How institutions and colleges might misjudge innovation (and how they can get it right)

Collaboration and co-ordination between multiple perspectives is a key part of successful innovation.

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 saw massive strides made in innovation. This forward momentum provides 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 because they are increasingly stepping into key roles in innovation and entrepreneurship. Universities in particular are key enablers of innovation, as we saw during the pandemic when scholars played important roles in vaccine development.

As important as post-secondary institutions are in the innovation space, we believe there are three main ways these institutions can get it wrong: by being too tech-centric, siloed rather than collaborative and by overemphasizing 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.

Tech-inclusivity, not tech-centricity

While innovation often includes technology, post-secondary institutions often make the mistake of inflating its importance. Post-secondary institutions should approach innovation from a tech-inclusive standpoint, as opposed to a tech-centric standpoint.

Tech-centricity refers to the overemphasis on technology-related innovations and startups, like software or application design. Tech-inclusivity encourages institutions to view tech innovations and startups as one of many ventures, not the be-all, end-all of innovation.

Innovation involves more than just technology — other types of innovation, like social innovation, are just as important.

Tech-centricity distracts from the broader contributions that innovation can make. Innovation is not merely about developing new algorithms, tools or inventions, but also includes emancipatory social innovation aimed at identifying and addressing societal inequities, with goals like prosperity for all.

For example, Indigenous people have turned to social entrepreneurship to improve their own lives and the lives of those in their communities. For Indigenous innovators, profit-making must be a channel to enhanced social or community outcomes.

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

Interdisciplinary collaboration

A diversity of disciplines across faculties and departments makes post-secondary institutions uniquely suited for bringing interdisciplinary lenses to social issues. However, many institutions are structured in a way that runs counter to interdisciplinary collaborations, resulting in policies and procedures that often lead to organizational silos.

These silos extend to innovation and entrepreneurship spaces and programs on campuses. While innovation centres have become nearly standard fixtures within post-secondary institutions, organizational silos and resources often give rise to highly politicized or competitive dynamics that can confuse new innovators and entrepreneurs who don’t know which centres to engage with.

It’s essential to foster collaborations with government, industry and community partners like nonprofit organizations. Post-secondary institutions are uniquely positioned to serve as this critical network connector.

Post-secondary institutions should incentivize and enable collaboration among multiple innovation and entrepreneurship centres and resources. One way this could occur is through an umbrella organization structure that funnels students and other stakeholders to the most appropriate centre or resource.

Beyond problem solving

Just as the design and structuring of innovation centres often prioritize existing silos, innovations themselves tend to focus too much on solving problems. Post-secondary institutions are sometimes wrongfully thought of as the solution to the innovation gap, rather than a partner and enabler of a robust innovation ecosystem.

Innovation is not only about solving societal problems, but about gaining a better understanding of these key problems and who their target audience is. A key ingredient for understanding problems, particularly complex problems, is bringing different perspectives together.

For example, addressing the fragility of the food system, which was exposed at the beginning of the pandemic, requires collaboration and co-ordination between multiple perspectives: policy-makers, nutrition experts, social welfare programs, the agriculture sector, the supply chain network, non-governmental organizations and restaurants.

Keeping the end in mind

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

For example, innovators might assume the aim of entrepreneurship is for profit instead of creating value by integrating knowledge and talent with community needs.

To solve real problems that matter, innovation must be co-designed with community partners and end users.

Regardless of the type of innovation or the intention of it, co-designing the innovation with end users is where universities and other post-secondary institutions are most poised to make a significant contribution. Here, we use the term “end user” to describe the individuals and communities that the social innovation is aimed at serving.

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

Institutions should engage with human-centred design or thinking approaches to ensure that innovative solutions are appropriate, welcome and impactful for the communities they are designed to serve.

Innovation is the future

Canada’s post-secondary institutions form a vast and diverse network of trend-setting and trend-breaking 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.

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

Part of ongoing learning is being able to adapt effectively to situations that arise. Current supply chain issues exist not because the system is obsolete but rather because we have not adapted to address changing global system complexity. Innovation will always be a work in progress and the sector can always be improved for the benefit of all.

Craig Kuziemsky receives funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada

Leanne Hedberg does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


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