Universities in the innovation ecosystem | Sunday Observer

Universities in the innovation ecosystem

5 June, 2021

“Innovation is seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.” - Dr. Albert Szent Gyorgyi

The words “innovation” and “invention” quite often are used interchangeably, though they do not mean the same thing. The Cambridge Dictionary defines an invention as “something that has never been made before, or the process of creating something that has never been made before”.

Whereas to innovate means “to use a new or an existing idea or method to improve a product or a process that is of use in the real world”.

A product or a process is inventive if it has never been done before; whether it is innovative depends on the impact it has on the end user.

If an invention lacks real-life value for the user, then, it will soon be forgotten and overshadowed by an innovation that can satisfy such a timely-need in the society.

Creativity is the key ingredient in both inventions and innovations. Inventors use it to create something that nobody has done before while innovators use it to create a vision of a product or a process that will be so useful to its users that the innovator and his organisation can achieve the expected commercial success. Organisations sometimes show a list of patents they have obtained as supporting evidence to their claims of being “leaders in innovation.” Patents are legal documents to show that the patent holder is the first to register that particular invention at that particular intellectual property monitoring organisation.

That doesn’t say anything about the innovative capabilities of the person or the organisation holding those patents. Innovation might be the glamorous synonym the business world uses to highlight the success or the relevance of one over the other.

With the development of digital technology, providing “innovative solutions” to inventors from industry and academia helping them in the process of commercialising their inventions has become a thriving business itself.

Innovation seen everywhere

People around the world are being introduced to new innovative products and services on a daily basis. Business world is introduced to dichotomies such as closed versus open or incremental versus disruptive innovation.

Universities have started calling their research laboratories “research and innovation centers”. The policymakers have started asking even the State universities to turn their research into marketable products and services in order to generate funds to cover some of the expenses.

This fascination with innovation is further highlighted by a visible “pro-innovation bias” in the industry where using latest technologies such as artificial intelligence is becoming the minimum standards to achieve in order to stay competitive.

In management and economics literature, innovation is often defined as “the first commercial application or production of a new process or product”. It seems that the world has come to accept the meaning of innovation basically as the commercialisation of technological inventions.

The irony is that most of the universities have also become blind followers of this definition and are competing against each other to attract more customers (used to be called students) using innovative marketing strategies.

These scenarios can also be seen among the postgraduate degree programs offered by Sri Lankan state universities since those programs have become major money-making ventures for the institutions, university administrators and for academics and non-academics who are involved with such programs.

Universities catering to market

Some of the questions that would come to one’s mind under these circumstances would be: Is that the role of the university? Should the universities be dancing to the tune of the market economy or should they be the composers of the tune?

Should the universities be farm teams for industry, including the education industry? What do we expect from a university? Should they merely prepare young people for the wide variety of roles in the labor market of the local and global economy?

Or do they have a higher mission of training the young minds of a nation to develop critical, analytical and innovative thinking so that they can discover and invent the future?

Should the innovation be confined only to commercialising technological and scientific discoveries? What about developing appropriate responses to societal needs that are not addressed by existing public and private organisations?

Can the universities be innovative in introducing such a social innovation paradigm while entertaining techno-economic paradigm of the innovation ecosystem? Should the universities be reviewing the value they assign to the type of knowledge disseminated through their teaching and research and how they contribute to the generation of new knowledge? The most important factor that should decide how good a university is, not how much money it generates but how much knowledge it generates and disseminates.

Most of the people think that the best way universities can disseminate knowledge is through academic publications and conferences that will share the information about the research programs they are involved in. Even a better way to disseminate knowledge is through its own graduates.

A university having 1000 students in its graduating class should consider training them to be knowledge distributors and ambassadors of that university.

If each graduate come in contact with at least a hundred other people through their family, friends, neighbors and co-workers then, the university should consider that as an opportunity to share that knowledge with 100,000 more people. These graduates should not just be replacements for the retirees in the labor market. The university should have the wisdom to see these young ambassadors as employees, employers, entrepreneurs, teachers, writers, poets, artists, social workers, politicians, consumers, suppliers and most of all as the parents of the next generation of the nation.

A university, being a place that generates knowledge, should be able to understand the concept of innovation and the difference between innovation and invention better than any other organisation.

The concept of innovation is applicable to individual persons, organisations and the economy as a whole. It is important to be conscious about the impact of the innovations on the society in general.

Even though the role of innovation in economic growth is emphasised as the only motivating factor the universities should be able to enlighten the students, the general public as well as the policy makers about the importance of innovation in social sciences and of the responsible innovation.

For example, universities are well positioned to educate people about the impact of the economic growth on global warming, environmental destruction, resource depletion and impoverishment of population if the growth is not sustainable and the innovations are not socially desirable and ethically acceptable.

The writer has served in higher education sector as an academic over twenty years in the USA and fourteen years in Sri Lanka and he can be contacted at [email protected]