So, I came across this quite remarkable little document yesterday – it’s a report prepared by MIT-Skoltech on the universities around the world who contribute the most to their local innovation systems.
(What is Skoltech, you ask? Well, it’s a university located in a nascent science and tech hub, just outside Moscow, in a place called Skolkovo, and is the pet project of the Medvedev wing of the Kremlin. Anchoring this tech hub is the new Skolkovo University of Science and Technology, or Skoltech. To emphasize its difference from the rest of Russian Academia, the institution’s hired an American, Edward Crawley, from MIT as its first President. In the stuffy world of Russian Academia, this was a Big Freaking Deal. MIT quickly signed up for a long-term partnership deal to develop Skoltech; hence, MIT-Skoltech).
Anyways, since the whole point of the Skolkovo project is to create a self-sustaining economic cluster which isn’t totally penetrated by the usual gang of oligarchs and kleptocrats, the role universities can play in developing technology-based ecosystems is much on the minds of campus leaders. And so they hired a consultant to interview some of the world’s leading thinkers on innovation, higher education, and tech clusters, and asked them to name, i) the universities around the world which have the most highly-regarded tech ecosystems, and ii) the universities that do the most to develop tech ecosystems in challenging circumstances.
Here’s what they had to say about Canadian universities…
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Maybe it’s not a surprise that none of our universities would make the top ten in the world; though Technion, ETH Zurich, and the National University of Singapore all cracked the top ten’s inevitable Anglo-American cartel. But the identities of the schools that made it into the “doing most with the least” category ahead of any Canadian university should raise eyebrows: Sophia Antopolis (France), Aalto University (Finland), and KAIST (Korea). Oh, and the University of Auckland. At innovation, we rank below hobbits.
Of course, this is just expert opinions; it’s not in any sense “factual”. Maybe if one were to delve into some metrics (the paper actually has a very useful section on measuring innovation at universities, though it does not use them in its comparisons), one would find that places like Waterloo and UBC “deserve” a place at the top table. But experts usually aren’t that far off the mark. And even if they are, the fact remains: people who matter in this field don’t think of Canadian universities and “top innovators” in the same sentence.
Universities with a reputation for innovation and entrepreneurship attract investment and top-class industrial partners. If that’s not the image we’re projecting, we should be asking ourselves some pretty tough questions.