How colleges and universities can get innovation wrong (and how they can get it right)

As Canada begins to understand and navigate the global post-pandemic landscape, our country’s ability to innovate will be an important success factor in its recovery. The pandemic has seen huge strides in innovation. This forward momentum presents an opportunity for Canada to build a more resilient and robust post-COVID economy.

Colleges and universities have an important role to play in this regard, as they increasingly play key roles in innovation and entrepreneurship. Universities in particular are key enablers of innovation, as we have seen during the pandemic when academics have played an important role in vaccine development.

As important as post-secondary institutions are in the innovation space, we believe that these institutions can err in three main ways: by being too technology-centric, siloed rather than collaborative, and by putting too much emphasis on the role of problem solving.

If post-secondary institutions want to continue to play a key role in innovation and entrepreneurship, they must transform for the better.

Technological inclusiveness, not tech-centric

While innovation often includes technology, post-secondary institutions often make the mistake of inflating its importance. Post-secondary institutions should approach innovation from a technological perspective.understood point of view, as opposed to a technical point of viewcentral point of view.

Tech-centricity refers to the focus on technology-related innovations and startups, such as software or app design. Tech inclusiveness encourages institutions to view tech innovations and startups as one of many ventures, not the be-all and end-all of innovation.

Innovation is not limited to technology — other types of innovation, such as social innovation, are equally important.

Technology orientation distracts from the broader contributions that innovation can make. Innovation is not just about developing new algorithms, tools or inventions, but also includes empowering social innovation aimed at identifying and solving societal inequalities, with goals such as prosperity for all.

For example, indigenous peoples have turned to social entrepreneurship to improve their own lives and those of their community members. For Indigenous innovators, making profits should be a conduit to better social or community outcomes.

Post-secondary institutions can improve their own approach to innovation by enabling or expanding supports and resources for non-tech companies.

Interdisciplinary collaboration

A diversity of disciplines in faculties and departments makes post-secondary institutions uniquely positioned to bring an interdisciplinary perspective to social issues. However, many institutions are structured in a way that works against cross-disciplinary collaborations, resulting in policies and procedures that often lead to organizational silos.

These silos extend to campus innovation and entrepreneurship spaces and programs. While innovation centers have become almost standard facilities within post-secondary institutions, organizational silos and resources often result in highly politicized or competitive dynamics that can confuse new innovators and entrepreneurs who don’t know which centers to engage with.

It is essential to foster collaborations with government, industry and community partners such as non-profit organizations. Post-secondary institutions are uniquely positioned to serve as critical network connectors.

Post-secondary institutions should encourage and enable collaboration between multiple innovation and entrepreneurship centers and resources. One way to do this would be to establish an umbrella organization structure that directs students and other stakeholders to the most appropriate center or resource.

Beyond problem solving

Just as the design and structuring of innovation centers often prioritize existing silos, innovations themselves tend to focus too much on problem solving. Post-secondary institutions are sometimes mistakenly viewed as the solution to the innovation deficit, rather than as a partner and enabler of a robust innovation ecosystem.

Innovation is not just about solving societal problems, but about better understanding those key issues and who their target audience is. A key ingredient to understanding issues, especially complex ones, is bringing together different perspectives.

For example, tackling the fragility of the food system, which was revealed at the start of the pandemic, requires collaboration and coordination between several perspectives: policymakers, nutrition experts, social protection programs, the agricultural sector, the network of supply chain, non-governmental organizations and restaurants.

Keep the end in mind

Although designed with good intentions, innovations can unintentionally be designed based on biases, resulting in limited impacts, or worse, unintended negative impacts and further social, economic, political or psychological marginalization.

For example, innovators may assume that the goal of entrepreneurship is profit instead of creating value by integrating knowledge and talent with community needs.

Hands of a diverse group of people connecting a puzzle together on a desk
To solve real problems that matter, innovation must be co-designed with community partners and end users.

Whatever the type of innovation or the intent behind it, it is in co-designing innovation with end users that universities and other post-secondary institutions are most willing to bring a significant contribution. Here, we use the term “end user” to describe the individuals and communities that social innovation aims to serve.

Post-secondary institutions play a role in bringing the ideas and talent that drive innovation, but it is only through meaningful engagement with end users that the fire of innovation will truly burn. To solve real problems that matter, innovation must be co-designed with community partners and end users.

Institutions should engage in human-centered design or thinking approaches to ensure that innovative solutions are appropriate, welcome and effective for the communities they are meant to serve.

Innovation is the future

Canada’s post-secondary institutions form a vast and diverse network of cutting-edge, cutting-edge research and innovation. This is reflected in the billions of dollars the higher education sector spends on research and development and the millions of dollars the federal government has invested in innovation.

As post-secondary institutions are poised to be on the cutting edge of pressing global challenges, including climate change, they must understand that innovation is a continuous learning system, not a one-time destination.

Part of continuous learning is being able to adapt effectively to situations that arise. Today’s supply chain problems exist not because the system is outdated, but rather because we have not adapted to cope with the changing complexity of the global system. Innovation will always be a work in progress and the sector can always be improved for the benefit of all.