Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: innovation

October 17

Innovation Literature Fail

So, I’ve been reading Mariana Mazzucato’s, The Entrepreneurial State.  It’s brilliant and irritating, in equal measures.  Brilliant because of the way it skewers certain free-market riffs about the role of risk and entrepreneurialism in the innovation process, and irritating because it’s maddeningly cavalier about applying business terms to government processes (in particular, the term “risk”, which Mazzucato doesn’t seem to understand means something entirely different in government, if losses can be made whole through taxation).

Anyways, one thing that occurred to me while reading was just how America-specific much of the literature on innovation is.  Take the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  In innovation policy circles it’s generally considered a wicked-cool way of organizing Big Science: it’s project-based, it brings teams together from both academia and business, and it has substantial independence.  And, of course, the basic research has produced things like GPS and the Internet (still the core anecdotes used to back the “government-should-be-involved-in-research” argument). 

Brilliant, right?  So why doesn’t everyone have a DARPA?  Why doesn’t Canada?

The answer is that DARPA wouldn’t make any sense here.  Our government agencies don’t have enough of the “big problems” that DARPA is designed to solve – or, at least, that could be solved at a price we can afford.  And frankly, we don’t have enough private-sector research scientists to make headway into these kinds of projects, anyway.

More broadly, the American system of funding science works because of a particular combination of factors: the problems needing to be solved, the presence of major private sector research efforts, a particular type of venture capital industry, and scale.  Canada – like most countries in the world – would, at most, get part-marks on any of those four criteria.  So why do we think that policies based on American examples work for us?

Take questions of “applied” vs. “basic” science.  Maybe the classic Vannevar Bush formulation of, “government funds universities to do basic research, and companies do the applied stuff” only makes sense in the US context.  Maybe without the VC culture, or the private sector research culture, the idea that government should only be playing in the “basic” side of the continuum doesn’t make any sense. Maybe countries who aren’t quite at the technological frontier don’t get as much bang for their buck in basic research as America does.

This is just speculation on my part, of course.  But I’m tired of the innovation literature assuming that US-inspired solutions will work here.  Just for once, I’d like to see some literature and policy prescriptions based on what works in Korea, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia.  There’s probably a whole other set of policy lessons to be learned, if only we looked for them in the right places.

April 24

Canadian Innovation, Seen from Abroad

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.

January 14

Better, not Cheaper

If there is one clear meme concerning higher education coming out of America during this recession, it’s this: “higher education is too expensive and it’s delivering a sub-optimal product.”

Zeitgeist statements like this one have to be handled carefully.  Even if you don’t agree with this meme, failure to engage with it can expose one to charges of being “defensive,” or “part of the problem”.  So, for the moment, let’s accept this statement at face-value, and focus on how one might respond to it.

From a business perspective, there’s simply no question that in a quasi-monopolistic system like higher education, the choice between cheaper and better is obvious.  Only a chump gives up the revenue.  If consumers perceive that the quality – however that may be defined – isn’t there, that’s what needs to be fixed.

Given this, it’s absolutely astonishing to me how quickly the debate in America has focussed around cost.  Everywhere, the mantra is about “bending the cost-curve” (tellingly, a phrase consciously borrowed from the health-care debate), and states like Florida, Texas, and California are all making serious moves to implement so-called $10,000 degrees (that’s not the price, it’s the cost).   Faced with the proposition that, “higher education isn’t delivering the goods, and it costs too much”, the dominant reaction in America seems to be, “well, let’s make it cheaper, then”.  Now, obviously, this response is being driven by political actors rather than educational ones, but it’s stunning nonetheless.

Canada hasn’t quite seen the same level of disillusionment with higher education, mainly because youth unemployment hasn’t spiked in anything like the way it has in the US (the irritating but inevitable fact: higher education will take blame, and credit, for preparing young people for jobs in direct relation to the amplitude of the economic cycle, over which it has zero influence).  But the “cheaper-not-better” agenda could easily take root here, too; Lord knows, in Ontario, we’ve only recently escaped the clutches of a Minister who was in thrall to exactly that vision.

So, here’s a thought: let’s be proactive about this.  Instead of waiting for the next crisis to pop-up, let’s get ahead of the curve by improving the value proposition of undergraduate education.  As I’ve said before, what people really want are graduates who are effective, engaged, and innovative, so let’s find a way to deliver on that.

Put aside for awhile the pitches for more grad students and more research.  Winning the battle for public trust in the system is going to depend first and foremost on how our system delivers on undergraduate education.  Only by being better can the system avoid the call to be cheaper.

December 21

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

I haven’t written about MOOCs in awhile, mostly because I’m finding the whole discussion pretty tedious.  They’re an interesting addition to the spectrum of continuing education offerings, and they’ll exist so long as venture capitalists and large, big-brand universities feel like subsidizing the hell out of them. Period.

The supposed “value” of MOOCs is that they deliver the same old lecture-driven process at a cheaper price.  But what should be our real priority right now: Making education cheaper, or finding ways to deliver greater value?

Imagine you’re in the early 1950s, and someone gives you the task of saving be-bop from the predations of rock and roll.  And suppose that same person hands you some piece of technology from 2012, which can deliver be-bop to the masses, at a cheaper price:  MP3s, live streaming shows, that kind of thing.  With this, you could make be-bop accessible at anytime, anywhere, and maybe even for free!  But Be-bop’s decline had nothing to do with being too expensive;  Buddy Holly was still going to kick its behind, because he had become the more relevant market choice.

In many ways, the same is true of education.  The fact that we can make the existing model of education cheaper doesn’t adress the issue of relevancy – focusing on cost when relevance is the key issue is misguided, and a distraction.

Undergraduate education has always been about preparing people for the labour market.  Back when it was a pursuit for people who either had hereditary wealth or were heading into guaranteed spots in the public service, we could pretend that higher education was about seeking Truth.  But if we’re honest, all those Truth-seekers ended up getting a pretty good financial return on their educational investments because their degree certified them as being significantly brighter than their non-degree-earning peers.

But when 70% of the youth population has some form of post-secondary education, that deal no longer works.  Having a degree no longer proves that you’re among the best and the brightest.  Graduates need something more.  And that “something more” is being a person who is engaged, effective and innovative.  When parents send their kids off to school, that’s really what their hoping their little ones will become.  Now this doesn’t mean that kids can’t study philosophy on the way to being engaged, effective, and innovative; it does, however, mean that PSE institutions need to think a lot harder about how to give students those skills.

It’s not rocket science.  Waterloo does it through its co-op programs.  Ryerson is doing it through its Digital Media Zone.  Polytechnics like NAIT who use applied research projects to drive curriculum are doing it, too.  Mostly, institutions are doing it by acknowledging the pedagogical value of interactions with the world of work, and opening themselves up to collaboration with businesses and government agencies to deliver it.  And its working.

Engaged, effective, and innovative students.  Let’s make it a watchword for 2013.

November 28

Swings of the Pendulum

I see that Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class has been given a tenth anniversary re-release. This book was enormously influential in re-casting regional economic development with an urban-hipster ethos. “Downtowns are the bomb,” the argument went. “Do whatever you can to get as many talented people as you can to knock up against each other in a dense urban setting and economic growth will occur like magic.” Part Alfred Marshall, part Jane Jacobs, this argument struck a chord with the right-on crowd, especially in universities. All of a sudden, the thing to do in higher education was to have some kind of major urban tech-transfer place, attracting both scientifics and creatives. Hence MaRS. Hence all that incredibly cool stuff Ryerson is doing these days, creating tech incubators and buying up the scuzzy parts of Yonge Street.

In fact, this is all now so de rigeur that it is almost completely forgotten how entirely antithetical all of it is to the major traditions of higher education.

From the earliest times, universities were “cities apart,” deliberately separated from the world at large so as to ensure space for contemplation. In Europe, universities were separated from their surrounding cities by a wall. In the U.S., many universities were founded in rural idylls, away from the hurly burly of city life (Exhibit A: Dartmouth). So prevalent was the notion of “apartness” as a determinant of erudition that when it came time to build real “Science Cities” after World War II, they did so not in downtowns, but out in suburbs like Palo Alto, Boston’s Route 128 and the North Carolina Research Triangle.

Why the ‘burbs? Partly it was because at the time that’s where the intellectual elite who were staffing these Science Cities liked to live. But also, it was because that was where land was cheapest. And that’s the problem with these new hyper-urban incubator zones. You can buy a lot more economic growth for your dollar in the ‘burbs than you can downtown. As interesting and invigorating as MaRS and the Ryerson property-spree are, you have to wonder: can all those spin-offs really thrive while paying downtown Toronto rents? The availability and cost of land adjacent to the university matters when it comes to tech transfer. In fact, it might in fact be a pretty good long-term predictor of a school’s innovation potential. That’s why universities like UBC, U Alberta and U Saskatchewan may have some serious advantages in the innovation game going forward.

The open, urban university is a greater historical anomaly than the secluded campus at the edge of town, for economic reasons as well as cultural ones. Don’t bet on urban campuses being permanently fashionable.

November 22

A Shift in Rhetoric on Innovation

Could a shift in thinking about innovation lead to a radical reduction in university research budgets?

Time was, universities could tell a pretty simple story about innovation. Give money to talented people in universities (preferably “world-class” ones), and let them work on interesting projects. Through the magic of peer-reviewed publication, knowledge will be transferred, entrepreneurs will get cool ideas for products, and massive innovation and productivity growth will ensue. But while universities argue for better funding because technological booms based on university-developed technologies (e.g, computers and the internet) are regular occurrences, it seems fewer and fewer people are agreeing with that story.

While it’s undeniable that long-run productivity is related to levels of investment in R&D, the idea that university research specifically has this effect isn’t a well-tested empirical proposition. Actually, much of the case for that basically comes down to university presidents pointing at Stanford and Silicon Valley and saying “we could do that, too, if we had enough money.”

So far, governments have bought this shtick. But there’s been a notable shift in tone in among innovation wonks over the last year or so. Instead of talk about spillovers from public research, what’s “in” these days is talk about the inevitable entrepreneurial explosion that will happen as a couple of billion new consumers start interacting with the global market place. For instance, check out Vijay Vaitheeswaran’s Need, Speed and Greed, Philip Auerswald’s The Coming Prosperity and Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s Race Against the Machine.

Here’s partly what’s going on: ICTs are what’s known as an “enabling technology” – that is, a broad technology whose effects extend over a huge swath of the economy. There haven’t been many of these in history: writing, the steam engine, electricity, etc. When one comes along, it takes a long time for people to work out how to use it in ways that raise productivity. Electricity was first deployed in the economy for things like the telegraph. Its economic potential as a power source wasn’t really exploited for another 50 years or so, when factories were gradually re-organized to take advantage of electrification. After a big burst of “pure” research at the start, gains began to depend on more “applied” types of research.

We may be at a similar point with computers; that is, the gains to productivity for the next decade or two are more likely to come more from development than from research. If so, that radically changes the outlook for university research funding. There’s likely to be less of it, and a greater proportion of what’s left will go to more applied projects.

Something to ponder, anyway.

October 31

Reforming J-Schools

I see that a number of foundations – including the Knight, McCormick and Scripps-Howard Foundation– have written an open letter  to American university presidents, urging that they make Journalism schools “more like medical schools” and teaching them through immersion in “clinical, hands-on, real-life experience”. From a historical perspective, this is a deeply weird development.

Foundations have played a significant role in changing the course of professional education on a couple of occasions. In 1910, the American Medical Association and the Carnegie Foundation teamed up to pay Abraham Flexner to report on the state of medical education in North America. His finding – that medical schools were too vocational an insufficiently grounded in scientific disciplines such as biology – was a key development in the history of medicine. It was only after Flexner that university-based medical schools decisively ousted the proprietary medical schools as the primary locus of training future doctors, and turned the medical profession into one which mixed practice with research.

Forty-five years later, widespread dissatisfaction with American business schools led the Carnegie and Ford Foundations to instigate reports and programs designed to transform business schools into more research-oriented units with intimate links to various branches of the social sciences such as sociology, anthropology and economics. These had substantial short-and medium-term impacts, if more ambiguous long-term ones.

(On this, btw, I recommend The Roots, Rhetoric and Reality of Change: North American Business Schools since WWII by March and Augier. It ends flabbily, but the first 200 pages are excellent intellectual history).

In both cases professional education was to be improved by making it more “disciplinary” and more concerned with “fundamental knowledge”. It’s therefore more than passing strange that Foundations are now telling universities to make their J-schools less concerned with fundamental knowledge and more concerned with day-to-day experience.

Partly, it’s a different in the nature of the Foundations involved (Carnegie and Ford were considerably more removed from the worlds of medicine and business than the Scripps Howard Foundation is from journalism). Part of it, too, might be the nature of journalism itself; its practitioners may simply not need fundamental knowledge in order to be effective in the way doctors need biology and business-folks need econ/finance. (By extension, maybe journalism shouldn’t be taught in a university setting at all.)

What is unmistakable though – and more than slightly worrying – is the flat-out threatening tone taken by the Foundations in their letter, telling Presidents that institutions which don’t get with the program “will find it difficult to raise funds from Foundations concerned with the future of news”. Apart from being classless, a touch more humility about proclaiming any given educational model as the One True Way is surely in order.

August 22

What We’re Reading Now – The Innovative University

If you’ve had the faintest contact with management theory in the last 15 years, you’ve probably heard of Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma and originator of the theory of disruptive innovation.  A couple of years ago, he teamed up with a co-writer to look at K-12 education in Disrupting Class, and now he’s done the same for universities with Henry Eyring in The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out.

There are a couple of reasons you’ll want to read this book.  One is because everyone else is doing it, and you won’t want to be clued out.  For instance, le tout Washington seems to have read it; various worthies including Assistant Secretary of State Ochoa seem to be dropping bon mots from the book at will.

And two is because the first hundred pages or so are a very interesting look at Harvard’s historical development, the innovations it undertook under Presidents Eliot, Lowell and Conant from 1869 to 1953 (that’s right – three presidents in 84 years) and how they formed the blueprint for higher education across North America ever since.  It’s as enjoyable a slice of educational history as we’ve ever read.

It’s also very instructive (if sometimes lacking in concrete detail)  on how certain ingrained traditions in academia – notably the way new courses  and programs are approved – have a way of radically escalating costs, and it shows some interesting ways in which institutions can reduce expenditures through better process.  Even if you don’t buy the theory that online providers pose some sort of existential threat to universities (and we don’t, by the way), or that Brigham Young University – Idaho represents some sort of new paradigm in education (it’s an interesting case study but probably not much more), cost containment is still an important issue and on that score this books provides plenty of food for thought.

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