If Universities are going to drive innovation then we need to first innovate academia

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Recall your first day of second year undergraduate studies (if you are like me, you probably have no chance of remembering your first year…). Maybe you can recall the excitement of your early morning lectures. Or maybe you can’t? Depending on how long ago you were a student, you likely don’t remember what was said in the lecture, or you may not even remember what the lecturer did, but psychology suggests that you will still remember how the situation made you feel.

While I recall brief anecdotes from my lectures, in hindsight, I am not sure I learned a lot from being spoken at. Nor did I feel writing a test or an exam was a good way for me to reaffirm or articulate my knowledge. Lectures may have inspired me to do my problem sets, but I think mentorship and lab experiments is where I learned the most. For 7 years now, the tables have turned, and I have been giving the lectures and assessments, and despite my best efforts to be entertaining and create more impactful learning environments, I am not sure that the lecturing (and testing) environment is an effective way to educate. We now live in the Information Age, where it is trivial to look up facts, or find a YouTube tutorial on a topic, so perhaps the lecture environments have become antiquated, and we need to embrace new learning modalities.


Overcoming Tradition

Many people see tradition and innovation as polar opposites, but I disagree, because tradition is just a really good innovation from a long time ago. Perhaps the most traditional interdisciplinary theme is that of food. From the traditional holiday meal, to the well kept secret recipe, the Food industry embraces tradition like no other. But here is a anecdote that demonstrates the interplay between tradition and innovation. One of the most underrated Canadian innovations is the egg carton. This seemingly simple invention was designed by Joseph Coyle (from Smithers, BC) in 1911. This invention supplanted the basket as the common method of egg transport and significantly decreased the rate of egg breakage during travel. Even for the most traditional of institutions - Food - tradition needs innovation. Otherwise we will continue to take great risk when we put all of our eggs in one basket.

The campus-linked incubator

One recent innovation to the university ecosystem in Canada is the development of campus-linked incubators for student led startups. At Ryerson University, I am honoured to be part of this emerging ecosystem as the Director of the Science Discovery Zone (SDZ). It is my opinion that these incubators can be the academic ‘egg carton’ that can revolutionize student learning and academia, while enhancing mentorship opportunities and transferable skill development, which is often an afterthought in higher learning. For those who don’t know what a university incubator does, here is your crash course. Young innovators with ideas for products or services are supported in a physical co-working space where they are connected to networks and mentorship and coaching that can provide useful feedback for their emerging ideas. In addition, these founders can apply for grants that will help get their ideas to an accelerated stage. While these incubators are designed for commercialization, they represent so much more. If properly integrated into curriculum, these ecosystems represent an opportunity for problem-based learning, co-working classrooms where interdisciplinary teams tackle the toughest global challenges, where the outcome is less important than the learning process. I see this as the future classroom that will allow universities to train their students to be bold collaborative risk takers who will challenge the status quo and shatter glass ceilings.

The next generation of innovator will be different

History tells us that dominant human narratives always re-emerge, but while themes repeat, humanity evolves. Universities need to stop thinking of students as our production widget, and instead harness the excess capacity that they represent. They have a huge appetite for changing the world and solving real world problems. Unlike previous generations, social media has made millennials premature legacy builders. For better or worse, these young people want new challenges, and they crave change. This attitude is very refreshing for an academic, but

Universities need to act more like startups and move with agility

It was brought to my attention that I am an intrepreneur; someone who wants to drive institutional change. I don’t like labels, but this one fits. But how do you change traditional paradigms such as academia without losing the essence that makes it unique and invaluable? One simple approach is to run like a startup. Governments should support academic research and university educations, period! But universities should think like startups; define customer segments, and continually re-identify sustainable value-propositions with its stakeholders. This is a time consuming process, but it leads to powerful relationships, and synergistic outcomes that benefit everyone.

Mindfulness towards inclusive innovation cannot be an after-thought

Inclusive constructs, recruitment tone and language must always be part of new innovation ecosystems. The world has a number of challenges, and if we do not bring everyone into the innovation table then we may cause more harm than good. Did you know that seatbelts have been found to cause more injuries to women than men in car accidents? The reason being is that in early crash test studies the dummies more closely resembled the anatomy of men, and the pressure points are obviously different between genders. How did this oversight happen? Not surprisingly there were no women on the design team, and their voices were not heard. This is a classic modern example of the importance of inclusive spaces and I certainly hope we make necessary adjustments before I get behind version 1 of the autonomous self-driving car that was programmed by 18-24 year old male programmers.

Our incubator is trying to be mindful regarding inclusiveness and we are always asking ourselves, “who isn’t in the room, and why?” We may not always have the answers, but the constant reminder to re-evaluate our position is a good start as we seek the feedback of others outside our community. In doing so we can make innovation more accessible, which leads to better ideas and more effective adoption.


Bryan Koivisto is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Ryerson University and Director of the Science Discovery Zone; a non-traditional incubation ecosystem hosted at Ryerson University. He will be chairing RCIScience’s panel Back to the Future: Yesterday’s Research brings Tomorrow’s Innovations on September 30 where we will explore some of the major research breakthroughs of the past that have led to current innovations.