Thinking about universities and innovation

Posted on February 4, 2012  /  0 Comments

The IDRC workshop at which I spent the last two days was on the subject of Universities and Intermediaries in Innovation for Inclusive Development. I’ve been thinking about inclusive development in the context of the summative paper on agricultural supply chains work we’re doing.

But then I’ve been thinking about universities much, much longer. Are they the appropriate vehicles for driving innovation in emerging economies, let alone inclusive innovation?

The answers would be different if the question were asked about the American model of the university? To a certain extent, the American university, even a place like Reed College which is focused on undergraduate liberal arts education, is a good platform for innovators. Just read Steve Job’s famous commencement speech.

As Nannerl Keohane states:

This way of learning has several distinct advantages: It’s insurance against obsolescence; in any rapidly changing field (and every field is changing rapidly these days), if you only focus on learning specific materials that are pertinent in 2012, rather than learning about them in a broader context, you will soon find that your training will have become valueless. Most important, with a liberal education you will have learned how to learn, so that you will be able to do research to answer questions in your field that will come up years from now, questions that nobody could even have envisioned in 2012, much less taught you how to answer.

One would assume that the research universities like Stanford, where Jobs gave his speech, are better platforms for innovation. On the outside, yes, it so appears. But in reality, actual innovation occurs in organizations and locations that are part of the university’s eco system, but are not necessarily controlled and directed by the university. I am reminded of statements like every university department being a collection of small businesses, rather than an integrated, coherent organization. We all set our research agendas, decided what we would teach and what we would not, and so on. These things were not centrally controlled.

The question before us is not innovation by or in US universities. It is about the role of emerging-economy universities in innovation.

The questions then are whether our universities have created the kinds of environments that would allow a Steve Jobs to emerge and innovate, and whether, in contrast to the “collection of small businesses” model of the US, our universities are capable to directing the energies of faculty to produce innovation.

My answer to the first question is an emphatic no. The answer to the second question is more complicated. It is tempting to support the central control of the work of faculty because they are so unproductive now. But if this is done in a creative enterprise, is there no danger that the creativity will be stifled? You may be able to get them to write more research articles or teach more students. But innovate? No.

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