values and practices. But what does that mean for the character of a HEI? In the following, four types of worldviews in the systemic development of HEIs are shortly introduced, following the ideas of Georg Müller-Christ [39
], Otto Scharmer [5
], and Bror Giesenbauer and Merle Tegeler [3
]. As these four HEI specific worldviews have historically evolved in a sequential manner, they are also described as phases of HEI development. Furthermore, as these phases can be described as major upgrades to the “operating system” of a HEI [5
], they are labelled with numbering from 1.0 to 4.0, following the nomenclature of software development. When abstracted from their historic occurrence and translated into a conception of sustainability governance, they can be framed as representing four distinct conditions along the continuum of sustainability governance proposed by Niedlich et al. [9
3.1. Four Phases of HEI Development and Their Respective Worldviews
Traditional HEI 1.0
. Universities were historically invented from the catholic idea of preserving and teaching universal truths in medieval times [42
], which can be framed as an expression of the traditionalist worldview. A supposedly “all-knowing” scholar dressed in academic gown would then read his teachings to relatively passive students, separated by strong disciplines. The impressiveness of large classicist university buildings as palaces of knowledge reflects this kind of focus on authority, stability, and persisting truths [39
]. The prototypical HEI 1.0 might seem outdated and yet has succeeded in preserving academic education for several centuries. Indeed, its worldview still influences the ethos of modern universities—based on the systemic principle of transcend and include
(see Section 2.2.2
). By itself, a traditional HEI or University 1.0 is not likely to integrate fast-paced societal change and address cross-cutting topics such as sustainable development (SD) as a whole as these topics demand more openness, dialogue, and at least some degree of interdisciplinarity. However, even traditional universities had to adapt to societal change following the Age of Enlightment and the rise of modern democracy.
Modern HEI 2.0
. Universities were reinvented in Germany in the 19th
century by Wilhelm von Humboldt and others as research universities [52
], which were later adapted into the American model, combining the German research idea with the English collegiate tradition and the American idea of service to society [2
] (cf. p. 8). As an early expression of the modern worldview (see Section 2.2.1
), it focused on the research process
, allowing for more fluidity and leading to the idea of continuous improvement and process optimization. The rise of the research university model enabled massive breakthroughs in terms of research methods, standards of publication, and historic innovations for civilization in fields such as technology, engineering, and medicine.
Current academia is mainly shaped by this reinvention of higher education in light of the modern worldview. Quantification, professional specialization, and competition form the basis for most endeavors of HEIs. HEIs 2.0 compete for grants, students, and placements in rankings and thus, in short, for quantitative success [15
]. This orientation toward quantitative success is amplified by the trends of massification (as participation in higher education growths on national and international levels), globalization, and internationalization and leads to increased marketization and privatization [2
]. Consequently, teaching has become test-centric and modularized and HEIs have come to adopt entrepreneurial activities. Furthermore, scientific careers can nearly exclusively be advanced within disciplinary niches based on metrics such as numbers of publications and impact factors, hindering the advancement of interdisciplinary fields and cross-cutting topics such as SD [3
]. These trends seem to intensify at the moment even though there are parallel lines of developments.
Postmodern HEI 3.0
. The main alternative development of higher education is currently shaped by the postmodern worldview, especially in the social sciences and humanities. Dismissing positivism and objectivism, the subjective viewpoints from both research participants and students stand at the center of research and education at postmodern HEIs. Seminars, project work, and qualitative research methods have been developed in the spirit of this HEI 3.0. Learning arrangements are then focused on competencies rather than on knowledge accumulation only [23
]. Moreover, forerunners such as Kurt Lewin have introduced alternative approaches to research such as action research [3
]. These developments occurred together with student movements from about the 1950s, protesting against patriarchal hierarchies of HEI 1.0 and the somewhat mechanical teaching styles of HEI 1.0 and 2.0. This type of postmodern HEI or University 3.0 has brought about a focus on societal issues such as SD and led to the rise of interdisciplinary research. Researchers operating from a postmodern worldview will usually try to make everyone heard and to include regional and international stakeholders [22
]. However, researchers often have to play by the rules of the modern worldview of HEI 2.0 in order to advance their careers, leading to trade-offs and tensions on a personal level [3
] (cf. p. 645).
Integrative HEI 4.0. As conventional ways of decision making and education (including postmodern dialogical practices) are put under pressure by increasingly fast-paced and complex societal changes in times of globalization and digitalization, some parts of HEIs have come to adopt novel practices in line with the integrative worldview. So far, there are few pure examples for these Universities or HEIs 4.0. However, experiences from smaller academic projects and other organizational forms (e.g., businesses) operating from an integrative worldview allow for preliminary descriptions of this emerging type of HEI.
Integrative HEIs 4.0 will likely exhibit a focus on self-management, a strive for wholeness, as well as an awareness of their evolutionary purpose, taking responsibility and trying to actively participate in societal change [3
]. Taking systems as a whole into perspective, the co-creation of effective solutions for pressing societal issues such as SD will be emphasized in HEIs 4.0. Based on Graves’ model of systemic development, HEIs or Universities 4.0 are bound to act as brokers for integrative processes, facilitating synergies between different societal sectors.
Building almost exclusively on Russian research and philosophical works, Alla Lapteva and Varlerii Efimov come to very similar conclusions and conceptualize a University 4.0 as “an infrastructure platform” for a variety of activities [55
] (p. 2691). Focusing on the technical basis for HEI development, analogous to the waves of industrial revolution, Lapteva and Efimov stress the importance of telecommunication technologies for Universities 4.0. Consequently, HEIs and Universities 4.0 would be expressions of a “cognitive society” [55
] (p. 2690), making use of hybrid technologies and collective intelligence [56
]. HEIs become, in short, “a very open environment – a hub for a variety of communications, a node at the intersection of multiple networks (…). These communications, research works and development projects involve not only professors and students, but also a wide range of external participants.” [55
] (p. 2691).
Consequently, new concepts for higher education such as the living lab approach [57
] are built around the idea of inclusive and dynamic research processes (see Section 3.2.1
). The inclusion of students and citizens in the research process is intended to facilitate deep learning and to link research with education, knowledge transfer, and real-life application [58
]. And even without direct field testing of ideas, research-based learning and co-creative innovation methods can be applied in courses. At the very least, learners should be encouraged to personally engage with sustainability and to learn by experiencing
and becoming aware
, going beyond mere cognitive processing [59
Emphasizing the transformative aspect of HEI development, Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer propose that learning at integrative HEIs 4.0 will be shaped by action learning, global classrooms, innovation hubs, and individualized lifelong learning journeys [60
]. Scharmer goes on to argue in two blog posts that the university of the 21st century should in essence focus on providing vertical development literacy
, i.e., the ability to understand systems and their respective worldviews and to guide these systems through a systemic upgrade, if needed [6
]. According to Scharmer, this leading of transformative change requires the skill of “deep listening”, self-awareness, and compassion [5
Similarly, Uwe Schneidewind [61
] proposes that HEIs should focus on facilitating transformative literacy
, i.e., the ability to understand and participate in social transformation, including the technological, economic, institutional, and cultural dimensions of transformation. Sustainable development will then supposedly not be a special topic to deal with, but an integral part of a HEIs’ DNA and governance [3
]. Interestingly, the qualitative data from a multi-case study by Niedlich et al. [9
] suggest a linear relationship between the orientation toward organizational learning of a given HEI and the degree of holistic orientation of its sustainability governance, supporting the general assumption that the development of HEIs from 1.0 to 4.0 equals a general systemic upgrade, going beyond incremental and isolated updates.
3.2. Leading Multi-Level Development of HEIs
The presented four phases of systemic HEI development are intended to provide a map for navigating the transformation of HEIs in the 21st century. In times of increasing complexity and a “knowing-doing gap”, as Scharmer [5
] coins it, HEIs would do well to prepare for a systemic upgrade in order to keep up with societal demands, specifically the challenge of sustainable development. Currently HEIs around the world are at very different stages of development, described as stratification of higher education [63
]. We would go one step further and argue that each HEI in itself is stratified as is, as different organizational subsystems emphasize different worldviews and exhibit different levels of maturity within a given worldview. Transformation would thus necessitate a consciously chosen multi-level approach.
However, this systemic upgrading is no easy task, especially with the principles of systemic development in mind (see Section 2.2.2
). For example, how does one ensure and maintain the quality of teaching and testing while experimenting with new forms of education? How does one decide what to keep from the “old” system and how to transcend it in light of newly adopted core principles? And how should one address different subsystems of a given HEI? As these questions do not have a fixed answer, change agents might profit from engaging in peer networks (see Section 4
At the very least, HEIs should practice self-reflection, open up to societal discourse, and prepare for necessary change, if judged to be appropriate. This includes that not all subsystems have to embrace complexity and transdisciplinary research. If, for example, a molecular biologist finds that robust quantitative methods (based on the idea of falsification and statistical inference) and exclusive discourse within their disciplinary niche are still the most fitting approaches, then change agents would do well to support them in continuing that type of research. At the same time, the communication of research results and processes might be adjusted by publishing in open access journals and including students in the research process to facilitate research-based learning. Similarly, research questions connected to hot topics such as climate change might be favored.
As most HEIs are expected to be centered around the traditional 1.0 or modern 2.0 worldviews, the next step would likely be one of strengthening the ideas of quality control (traditional worldview) and process optimization (modern worldview), while also championing dialogical forms of research and education (postmodern worldview). Inspiration for taking the predominant HEI 2.0 one step further can be found in J.G. Wissema’s 3GU
], mainly with regards to restructuring HEIs—enabling more interdisciplinary research in institutes, professionalizing HEI management, and promoting entrepreneurial activities and outreach.
In sum, the integration of more participatory, open, and transdisciplinary practices should be encouraged at all levels while simultaneously consolidating methodological rigor and effective process management—rethinking prevalent ways of HEI organization. In this way, a University or HEI 4.0 will become an infrastructure platform for cross-sectoral communication, facilitating open science and co-creative problem solving.
3.2.1. University 4.0 Practices for Education, Research, and Governance
Even though the systemic development of a given HEI can hardly be prescribed generically, some examples for different fields of action might be helpful to inspire customized measures. Thus, we will present a couple of loosely chosen best practices for the areas of education, research, and governance.
. As HEIs will move toward a larger proportion of postmodern and integrative practices, education will likely be focused on a whole-person approach, developing (personal) competencies in co-creative settings, rather than on knowledge and methods only [65
]. One didactic approach that has been proven vital for leading co-creative seminars with learning groups of all levels is Ruth Cohn’s Theme-Centered Interaction
(TCI). TCI offers a clear framework for dynamically balancing different factors of group learning—namely, the subject matter (“it”) at hand, the needs of the group (“we”), the needs of each individual (“I”), as well as the demands of the specific context (the “globe”) [66
] (see Figure 1
for a display of the TCI model). Although it was originally developed for facilitating group therapy sessions, it has successfully been applied to classrooms in both primary, secondary, and higher education (see the work of Sylke Meyerhuber et al. [67
] for its application to higher education). Its goal is to promote what Ruth Cohn called “living learning”, a kind of learning which is based on the humanistic ideal of meeting the psychological needs of the group members in order to facilitate personal growth [66
] (cf. p. 19). Living learning is further described as being “emancipatory in nature” and thus, supporting self-leadership; as viewing the group as a “source of learning”; as being led by teachers that are also co-learning; and as being oriented toward meaningful experiences and behavior [68
] (p. 142). Due to its holistic nature, this approach seems well suited for facilitating transformative learning, especially education for sustainable development.
From our experience, the Theme-Centered Interaction (TCI) approach is especially helpful for dealing with emerging topics and for integrating all kinds of disturbances (e.g., personal irritation, side talks, group conflicts, or arising needs) that would otherwise negatively impact the learning process [69
]. Moreover, it accounts for both the relative autonomy and interdependence of human beings [70
]—facilitating mutual respect and self-responsibility at the same time—and thus, sets the stage for co-creative learning and working. As a principles-based approach, it can theoretically be used with all kinds of group settings, regardless of the underlying worldview, and seems to be a promising approach for gently paving the way toward integrative education of HEIs 4.0. HEI leaders could therefore offer personnel development courses to lecturers of all levels on the TCI approach to facilitate a systemic upgrade of teaching methods. Furthermore, HEIs could initiate courses or information material on other didactical topics such as competency-based learning, blended learning, whole person education, research-based learning, and education for sustainable development (see e.g., [71
. The transdisciplinary living lab
approach illustrates how a University or HEI 4.0 can attempt to contribute to sustainable development through novel research practices. The basic idea is to “leverage the campus as a test bed for sustainability” [73
], integrating faculty, staff, researchers, and students into the process and using rapid prototyping methodologies for finding local solutions for global sustainability challenges. Living labs are moreover described as “open innovation ecosystems based on a systematic user co-creation approach” and have similarities to approaches such as real world laboratories, urban transition labs, and transformation labs [57
] (cf. 32). In essence, they are focused on real-world application and effective problem solving through collaborative and open research. As such, living labs are not confined to the research category, but strongly interlink research with education, campus operations, and outreach, mirroring the cross-sector collaboration that is needed for promoting sustainable development. However, while the living lab approach is still emerging and preparing the ground for the integrative HEI 4.0, HEIs should not forget to also strengthen sound research practices on all levels, for example, by supporting open access publication or by prescribing study pre-registration to fight p-hacking
. As the example of living labs goes to show, governance for sustainable development will increasingly be framed as a community task with the advent of postmodern HEIs 3.0 and integrative HEIs 4.0. According to Niedlich et al. [9
] (p. 11), HEIs will then describe their purpose as that of being a change agent and not merely a knowledge producer, closely tied to civil society and other external actors. In this way, HEI management becomes a part of the community. Furthermore, sustainability governance will increasingly be based on a whole-institution approach and facilitate cross-sectional and inter-organizational decision-making processes. This includes pursuing multiple dimensions of sustainability and other cross-cutting issues simultaneously in an ambidextrous approach [9
] (cf. p. 14). Living labs are one possible expression of integrative sustainability governance at HEIs 4.0, especially at older institutions. However, smaller and more rural institutions might be better able to make the transition toward postmodern and integrative practices of sustainability governance than larger institutions with a long history of traditional and modern practices.
In essence, the development of higher education can be described as a process of progressively opening up to stakeholders of all kinds and of integrating participatory methods. This movement of opening up enables HEIs to keep up with societal change and to provide learning arrangements that not only address cognitive development, but also emotional and even moral and spiritual development.
Thus, the main strategy to deal with increasing complexity is argued to be found in the facilitation of systemic development toward more integrative approaches, while trying to consolidate lessons and standards from preceding phases. As HEIs are invariably stratified organizations including a multitude of subsystems and worldviews, this strategy should be consciously adopted as a stratified or multi-dimensional approach, enabling each subsystem of a given HEI to take the next necessary step or to strengthen what is working well. In other words, HEIs should be wary of a one-size-fits-all approach and address each subsystem independently, allowing for stratified, parallel development with a general tendency toward integrative practices, as reflected in the whole-institution approach for sustainability governance and the broader model of University or HEI 4.0.
As the complexity of this task could easily overwhelm local change agents, we have found that this main strategy is often supported by inter-organizational networking among peers. Moreover, inter-organizational collaboration can be seen as a central organizational element of the University 4.0 model. Therefore, inter-organizational networking will be discussed in the following section as the second, more specialized strategy for dealing with increased complexity.