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  • Jeremy J. Wade

New Reality: Universities of Innovation

A proposal for India’s 20 ‘Institutions of Eminence’

We now know the global economy is in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution. This revolution lies in technologies blurring the boundaries of the physical, biological, and digital worlds, as best exemplified by artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented realities, the Internet of Things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, and drones.

Driven by exponential increases in computing power and the availability of vast amounts of data, these new technologies are changing how business and society function.

These changes have big implications, from entering new frontiers of human potential to exponential rises in wealth and prosperity. But new technology also brings increasing automation, which could leave large swathes of human workers displaced and unprepared for the twists and turns of a new, unfamiliar economy.

Unanswered questions

There are critical and unanswered questions emerging from this technology for Universities. What do these changes mean for education in, and for, the future? Universities, in particular, have a critical role to play in educating and preparing students for what is to come. Are they anticipating the changes ahead? Are they prepared to deliver students the right skill sets and knowledge to adapt to unpredictable economic change?

There is an ongoing debate among top universities about how to respond to the fourth industrial revolution. On one side are leaders advocating radical changes in teaching, reforms to curriculum and a full embrace of the latest technologies. The other side warning that tailoring universities too closely to technological developments would render institutions ‘slaves to industry’.

While it remains unclear how best to address these challenges, it no longer seems feasible to continue forward with education as usual in the face of so much change.

India’s ‘Institutions of Eminence’

Innovation within Indian higher education has long been stifled in the face of high levels of government regulation and oversight. Fortunately, the government has begun to act on calls for change. A new education policy has been crafted to identify India’s top twenty Universities and classify them as ‘Institutes of Eminence.’ This policy has promised both academic and administrative autonomy to these newly recognized Universities with the aim to have them compete with the top-ranked global Universities.

How can these Universities harness this new autonomy to design new courses and departments that reflect the future to come?

University Innovation labs

Indian universities should work to embrace a spirit of bold experimentation — and operationalize it by creating new, independent innovation labs dedicated to what MIT Media Lab director, Job Ito, calls ‘anti-disciplinary’ research and innovation — which, in his words, means “filling the white space between disciplines”. This approach, similar to corporate R&D units, could give university innovation labs the scope to embrace ideas built for the future and help universities keep pace with the evolution of business, technology, and education.

Innovation labs could take many forms and embrace diverse approaches to the task of innovating for the future. Some might follow the model of Harvard’s i-lab, which focuses on student venture incubation and connecting students from across the university’s schools to broader start-up ecosystems. Others might direct their gaze internally, fostering innovation within the university itself. Still, others might target a particular field of innovation, such as digital media technologies, or concentrate on innovative solutions to serve the university’s surrounding community.

For such university innovation labs to flourish, they will need autonomy and innovative leadership. Positioning them outside the university’s traditional departmental structures will allow them to cross boundaries and draw on knowledge and resources that often get trapped in disciplinary silos. Labs should have the freedom to incubate new and promising ideas, the best of which could become new university initiatives or spin out into independent ventures.

The labs should also be highly collaborative with industry, government, and community and, ideally, follow a model of open innovation and transparency to spur inclusive growth. University labs can find financial sustainability through revenue-generating activities along with a blend of financial support from the host university, government and philanthropic grants or industry sponsorships.

The fourth industrial revolution looks to bring an unprecedented pace of technological innovation. It’s important for universities to engage in these rapid transformations to remain relevant. Just as businesses work to redesign products and services to meet evolving customer demands, Indian universities should redesign themselves to meet the evolving demands of the future, for its students and for society.

This is an updated version of an article featured in the Hindu BusinessLine on Campus on August 14, 2017. See that here.


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