Innovation = Regenerating Knowledge | Integral Worlds Theory

Integral University Theory:
Re-inventing the Role of University in Society

Trans4m continuously “rethinks university”. Through our work on the Integral University we demonstrate how a university can authentically “Care” for the integral development of individuals, communities, organisations and societies

Introduction: The Integral University as an Agent for the Integral Development of Self, Organisation, Community and Society

Through our notion of an Integral University we draw on decades of research with transformative educational-developmental entities and processes in particular societies. These are altogether designed to address the burning issues that each society faces, by drawing on its own unique gifts, and are aligned with our Integral Worlds approach and the many subsequent works of ours, such as Integral Development, Integral Economics, Integral Research and Innovation, Integral Dynamics and Transformation Management.

We introduce here the core features of a prospective Integral University, altogether derived out of an evolution of existing key university functions: that is teaching, research, outreach and thought leadership. This results in four newly defined university functions – transformative individual (E)ducation, innovation-driven institutional (R)esearch, (C)ommunity activation and (A)wakening and catalysing societal consciousness. By combining these four “CARE” functions, we seek to renew the current understanding of the role and design of a thereby integral university.

The purpose of our integral work is to evolve the university into a prime instigator of self, organisational, community, and societal development. We thereby serve to address a number of problems with which many conventional universities are faced:

  • not being sufficiently grounded in the developmental needs, problems and opportunities of particular societies
  • not sufficiently drawing on the creative potential of the nature and culture of each society
  • remaining stand-alone “ivory towers” rather than becoming an integral part of a knowledge network, incorporating other developmental organisations
  • over-individualising education and research, in particular in the social sciences
  • becoming “degree factories”, rather then centres for individual and societal renewal

We argue that a university can engage – like no other institution in society – in long term in-depth development processes. That gives universities the potential to become major springboards for widespread individual and institutional, communal and societal development. Given the enormous challenges humanity is facing, we can no longer afford to leave this potential unused.

Four Functions of the Integral University

Prelude to the Integral University: From One or Two to Four Functions

We point out how Integral Worlds can help bringing about a new type of Integral University that can becomes a key player for the holistic development of self, organisation, community and society. Such a university embraces four different functions; it thereby evolves what are currently termed teaching courses into transformative education; research topics into innovation-driven research; outreach projects into community activation; and thought leadership into awakening consciousness and catalysing societal development, respectively. For all four functions we build on emerging trends that are visible in the global university landscape. Furthermore, we exemplify such trends through our own practice around the world.

We begin by revisiting the most well-known university functions – education and research – and thereafter the lesser known functions – project-based outreach and thought leadership. Following the integral logic, we seek to show how the four functions together can contribute to a richer conception of a university. We argue that such a new conception is necessary in order to evolve universities into veritable agents of transformation. We now introduce each of the four functions, as well as their necessary evolution.

University Function 1 = Education: From Teaching Courses to Transformative Education

Background: Education Conventionally Limited to Teaching Courses

Of course, we have no problem in identifying a preeminent university institution focussing on individual education and individual research but often our imagination stops there. Looking back, we notice that many such universities emerged originally out of a liberal arts heritage, carrying a strong societal vision. Initially, they saw themselves as a seedbed for individual capacity building and learning for the common good. This original impulse has been widely lost in most cases, as, for example, US educational philosopher Allan Bloom critiques in his Closing of the American Mind (2012) and Rakesh Khurana illustrates in From Higher Aims to Hired Hands (2007). Khurana, a Professor of Management at Harvard Business School, uses the case of business education in the USA to show how the original idea of the Research University, after taking successful roots in the USA, gradually degraded. His insights are particularly helpful, given the all-pervasive impact that the focus on individual, invariably “westernised” leadership and entrepreneurship – promoted by the MBA, the flagship of Anglo-Saxon business education – has across the world, not only on business, but also on the fields of education and development.

Hence, most of today’s universities with a primarily educational focus are disconnected, at least in a direct sense, from their society’s most burning issues. What we witness, is that many of such universities emphasise on “education for the job market”, seeking to churn out a large number of “qualified degree holders”, whereby these qualifications may well be relatively irrelevant to engage with today’s key socio-environmental-economic issues. While such an education may still serve to get a job, we question the sustainability of this approach in the long run. We argue, that the focus on skills and capacity building needs to be directed to the real-life problems societies are facing, as only then can we create long-term sustainable livelihoods. That brings us to the renewal of the educational function.

Renewing of the Education Function: Towards Transformative Education

Picking up the original thread of seeing universities as seedbeds for individual capacity building and learning for the common good, we observe widespread impulses of renewal around the world. Often, these impulses do not come from within the conventional university world, but rather are expressed through new forms for transformative education. Such new programs and entities seek to develop individual capacities that allow individuals to actively contribute to real life problem solving. As an overarching theme, they thereby foster the development of sustainable livelihoods, enabling individuals to create new forms of enterprise and livelihood.

The UN Decade for Education for Sustainable Development (2005 to 2014) is perhaps the best example for this global development, intending to turn existing educational programs into catalytic seedbeds for active, positive change. On a global level, UNESCO has become the lead agency for this initiative, seeking to mobilise the world’s educational resources to build a sustainable future. For UNESCO, such Education for Sustainable Development “allows every human being to acquire the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values necessary to shape a sustainable future. Education for Sustainable Development means including key sustainable development issues into teaching and learning.” A particular emphasis is given on “participatory teaching and learning methods that motivate and empower learners to change their behaviour and take action for sustainable development” (

Overall, a large number of highly innovative educational initiatives have been emerging recently, all of which engage the individual with his or her society, among them:

  • Gaia University: a self-declared un-learning educational-developmental institution promoting an ecosocial economy (
  • Giordano Bruno Global Shift University: promoting a whole life educational experience (
  • Findhorn Foundation and Findhorn Foundation College: promoting holistic education for sustainable living (
  • Ubiquity University: focusing on “whole brain whole systems” learning, seeking to “ignite, nurture and amplify the profound genius” of each student (

Many of these initiatives aspire to combine inner growth with outer action through programs and courses in further and higher education and professional development. Often there is a simultaneous focus on personal and spiritual development as well as on valuable life and work skills. Also, many of them are also geared for adult learners, contributing to a life-orientated evolution of this first function towards transformative education.

University Function 2 = Research: From Topic-Based to Innovation-Driven Research

Background: Conventional Research Limited to Individuals Collecting Data

Research, the second function of a university, received a major evolutionary thrust towards innovation driven, institutional knowledge creation in the 1990s with the publication of The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies (Gibbons et al, 1994). This was a far cry from individuals pursuing research-as-data-processing.

For the authors, Michael Gibbons, Helga Nowotny, Camille Limoges and others, so-called Mode 2 knowledge production was different in nearly every respect from conventional (so-called Mode 1) universities. For the latter was a form of knowledge production – a complex of ideas, methods, values and norms – that perpetrated a Newtonian model of classical, analytic, scientific method to more and more fields of enquiry. Within Mode 2, knowledge generation is carried out in an applied context, in transdisciplinary guise. It involves the close interaction of many actors, not just academics. In particular, it engages with organisations and their real-life work based challenges. The emergence of Mode 2 was a profound development. It called into question the adequacy of familiar knowledge producing institutions, whether universities, government research establishments, or corporate laboratories.

In Mode 2, the self-contained, conventional university with a primary focus on the teaching of courses is anathema. Knowledge production rather had to be understood as a socially distributed process.

Evolving the Research Function: Towards Innovation-Driven Institutional Research

When we turn to current day Mode 2 universities, we notice that they are virtually invisible in practice. Furthermore, the rather rare examples, like Warwick University School of Engineering in the UK or Da Vinci Institute in South Africa are very much a halfway house between individual and organisation, because the workplace challenges that they focus on remain primarily individual rather than group or organisational challenges. They thereby remain somewhat removed from a full-fledged knowledge creating organisation. Why? Because, once we move onto organisational knowledge creation – which the Japanese organisational sociologists Nonaka and Takeuchi have so astutely identified in such institutions as Canon and Sharp, Toyota and Toshiba (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995) – we tend to look rather to manufacturing corporations than to universities.

However, we increasingly see opportunities to align such organisational knowledge creation with an authentic Mode 2 university. We are currently engaged with two real life cases – the Da Vinci Institute in South Africa and Deutsche Telekom in Germany – that demonstrate the further evolution of Mode 2 and hence of the research function as a whole. As an example, we focus on Deutsche Telekom:

  • Deutsche Telekom, Germany: The establishment of its department of “Group Transformational Change” in 2013 marks the commitment of Germany’s telecommunication giant to significantly evolve its organisational knowledge creation potential. Head of the Department is Reza Moussavian, who completed his PhD within our (Trans4m and Da Vinci) international doctoral program on Integral Development. His “Mode 2” thesis (2014) focused on Integral Telekoms and resulted not only in a new conceptual approach to telecommunication, but also in the practical application of the integral concept with Telkom-providers around the world, primarily via Detecon International, Deutsche Telekom’s international consulting arm with which Moussavian was previously a senior partner. Together with his team, he is now creating a knowledge creation platform called “Shareground” that links international employees, departments, affiliates and external institutions (think tanks, universities etc.) within a knowledge creation network. This is a process to which we are actively contributing, for example through an internal discussion paper on Integral Deutsche Telekom.

University Function 3 = Community Activation: From Project-Based Outreach to Community Activation

Community Activation via universities or university-based programs has gradually emerged in recent years. A number of universities worldwide engage in so-called project-based outreach.

What we encounter, however, are two problems. Either, such community activation is disconnected from university-based knowledge creation and hence does not feed back into the renewal of curricula. Or, universities engage actively in project-based outreach programs, thereby intimately involve with communities, but then these projects are not sustainably owned by the community itself, and gradually lose their initial impact.

Major examples of the emergence of Community Activation via university(like) programs are the Barefoot College in Rajastan in India, founded by Sanjit Bunker Roy (, the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca in Mexico, founded by development economist Gustavo Esteva (Prakash & Esteva, 1998), the Earth University “Bija Vidyapeeth” in North India’s Dehradun, founded by eco-feminist Vandana Shiva in partnership with the UK based Schumacher College (, and the Intercultural University Amawtay Wasi in Ecuador (, calling itself an “integral university”.

All these cases have started out by setting up research and/or educational programs and processes. The major challenge that comes with a more formal institutionalisation of this third university function is not to lose its original transformative impact. Official Higher Education standards often oblige new institutions to adopting conventional curricula and educational processes that are not geared towards effective community development.

University Function 4 = Awakening Consciousness and Developmental Catalysation: From Thought Leadership to Catalysing Conscious Development in Society

Awakened Societal Development is, for us, almost a culminating stage for a university. Here the institution begins to creatively engage with the development of society as a whole. We find intimations of such a catalytic function within a university in its conventional role of providing thought leadership to society, usually associated with individual “gurus”. While this is still taking place, we recognise the huge gap between philosophy and theory, on the one hand, and transformative, developmental practice on the other. If thought leadership can be evolved towards active catalysation, an enormous developmental potential can be unleashed for the benefit of society. In other words, innovative thinking needs to relate more strongly to society’s developmental needs; it has to be measured also for its practical contribution.

Awakened Societal Development is, like Community Activation, still an emergent function and has, like the latter, a strong grounding in context and community. Its main focus though transcends individual communities and is about societal learning and consciousness raising. To achieve that, it needs to build on the cultural-spiritual foundation of a society, engaging in meaning generation processes. Such Awakened Societal Development helps the society to advance to a new evolutionary stage.

A highly descriptive example for developmental catalysation on a societal level is FUNDAEC University Center for Rural Well-Being in Colombia (, that “dedicated itself to the creation of the University for Integral Development …, which was defined as a social space in which the inhabitants of a given region learn to choose and walk the paths of their own communities’ development” (Harper, 2000).

We conclude with an example from our own community of practice:

  • Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, Sri Lanka: Perhaps the best case for Awakened Societal Development is our own partner organisation Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka, one of the most remarkable development initiatives in the world. Its development theory and practice deeply grounds itself in the particular cultural and spiritual context of Sri Lanka. It combines a strong Buddhist rooting with Gandhian philosophy. The main focus of Sarvodaya (meaning: Awakening of All) is the co-development of individual, community and society. It engages with over 15.000 villages in Sri Lanka, comprising almost half of the country’s population. The most significant theme that Sarvodaya aspires to contribute to the global dialogue is that of development based on spiritual consciousness. Although Sarvodaya has aimed for a balanced development that integrates social, economic, political and spiritual elements, the key to its integrated system is spirituality. As a network-centric movement, Sarvodaya sees as one of its main tasks for the next decades its own transformation into a community-oriented university with a catalytic developmental orientation reaching society as a whole. Significant groundwork has been done through the establishment of Sarvodaya Institute of Higher Learning, driven by Sarvodaya’s General Secretary (and Trans4m Global Wisdom Council member) Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne. Together, we seek to design and implement integral educational-developmental processes and programs that can support and stimulate the agenda of societal awakening, as well as the development of economic and political macro-alternatives.

Integrating this fourth function into the university is a massive task. The same initial disconnect we faced between Community Activation and the conventional understanding of a university, we encountered also between the Awakened Catalysation of societal development and the individualised university format. It is indeed in these two activational and awakening, catalytic university functions where most evolution is needed.

Integrating the Four Functions: Towards the Integral University

We have argued that each of the four university functions has a particular emphasis, despite the clear overlapping between all functions. The following figure illustrates the interdependent nature of all four functions. The “turbine” in its center conveys the dynamism within this integral entity. The culminating challenge for the Integral University is to not only differentiate but also integrate all four functions.

Integral University - Overview
Integral University – Overview

In reviewing our journey, we gradually become able to transcend the existing focus on (primarily) education and (secondarily) research. Further evolution is required for both functions – education to be aligned more closely with a more contemporary, transformative approach to education and learning; and research to be aligned more closely with innovation. Then, we suggest adding two additional functions that reflect community-based and societal learning. We maintain that the third function is already intimated through the rise of Community Activation, and the fourth function is preceded by the emergence of Awakening Consciousness and Developmental Catalysation, the latter almost as a further evolution of development agencies or NGO’s. In that sense, all four functions are building on somehow established grounds.

By integrating the four functions of Education (E), Research (R), Community Activation (C) and Awakening Consciousness (C) in a new way, we arrive at a “CARE-ing” University. The following figure summarises these four functions and shows how they jointly cover the full spectrum from individual, to organisation, to community, to society.

Integral University - Functions and Outcome
Integral University – Functions and Outcome

While each function reaches out to all social levels (from self to society), each has a primary emphasis. Finally, we align each of the functions with specific university outcomes, required to lead towards contributing to key developmental objectives of a society.

Reality Check – Emerging Cases of Integral Universities

Relevant Practical Background

The Integral Worlds approach and the notion of an Integral University is at the heart of the transformative educational and research programs that we have designed and run since 2005, together with partnering accrediting universities. Framed mainly as Masters and PhD programs, each one of them is geared to addressing burning socio-economic issues in the societal and cultural contexts of the participants. These programs incorporate the Integral Worlds knowledge base, and support participants in generating and applying new knowledge relevant to their burning issues.

Each transformative journey evokes the “local identity” of participant and context, links local and global knowledge sources, and seeks to develop solutions to local problems, that are locally relevant and globally resonant. In every case, we aspire to bring forth the rich contribution of each local world to the many worlds we collectively inhabit.

Our programs can be regarded as seedbeds for Integral Universities, in two ways: firstly, we seek to embody core structural and processal principles of an Integral University; secondly, the programs themselves are catalytic not only so as to address burning issues on the ground, but also to help participants to institutionalise spaces that integrate all four university functions to provide platforms of Integral Development accessible to a wide range of local transformation agents.

We now share one case in Egypt, where we have actively worked with our partners towards co-evolving an Integral University. We conclude, briefly, with two further cases, one in Slovenia, the other in Nigeria, where the seeds for similar developments have been planted.

Egypt: Heliopolis University for Sustainable Development as an Integral University

With the case of Sekem and Heliopolis University for Sustainable Development in Egypt, both of them partnering organisations of Trans4m, we introduce a fascinating educational-developmental venture that is committed to become an Integral University. Here we are building on the legacy of Sekem – awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 2003 – as an international role model for sustainable development. The process towards an Integral University is stewarded by Sekem’s founder Ibrahim Abouleish and his son Helmy, and backed by a committed group of innovative faculty at the university and transformatively oriented Sekem practitioners.

In combination, both institutions, Sekem and Heliopolis University, have made significant inroads into all four Integral University functions:

  • Transformative Education via Heliopolis University: Heliopolis University is engaged in processes towards evolving “educational courses” in Education for Sustainable Development, building, among others, on UNESCO programs (e.g. RUCAS: Reorient University Curricula to Address Sustainability). Such transformative education is targeted not only at undergraduate students, officially enrolled in the programs offered by Heliopolis University, but also reaches out to management and professionals at Sekem. Another example is the EU TEMPUS project and related center of excellence at the university where teachers from all over Egypt are trained and equipped with learning materials for mainstreaming sustainable development content into the existing primary education. Furthermore, together with Heliopolis University’s business and economics faculty we are developing a new people-centred curriculum. Applying the CARE model, we are evolving the Human Resources curriculum into an integrated “CARE 4 People” course-track that will result in a Human Development major for undergraduate students that is unique in Egypt. It combines conventional content from special Human Resource Management functions with newly created courses like Integral Human Development and other fields such as Leadership, Social and Business Psychology, Organization Design Theory and Knowledge & Innovation Management.This curriculum transformation is, in turn, aligned with the enterprise transformation of Sekem itself that seeks to develop, through this parallel process, its own corporate HR function into an integral “CARE 4 People” function.
  • Innovation-Driven Research via a Social Innovation Center: Sekem and Heliopolis University have established a Social Innovation Center with the intention of aligning what is termed the integral Core Program for Heliopolis University – focusing on Nature and Community, Culture and Spirituality, Technology and Society, Economics and Environment – with specialist engineering, pharmacological, as well as business and economics programs. Furthermore, the center helps identifying and understanding burning societal needs and directing the research capacities of the university to find, implement and upscale solutions together with the Sekem initiative and other local and global stakeholders. To evaluate relevant research initiatives and projects the center is using an Integral Scorecard, taking ecological, cultural, technological and economic factors into account. The scorecard has been developed together with a group of students, participating in an Integral Development course at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, that one of us is directing.
  • Community Activation via Sekem: Sekem itself has a longstanding history of activating Egyptian communities in reclaiming desert land, and engaging in renewable energy and water efficiency projects. Over time students at Heliopolis University will be progressively exposed to such, to the point of co-engaging in such community activation themselves.
  • Catalysing Development via a Human Development Center: Interlinking Sekem and Heliopolis University is a new Human Development Center, serving to bring together courses involving initially self development, followed by organizational development processes. A participant on our PhD, Maximilian Abouleish, is driving the “human development agenda” together with his colleagues, using the PhD to catalyse relevant development processes in both institutions. Starting point for the human development center is the above-mentioned agenda to evolving human resources into a full-fledged “CARE 4 People” curriculum (on the university level) and function (on the enterprise level). That includes the development of existing and future employees for transformative enterprise practice.

The challenge ahead for Heliopolis University is to continue the functional evolution: a difficult task, not only because of existing institutional hurdles, but also as it takes place within a highly conservative Egyptian educational environment, often inhibited by change-resistant mindsets.

Nigeria and Slovenia: Initial Developments

  • Nigeria: In 2011, Basheer Oshodi (2013), a former participant on our PhD program, founded, together with a group of Nigerian Doctoral Researchers, CISER (Center for Integral Social and Economic Research) Nigeria. The institute seeks to address poverty alleviation through promotion of sustainable livelihoods and enterprises. To achieve this goal, the center enables collaboration between local researchers and policy makers. The intention is to draw in a wide network of national, regional African and international transformation agents to make the center a catalytic entity for knowledge production processes. CISER Nigeria sees itself as a stepping-stone towards an integral university for Africa, one that is focussing on community development, societal learning, and organisational knowledge creation, for the continent.
  • Slovenia: In Slovenia we began cooperation in 2011 with educational specialist Darja Piciga – a member of the former Government Office of Climate Change, now senior expert at the Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning – who is employing an integral economic and development approach to national policy planning in Slovenia as well as to educational programs that focus on sustainable development. At this stage, she is pursuing the application of the framework of Integral Economics and Integral Development to an “Integral Green Economy and Society in Slovenia”. In September 2011, her office submitted a strategy for the transition of Slovenia to a Low-Carbon Society by 2050 for public consultation. It provides a vision of Slovenia in 2050 as a highly integrated and inclusive society with business focusing on promoting sustainability through an enhanced quality of life and natural environment (Bećić et al, 2013). Piciga managed to mobilize a wide network of Slovenian transformation agents from all sectors of society. In spring 2013, they started to develop a Citizens’ Initiative for an Integral Green Slovenia and a few months later this process resulted in the first international conference on Integral Green Economy. Theconference was co-organised by BC Naklo, an innovative tertiary education provider in Slovenia and one of the key supporters of the initiative. The vision of the Citizens’ Initiative and of BC Naklo both embrace the CARE approach introduced here.

These pioneering cases have still a long way to go. Though still fragile, the cases demonstrate the attempt of building integral processes and structures that link education, research, activation and catalysation, thereby becoming “Care-ing” Universities.

Summary and Outlook: The Necessary (R)evolution – Towards a “CARE-ing” Uni-Versity

The Integral University is not just a conceptual-theoretical innovation, but, much more, an emergent institutional form, born out of many years of research and practice, together with a wide range of co-researchers and social innovators from around the world. It builds on the philosophy and praxis of the Integral Worlds approach, introduced at the beginning of this article.

The Integral University differentiates and integrates the four evolved university functions of Transformative Individual Education (E), Innovation-driven Institutional Research (R), Community Activation (C) and Societally based Awakening of Consciousness (A). Combined, that makes it a “CARE-ing” University, one that contributes to bring about a Caring Individual, Organisation, Community and Society. Spanning all these four levels, the university is fully extricated from its “ivory tower” and brought into the heart of society.

Through the emergent philosophy and praxis of the Integral University, we respond to the need for new spaces in society, that are able to creatively address the burning issues individuals, organisations, communities and societies face, in naturally and culturally resonant ways. Actualising this potential, we see the Integral University as one of the most potent vehicles that we can co-create to purposefully engage with the evolutionary shift that humanity is facing.

By drawing on the best that each social and cultural context has to offer, an Integral University is designed to bring about “unity in diversity”. This is a most urgent task, bringing an entirely new perspective on the very notion of a “Uni-Versity”. In the term of Peter Senge, the renowned organisational developer and educator, it is a “necessary revolution”.


NOTE: This text is largely extracted from an article we wrote for Unesco’s publication PROSPECTS, in a special edition on education for the 21st Century (full download below)