Young Universities as Engines of Innovation


Universities the world over face pressure to contribute to the innovation-based economic development of the regions and nations that host them. This pressure is particularly acute for new universities – those established within the last few decades. Virtually all of these young schools were founded with the express purpose of accelerating local innovation.

At the same time, most are located in growing economies whose innovation ecosystems are still maturing. These young institutions have great potential to strengthen in the innovation economies of the regions they serve, but require a systematic approach to innovation to reach this potential.

SRI International has the privilege of working with individual universities and ministries of higher education in many fast growing economies to develop research and education strategies that maximize impact on growth. This work has involved projects for several universities in the Gulf region, including a recent project preparing the research strategy for the new innovation-oriented University of Oman, due to begin operation in 2018.

In recognition of SRI’s expertise in university planning and in innovation strategy development for organizations in all sectors – academic, government, and commercial – SRI’s Center for Innovation Strategy and Policy was recently invited to give the keynote address at Qatar University’s annual research forum, which I had the privilege of delivering.

Focusing on the role universities play in the broader innovation ecosystem, SRI’s presentation highlighted the abundant opportunities available to young universities to contribute to innovation-based economic growth. Specific strategies were presented in the areas of developing talent, guiding research ideas, and creating protected spaces for failure within the innovation network.

The specialized technical talent required for innovation is often in short supply in emerging economies. This is true for faculty – it can be challenging to assemble a critical mass of faculty in science-intensive fields such as pharmaceutical development – and in industry, into which the flow of well-trained students from universities is lower than what is needed. SRI described an approach to building skills over time by focusing young university effort on areas of business and technology innovation in fields like digital media, bioinformatics, wellness, urban design, and many others that do not require a large critical mass of scientific expertise to make significant contributions. Focusing early efforts in such areas lets universities build emerging centers of excellence that serve as a platform for developing more science-intensive innovation skills down the road.

SRI guides its own innovating activities through a disciplined process that emphasizes focusing on important unmet needs in the marketplace rather than on “cool technology” or “interesting science.” Any organization aspiring to do R&D that has a commercial and societal impact, including a new university, must take a similar needs-focused approach. SRI’s presentation at Qatar University highlighted the importance for university researchers of understanding the value of their research in addressing potential market needs, and of guiding their work in the lab toward enhancing this value as much as possible.

Finally, SRI’s talk at Qatar University noted that the most innovative places in the world, from Silicon Valley to Hollywood, are, paradoxically, characterized by high rates of failure. Failure creates important learning opportunities essential to successful innovation. Unfortunately, in much of the world, the cultural stigma of failure discourages the risk taking needed for innovation and slows the learning-by-trying that leads to great breakthroughs. Universities, isolated from the purely commercial pressures and dedicated to open exploration, are uniquely positioned to provide a much-needed protected space for experimentation and failure unavailable to aspiring innovators in many economies.

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